A new mentoring program intended to help young Somalis is off to a slow start because of fears of government surveillance and concerns that the nonprofit lacks experience with the Somali community.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Twin Cities initially launched its Somali Mentoring Initiative in mid-February, but now has delayed the program until fall. Meanwhile, the trial of three young Somali men on terrorism charges in Minneapolis has heightened concerns about surveillance in the local Somali community. And some community leaders argue that the nonprofit is not the right organization to run a program specifically for Somali youths.

Leaders of Big Brothers Big Sisters acknowledge the problems, but are optimistic that they can resolve some of the concerns expressed by Somali parents and others.

Richard Gibson, director of Big Brothers Big Sisters school programs, said families were asking questions about the group’s mentoring plans. “That’s why we are taking a little longer to get going,” he said. “We want to make sure we make good partners with other parts of the community and together we can describe what is going on and have families in our program.”

The Somali Mentoring Initiative received $116,000 from the Carlson Family Foundation to create mentoring relationships for Twin Cities Somali youths. Locally, the program seeks to serve Somali students attending Cedar Riverside Community School, a charter school in Cedar-Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis — home to thousands of Somali families.

But the announcement of the initiative came last fall at the same time that U.S. Attorney Andy Luger unveiled a series of proposals aimed at young Somalis who might be targeted by extremist groups. Originally called “Countering Violent Extremism,” the program was renamed “Building Community Resilience.” Some Muslim clerics and leaders denounced the program as stigmatizing to the Muslim community.

Gloria Lewis, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters and one of the community leaders attending Luger’s announcement, insisted that the mentoring program would not be used for surveillance.

“We’re in the business of mentoring and we would accept no one who comes to us and says that they want to monitor our kids,” she said. “We have a brand to stand by and a reputation to stand by.”

In a recent interview, the group’s vice president of programs, Deanna Threadgill, said the Somali Youth Initiative is completely separate from the federal programs. “It is not our intent at this time to contribute to [the] Building Community Resilience effort,” she said.

‘Parents are worried’

Yahye Mohamed, Somali Mentoring Initiative coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters, said that some families also raised concerns that mentors will lack an appreciation of Somali religion and culture. “Parents are worried about a new mentor, new face meeting with their kid,” Mohamed said.

The Somali community remains divided over the program, and some community organizers say that Big Brothers Big Sisters lacks understanding of Somali families.

“Look at their track record,” said Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. “They just don’t have ties or relationship with the Somali community.”

Noor’s organization was among the six Somali-led nonprofits that secured funds from the Building Community Resilience program in early March. It received $100,000 to enhance employment and educational opportunities for Somali youth.

Noor’s confederation already runs a mentoring program for immigrant students at Wellstone International High School in Minneapolis that is unrelated to the federal project.

“I was not approached,” Noor said. “Big Brothers Big Sisters don’t understand and know all the resources we are lacking.”

Mohamed “MJ” Jama, chairman of the West Bank Community Coalition and co-founder of the Cedar Riverside Youth Council, said that his council requested funding to start a mentoring program for Somali youth in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

“We were the ones who went to Luger’s office to make the request. Instead, the program was given to Big Brothers Big Sisters,” he said.

According to Jama, Cedar Riverside Youth Council was to partner with Big Brothers Big Sisters to offer a culturally relevant program, but then Big Brothers Big Sisters advanced with its own program.

“Big Brothers Big Sisters failed to listen to our young people,” Jama said. “This program should have never been in the hands of Big Brothers Big Sisters. The young people need role models. The program is delayed when there is a critical need in the community.”

Work with East Africans

Big Brothers Big Sisters leaders say they have experience working with the East African community, and East African youths are involved in their other mentoring programs. But the Somali community asked for something specific, Threadgill said.

“There has been a lot of communication and a lot of interest in the Somali community in offering a more specific program,” she said.

For mentors, Big Brothers Big Sisters has informally engaged three dozen volunteers and some families. It’s seeking a diverse group of adult volunteers from Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota to commit to a minimum of one year, and hopes to engage mentors from other areas.

The nonprofit’s leaders said that they have no plans to hire a Somali organization, but they are willing to deepen relationships with the Somali community.

“We’re certainly open to building capacity with other organizations,” Threadgill said. “But we’re taking a little longer than usual because we want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

The Carlson Family Foundation said in a statement that it has had a 15-year partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters, “based on our commitment to quality youth mentoring.”

“When we learned that the Somali-Minnesotan community identified mentoring as a need, we were inspired to support efforts to engage a leading, quality youth mentoring organization and Somali-Minnesotan community members.”