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Marginalized Young American-Somalis Look East To Join ISIS


As refugees make their way from the Middle East to parts of Europe, some Americans are making a different kind of journey - leaving the U.S. to fight alongside ISIS. This past April, six Somali-American men from Minneapolis were arrested and charged with conspiring to travel to Syria to join ISIS. Abdi Warsame is a Minneapolis city council member, the only Somali-American on the council. He and his family left Somalia when he was a child, and he eventually ended up in the Twin Cities, which is home to the largest population of Somalis in the country. He joins me now.

Thanks so much for being with us.

ABDI WARSAME: Thank you, Rachel, for having me.

MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of the Somali-American population in Minneapolis? Is it a tight-knit community?

WARSAME: It is. It's a large and growing community. And Minneapolis is one of largest diaspora centers for the Somalis in the Western world.

MARTIN: So if this is a tight-knit community, I mean, do you know any of the young men who were arrested for attempting to join ISIS or do you know their families?

WARSAME: I don't know any of the young men, but I do know some of their family members. You know, it's a shock to the community. And we've had this issue of recruitment back in 2006 when young Somali men left Minnesota for the first time and joined the al-Shabab movement. But that was more of a nationalistic issue because of the dimension of the Ethiopian government and Ethiopia army in Somali in 2006. But this is, altogether, a different phenomenon because what you have is young Somalis who grew up in Minneapolis, or were born in Minneapolis, leaving and joining a movement that has nothing to do with their language or culture or ethnicity.

MARTIN: You said you know members of their families. Have you had conversations with them?

WARSAME: I have, yes.

MARTIN: Can you share any bit of those conversations? I mean, I imagine they're terribly distraught over the situation.

WARSAME: They are. I mean, some of these young men were born in refugee camps. And others were born at a time when their families were fleeing Somalia. Some of these family members that I've spoken to lost loved ones in the Somali civil war, so they can't understand, you know, the reason behind their children traveling back to a war zone when they left their own country because of a civil war. There is a disconnect in terms of the children. And I don't believe they understood the country where their parents came from. And I think that's a big problem within the community that we haven't shared our experiences with our children. We don't share it very well. So they don't really understand that hundreds of Somalis yearly die trying to get to Europe. Some of them die in the deserts in North Africa. Others have died in the Mediterranean drowning. And imagine, they're trying to get to the Western world and some of our kids who were born here are trying to go back to that world, to that reality.

MARTIN: Has this caught your community off-guard?

WARSAME: It has. I mean, our community is a patriotic, hard-working community. I mean, we're trying to fit into the American way of life. We've started numerous businesses. Members of our community have joined the Armed Forces and defend this country. Others have joined the police force and defend our cities here. And this kind of thing, it really sets us back. And it also creates tensions between the broader community and the Somali-American community, which is not something that we want or need.

MARTIN: Tensions because why, your community's still trying to shake the legacy of those young Somali-Americans who went to fight for Shabab all those years ago?

WARSAME: Yes. I mean, what we want to do is we want to change the narrative. We are Americans first. We are Somalis, but we are Americans first. And when the only news that comes out from the community is al-Shabab and terrorism and ISIS, it does create misunderstandings between us and the broader community. And it creates tensions.

MARTIN: How have the tensions manifested?

WARSAME: I mean, they have manifested in a sense where you have a former United States senator writing that the state of Minnesota is no longer the state of 10,000 lakes but is the state of 10,000 terrorists. You know, he write an op-ed on the Star Tribune. And because we look different and the media is trying to authorize the community, it does create tensions.

MARTIN: Besides just sharing more, telling your own story to the broader community and to younger generations, what can you do to try to prevent this kind of radicalization?

WARSAME: I'm working on a project, the creation of what's called an opportunity hub, a job workforce/ library type of center. Hennepin County is one of the best counties across the country. I think our unemployment rate is between 3 to 4 percent. But that is if you are white and if you're an American. But if you're Somali-American, the unemployment rate is around 22 percent. The creation of the opportunity center and having mentorship programs will address some of the issues that we face.

MARTIN: Abdi Warsame is a city councilmember in Minneapolis. Thanks so much for taking the time.

WARSAME: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.