“We came here in a large influx, divided by the civil war in Somalia, not having trust [between] each other. Even the simple greetings that normally a community, like Somali, Hmong or [Spanish speaking] will have when they meet in the stairways or the mall, greetings you always with your community members [were] kind of, you know, not there. You can see that you’re not going to be welcome by your Somali fellow. When that kind of thing happens, you feel you need to do something about it. “
Ibrahim Ayeh came to Minnesota in 1993, and started to “do something about it.” His work, both as a teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools, and as a volunteer and civic leader in the community, won him the Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Services in 2008. Ayeh has helped establish many nonprofit organizations working with Somali youth and families, including the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota and Somali Action Alliance. In 2006 Ayeh was recognized as a National Honor Roll Outstanding American Teacher for his achievements in motivating and empowering youth.
Dwight Hobbes interviewed Ayeh for the Daily Planet, focusing on his insights about Somali youth in Minnesota. The interview began with a discussion of Somali youth involvement in gang violence in Minneapolis, which has plagued the Brian Coyle Community Center and other places.
Any reflections on why these youngsters have chosen to go down that path? Have they seen to many rap videos? Become too Americanized?
The gangs are very recent. Over the past three years, four years, that’s the time that we’re seeing a significant change in the attitude of our youth, moving into that direction.
Are they taking American culture too much to heart?
It looks that way. I remember when I first came. And I was the first [Somali] teacher hired by Minneapolis Public Schools. One time, we were in a meeting with the Hmong community, the Somali community and the [Spanish speaking] community, as an ELL (English Language Learners) staff. They were complaining at the time, about the gangs, the youth issues and so on.
To me it was completely strange. I said, “In our culture, I’m not expecting that kind of thing to happen to us.” Now, I’m seeing it’s absolutely [contrary to] my expectations. The way our children, especially students who are high school age and just beyond high school age, have changed, [developing] gang issues and killing. It’s about eight people, now, within a year or so. That kind of thing is really devastating for the community.
What can you do?
I raised the question in a meeting in the Somali community, why we should not have a curriculum in the middle schools to teach kids how moving into a gang is going to cost their lives, their future. Recently, in my work with the Minneapolis Public School, I joined a task force, only a week ago. I don’t remember the name. It’s a program about crime prevention, drugs, that kind of thing for the youth.
Of course, it’s vital to intervene and let kids know they’re making a chance they can’t unmake, later.
I don’t see it in the news so much, but I’ve certainly seen it before: tensions in the some of the high schools between Somali youth and African American youth. Well, they’re both African American, but you know what I mean.
Yeah, I know. Something is improving, to be honest. In the beginning there was completely a lot of misunderstanding. Last year we were okay. The year before, there was a clash at Washburn High School. We brought the Somali community so that we could at least contain the Somali [students] first. I invited [a professor] and elders of the community to talk to the students so they could cool down. [It was] so the youth can be focusing on their education. It has worked well. Several years before, we’d made a retreat for the students. African Americans and Somali with other students joining so they all can be part of the conversation. That helped students to understand each other.
Well, communication is key. Very often, you don’t know why you think you don’t like someone. If you talk to them, you probably find you have more in common than you do as differences.
Why did you choose youth as a main focus?
We came here in a large influx, divided by the civil war in Somalia, not having trust [between] each other. Even the simple greetings that normally a community, like Somali, Hmong or [Spanish speaking] will have when they meet in the stairways or the mall, greetings you always with your community members [were] kind of, you know, not there. You can see that you’re not going to be welcome by your Somali fellow. When that kind of thing happens, you feel you need to do something about it.
With places like Confederation of Somali Community, we wanted to find some way of making this community have a dialogue and conversation in coming together, building trust. Then, when it came to the youth, it was in different stages.
One thing we started was a dugsi project [Dugsi Academy], a Somali word that means school. We were concerned about students who were graduating, but don’t know how to apply to college and don’t understand a university setting. The parents weren’t educated. There [were] no Somali people in the universities to help them navigate through the system and so on. We decided [on a] preparatory course, and orientation to help them and we were working with the University of Minnesota to find grants and get tutoring. Finally we got the project to work.
What are you going to do with the $10,000 award?
I haven’t decided, yet. But, it will be to invest in the stability and the future of the Somali community. That’s what I’m really thinking about.