I was just another reporter sent to cover radicalization in Minneapolis. Then 2 local Somalis took me on a tour

It wasn’t hard to see who the outsiders in the courtroom seemed to be. All the jurors were white, the prosecutors white, the FBI agents white. Most of the reporters were white, including me.

Mohamed ... Abdihamid ... Farah.

Adbirahman ... Yasin... Daud.

Guled ... Ali... Omar.

U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis struggled as he announced the three Somali American defendants’ full names, pronouncing them phonetically from a criminal indictment as if he were a student of a new language.

Last week, opening arguments began in downtown Minneapolis in the trial of three local young men charged with plotting to travel to Syria and fight for the Islamic State, and I felt as if I was missing the full picture.

These weren’t foreigners, strangers, outsiders. These were hometown kids who went to local schools, now young men in their early 20s.

In recent years, terrorism investigations involving Somali American men have thrown Minnesota’s large and still relatively new population of immigrants from the East African nation under hard scrutiny. 

Recently some young local Somali American men successfully made it to Syria to join Islamic State.

But terrorism cases are also often the only national media focus on Somali Americans, and I was another parachuting reporter, here to write about radicalization.

Then I met Mohamed “Shina” Mohamed and Burhan “Scot” Elmi.

The day after the trial began, I was at a restaurant in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, the heart of Minneapolis’ Somali community, when Mohamed sat down at the table next to mine and introduced himself.

As soon he discovered that I was a reporter, Mohamed — who said he arrived as a refugee in the U.S. in 2014 — insisted I come to Elmi’s coffee shop.

Once there, Mohamed began plying me with tea and sambusa — a savory pastry — and then stepped away briefly to pray on a mat beneath a flat-screen television tuned to CNN.

Mohamed then summoned Elmi to talk to me about the Minnesota Somali community that they say remains a mystery to most Americans.

Elmi, it quickly became clear, was an optimist as well as a salesman.

“We came to this state around 25 years ago, and when you compare the other communities who have been here 100 years, we’re doing better than them,” boasted Elmi, 34, who wore a button-up shirt and a flat-brimmed baseball cap featuring a large green “N.”

The Somali community in Minnesota, which took root in the 1980s, is now more than 30,000 strong, and though it has long endured high poverty and unemployment, it also has found ways to thrive. Elmi, who arrived in 1999 after fleeing Somalia’s civil war, wants to make his new Capitol Cafe coffee shop the next Starbucks.

He also wants to help other Somalis create even more jobs. The “kiddies” who are trying to join Islamic State have limited opportunities, Elmi said.

“If you don’t have a job, ISIS is going to offer you heaven,” Elmi said, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “Your news — I want you to focus on this issue and other issues too, what we’re doing.”

A local activist, Abdurrahman Mahmud, 28, after learning I was a visiting reporter, stopped by our table long enough to hammer home a similar point: “Economic development, jobs, job creation, affordable education. ... These are the issues we need to discuss.”

So Elmi decided to drive me around town in his black Nissan SUV as Mohamed rode in the back seat.

“We own restaurants, shops, cafes, groceries,” said Elmi as he steered through the blocks around his cafe and Mohamed handed me pieces of sweet halwo candy. Elmi motioned to a cluster of businesses. “All these are Somali owners.”

He pointed to a halal market. “That’s Somali owners.” A child-care business. “Somali owners.” A neighborhood restaurant. “Somali owners.”

“All those things, we’re contributing jobs and taxes to the state,” Elmi said. “What I’m showing you, no media talk about.”

Elmi pointed again. “See this one? Somali owners.”

We pulled into Karmel Square mall, a busy four-story complex where Somalis milled through the tight hallways packed with beauty stores, burger joints and jewelers.

We met Ayan Aden, who was dressed fashionably in a long green dress, a white lace jacket and a black hijab, and who showed off her beauty shop.

“I do hair, makeup, special occasions, weddings, stuff like that,” said Aden, pointing to a display of the different hijab styles she offers.

Mohamed and Elmi stopped in front of a wire-transfer counter — their tether to their relatives in Somalia, where remittances help prop up the nation’s struggling economy.

“I send $300 a month,” Elmi said. He gestured at Mohamed. “How much you sending?”

“$500 a month,” Mohamed said. “Sometimes over.”

“We have to send,” Elmi said. “If we don’t — nothing to eat, nothing to drink.”

We stopped by Dawa Book Shop, where Mohamed Yusuf, 62, showed off some of his bestsellers: “Easy English,” “Christianity and Islam” and English-language versions of the Koran.

“This is my favorite book,” Yusuf said, holding up a volume called “Don’t Be Sad.” “Whenever you read this book, you find tranquility in your heart.”

Yusuf has been in Minnesota almost six years after spending 17 in Georgia. He lamented how some of the community’s younger members had grown attracted to radical groups like Islamic State. “We cannot ignore — the issue is there,” Yusuf said. “We try to advise the younger kids not to go down that road. Younger kids, they are lost in the wind.”

And for Yusuf, another issue is lack of jobs or opportunity. “ISIS is like, ‘Hey, we have a job for you.’ ... I hope government people, they understand and can help.”

To hear the locals tell it, the challenges are particularly acute for young Somali men. The young women seem more directed — they find work, go to college, raise families. But the “boys,” as one of Yusuf’s customers called them, seem lost. 

As we left the mall, with Mohamed again listening from the back seat, Elmi joked about a recent Fox News broadcast from Cedar-Riverside, where a TV crew had gone to interview residents about the terrorism trial in town.

“They went to Riverside and nobody wanted to talk to them. They’re like, ‘Nobody speaks English,’” Elmi said, laughing. “People are smart! They don’t want to talk to Fox News!”

Elmi chose to remain upbeat about his community, the one he says outsiders really don’t know.

He was already looking forward to an upcoming street festival near his cafe where he could show off Somali culture to his fellow Minnesotans.

“This state? This state is good for immigrants,” Elmi said. “When you go deep in our community, you will see good things.”

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
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