Hani Haybe recently faced the skeptical mother of a player on her coed soccer team.

The mother had just heard that several young Somali-American women left the Twin Cities to help the militant group ISIL's fight in Syria and Iraq. Was this soccer team really just about soccer?

"Your daughter will be safe," Haybe, the coach, told the mother during a half-hour of grilling. "We're not recruiting kids to go overseas."

In fact, some Somali community leaders are arguing that programs such as Haybe's are a key line of defense against attempts to recruit young people locally. They have seized on reports that local youths have left to aid the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant to make a case for more funding for after-school and athletic programs for Somali youths.

Leaders have recently lobbied the Minneapolis school board, Park Board, City Council — even U.S. Attorney Andy Luger.

"Combating terrorism is not only about indictment and investigation," said Abdirizak Bihi of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center. "It's about youth engagement. It's about giving hope."

Still, some in the community are cautious: In using roughly a dozen departures as fundraising leverage, they say, leaders must beware of painting a local Somali community of more than 33,000 in overly broad strokes. And they must continue to keep the spotlight on more pervasive challenges, from lagging academic achievement to joblessness.

Last fall, Haybe, 25, was looking for players to join her soccer team when she gained a renewed sense of purpose: A 26-year-old cousin was found shot dead in his parked car in downtown Minneapolis — the latest in a series of shootings of young Somali men. Haybe resolved that her team would double as a platform to preach against violence, gangs and drugs.

"I wanted the team to unite people," she said.

As a teen, Haybe became involved with Street Soccer USA, a national nonprofit that blends love of the game and outreach to at-risk youths. Through the soccer program, she earned spots on a U.S. women's team that competed in the Homeless World Cup in Rio de Janeiro in 2010 and in Paris in 2011.

Haybe, who works as a surgical technician, says the 16 players on her team have fun. But she also urges dropouts to return to high school and pushes promising students toward college. She offers help with apartment- and job-hunting. She tries to gather the players for monthly tough talks on the possibilities and pitfalls of young adulthood.

"She always tells us, 'Don't go with the gangs and don't ever try drugs,' " said Zakaria Ibrahim, a midfielder and South High senior. "We respect her as a mother."

Haybe says she plans to dedicate her next talk to the dangers of ISIL recruitment.

"I was shocked the day I heard some people left to fight with ISIL," she said. "I live in this country, and I know it's one of the greatest nations in the world. I don't know ISIL."

Pressing for new programs

Community leaders such as Bihi have long championed programs that engage youths after school: About 40 percent of Somali-American students in the Minneapolis public schools class of 2012 graduated on time, based on district data. Concerns linger about high youth unemployment and other issues.

Now, in the renewed media attention to radical recruitment, leaders are finding ammunition to argue there's a shortage of programs that engage teens and instill a sense of connectedness to the larger community.

Mohamed Mohamud of the Somali American Parent Association has a new after-school initiative on his wish list. Like a program the association runs at the charter Lincoln International High School, it would offer enrichment activities such as debate club and tutoring. It also would tap Somali kids' love of soccer and help bridge the gap between parents who grew up in Africa and teens steeped in American culture.

Recruitment by overseas militants? "Our program would totally eliminate that or reduce it to almost zero," Mohamud vowed.

He has reached out to state lawmakers and the Minneapolis City Council to talk partnerships and financial support.

Out-of-school programs serving Somali youngsters already exist. Pillsbury United Communities offers tutoring, athletics and college prep out of the Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. These programs fill up fast, says Coyle Center Director Amano Dube.

The center also supports a variety of youth programs, from a leadership group that promotes community gardening to a secondhand clothing store called the Sisterhood of the Traveling Scarf.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which leases the Coyle Center to Pillsbury, started a Night Owls program that offers use of the community center's athletic facilities and computer lab on weekend nights.

But some in the community say existing programs fall far short of meeting demand; educators and others are still figuring out which programs work.

"Nobody has come up with a program that I can say, 'This is the right program,' " said Mohamud Noor, the head of the nonprofit Confederation of the Somali Community in Minnesota and a Minneapolis school board member.

Bihi, whose nephew was killed in Somalia in 2009 after joining Al-Shabab, is lobbying school board members to consider using money earmarked for English language learners for a new after-school program. He recently met with the park board's Recreation Center Director Larry Umphrey to plead for a permanent home for Haybe's soccer team.

Bihi is urging disparate Somali community groups to make a unified case for more funding. He is cautiously optimistic this time: A couple of times in recent years, he signed up parents in the Cedar-Riverside high rises for a math and reading tutoring program he wants to start, but the resources never came: "It's like crying wolf."

Mixed feelings about push

Dube, the Brian Coyle Center director, agrees that more programming for East African youth is needed. He has mixed feelings about radical recruitment as an argument for that. Yes, radicalization is a concern. But community leaders shouldn't blow the issue out of proportion and steer the conversation away from larger concerns, such as high youth unemployment and homelessness. They need to make a solid case linking a lack of resources to the departures of Somali youths and put forth a plan for effective programs.

On Haybe's Street Soccer team, players say they haven't given much thought to the stories of young Somalis leaving to fight. But they think the idea that programs like theirs could help are not far-fetched.

Hindiyo Muday, 20, is the player whose mother was concerned. Muday first started coming to practice after dropping out of high school her senior year. She is now studying to get certified as a nursing assistant.

"Some of the kids playing here have gone through a lot in life," she said. "This is their place to be happy."

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781