Before April 2015, Ayan Farah saw herself as a typical Somali mother: taking care of children, planning a son’s wedding, starting a small restaurant at Minneapolis’ Karmel Mall.
All that changed when her sons were arrested.
Now a woman who rarely thought about the world outside is emerging as a voice for her community as she works to prevent what happened to her from happening to other mothers.
“I didn’t know much about the struggles of the Somali community in Minnesota until my kids were arrested,” Ayan said.
Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Ayan Farah watched a federal judge sentence her two oldest sons for trying to leave the country to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Adnan Farah, 20, had pleaded guilty and will serve 10 years in prison. Mohamed, 22, had taken his case to trial; he got a 30-year term, one of the longest handed out to the nine young men sentenced last week.
Now, Ayan Farah feels it’s her responsibility to protect other families and her other five children.
At first, she said she saw no warning signs that Adnan and Mohamed were mixed up in what the government calls the nation’s largest terrorist-related prosecution.
“My kids were always happy,” she said. “They had a beautiful life. When they came to the house they would kiss me and play with their siblings.”
But one night, Ayan grew suspicious after seeing what turned out to be FBI agents parked in front of her house in north Minneapolis. “What is wrong?” she asked her husband, Abdihamid Farah.
“As a mother you can feel something major was wrong,” she said.
Family life, and then …
Ayan fled her native Somalia after the civil war. At the age of 20, she joined some relatives, left her mother and siblings behind and settled in San Diego, Calif., for eight months before coming to Minnesota.
In 1993, she married Abdihamid, whom she had met on the assembly line of a turkey processing plant in Marshall, Minn. Before long she had moved to Minneapolis, given birth to her eldest son, Mohamed, and helped her mother and siblings come to the United States. She and her husband moved to Iowa briefly for work, before returning to Cedar-Riverside, the neighborhood that is home to many of the Twin Cities’ East African immigrants.
Life seemed to be going according to plan. Ayan and her husband had seven children. She volunteered and worked in schools. She made the rounds at the mosque, keeping a close eye on her children and other Somali youth.
But when Adnan and Mohamed became teenagers, Ayan decided to give them more freedom. “I know if you put too much pressure on kids, they run away from you,” she said.
She second-guesses that decision now.
Ayan said she had no idea her sons were conspiring to go and fight for ISIL in Syria. In truth, she’s still not sure that they were. “I am 42, and I don’t know what’s going on in Syria,” she said. “I don’t think kids that were born in Minnesota would know what is going on in Syria and Iraq.”
Instead, Ayan was focused on Adnan’s upcoming wedding to his high school sweetheart, Samira. The two families were to be joined in May 2015.
It would have been a dream come true for Ayan, who wanted her sons to follow in her footsteps and marry early. She yearned to be a grandmother. She had saved up dowry money for the wedding. She looked for a venue to host the ceremony and planned the food that would be served.
“I was going to make the food,” Ayan said. “She is a sweet girl. She’s still waiting.”
She would have done so many things differently if she knew then what she knows now. If she could go back in time, she would stop her sons from falling into the conspiracy. She would have gone to college.
“I always tell myself if only you were educated and had a college degree. If only I had learned the constitution of this country. I would not have faced these problems,” she said. “I would have worked with the government if I knew what was going on.”
Before sentencing Adnan Farah, Senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis called Ayan and her husband forward. He said they saved their son’s life by confiscating his passport. Still, they remained convinced for a long time that their sons did nothing wrong. A prosecutor later reminded Davis that agents visited the family multiple times during the investigation, after Abdihamid Farah told the judge he wished the government would have come to the family before their sons’ arrests.
“If the FBI came to you, and your sons had lied to you, you would say the FBI was harassing you and we’re back to square one: Your children lied to you,” Davis said. “They lied to you about what they believed and what they were about to do.”
Hindsight, hard feelings
With painful hindsight, Ayan now favors mentoring programs to redirect Somali youths who might flirt with terrorist groups.
While others have blamed the mosques for their children’s falling in with extremists, Ayan sees another culprit. “People have to stop blaming the mosques,” she said. “No one at the mosque is radicalizing these kids. It’s outsiders.”
She still has hard feelings about the informants who helped build the government’s case. She wished they had intervened to steer her sons from trouble, rather than to help catch them.
With her oldest sons in prison, Ayan said she is raising her other children with fear.
“My other kids see their siblings on TV all the time,” Ayan said. When she asks her youngest kids why their brothers were arrested, “they say, ‘They are terrorists.’ They don’t even know what a ‘terrorist’ means.”
Sister Ifrah Farah said Ayan is trying to make a better life for her children. “What is happening with the case is just making her strong,” she said. “She has really shown strength in this difficult process.”
After the sentencings last week, as protesters marched inside and outside the courthouse, Ayan pressed for calm. She chided some of the young men who confronted the media and bad-mouthed Judge Davis as “biased and unfair.” On Tuesday, she went to the microphone to thank Davis.
She hopes she can use her experience to steer other Somali-American youths who see a grim future.
“I have learned a lot. I love working with Somali youth,” she said. “I feel like they need my help. They don’t have someone they can rely on to understand their pain.”
To community leaders, she says: Show support for Somali parents. “I want our community leaders to show tireless support to mothers,” said Ayan, teary eyed. “Mothers are the ones that need emotional and physical support. Please educate us and push us to acquire knowledge.”