“This is my home.”
From his seat on a wooden park bench, Abdirizak Bihi gestured to the busy soccer field and pavement sidewalks that surround the Brian Coyle Center before reaffirming his words.
“This is where I live 16 years of my life and this is where I raise my family,” Bihi said.
Like many who live in the neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside, colloquially known as ‘Little Somalia’, Bihi is a first generation Somali immigrant. In this section of Minneapolis, Bihi is a leader, someone who knows everything about the area that accommodates roughly 4,000-6,000 Somalis.
In part, Bihi’s renown stems from his role as an activist aiming to improve opportunities and resources for the youth in Cedar-Riverside in an effort to prevent them from straying down dangerous paths.
“I am the director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy center, and by my work have testified in the U.S. Congress,” Bihi said. “I have been trying to make young people stop from joining bad people, whether it be gangs or Al-Shabab and ISIS.”
The issue hits home for Bihi. Nearly 8 years ago, his 17-year-old nephew and two dozen other Minnesota residents boarded a plane to Somalia to join Al-Shabab, a group the U.S. government classifies as a terrorist organization.
One explanation for these occurrences is the belief some young Somalis have that they have nowhere to belong to, said Bihi. Though he knows his home as Minneapolis, there are those whose roots in America have been weakened by perceived prejudice against them.
“Youth are impressionable, especially when they live in a community where resources are not so good,” Bihi said. “Either we engage them in positive programs or somebody else builds a fake program and give them what they’re looking for, which is a sense of belonging.”
Abdirizak Bihi gives deeper insight into how youth are targeted by terror groups like Al-Shabab and ISIS.
Bihi is currently working with prominent community figures like Jennifer Webel, a behavior specialist with Cedar Riverside Community School, to improve conditions for Somali youth by having educators like Webel act as mentors.
They are fighting for students such as Amira Ali, 13, and Abdullahi Abdullahi, 14, who will directly benefit from their work.
“It’s kind of like Legos, being close by each other,” Amira Ali said, referring to the “tight spaces” she calls home. “They’re different colors and stuff, so I see them as legos. And they fit together and make one big house.”
Ali’s family resides in Riverside Plaza, a collection of buildings with faded multicolored squares painted on their sides. There are four rooms for the 10 family members; Ali boards with her older sister.
Though her parents came over from Somalia in the late 1980s, Ali was born and raised in Minneapolis. The gray cement siding and large courtyard at the apartment complex are all that she knows. Still, the customs and traditions of her parents’ homeland are deeply embedded in her life.
“You’re American but your culture is Somalian, you still do what Somalis do,” Ali said, twirling a yellow basketball in her hands. “But this place is what we know, so like, if I go to a different place it’s going to be really awkward.”
In Somalia, Ali’s father was an engineer before the country’s civil war forced him and his wife to flee to America. Now he drives trucks while she stays home with the kids.
“He doesn’t really like the job,” Ali said. “He could get an education but he’s still raising us, so he can’t. He sacrificed for us.”
Here, the Ali kids play basketball and like to run. Ali’s 17-year-old sister is working at a summer job. Musa, her younger brother, loves to play video games like Halo. The family lives a quiet life that belies assumptions stemming from recent media storms about ISIS recruitment in Cedar Riverside.
“I’ve been in this school through thick and thin and I count it as my home.” Abdullahi Abdullahi said, sitting in a empty classroom at Cedar Riverside Community School.
A bespectacled boy who speaks quietly and carefully, Abdullahi will soon be a freshman in high school and leave Cedar Riverside for the first time. Though goodbye is imminent, he is still protective of the school he has attended for nearly a decade.
“The people who say bad things—we tell them they’re wrong,” Abdullahi said. “This place is a fun place and we go on field trips and have fun teachers and everything’s cool about it.”
His new school, Saint Louis Park High School, is among the top high schools in Minnesota and ranks in the top 300 of all schools nationally. But the school, where the majority of the students are white, also has a much smaller Somali population than Abdullahi is used to.
That is of no matter to him. Abdullahi is still excited, anticipating making new friends and trying out for the football team. For Abdullahi, the threat of ISIS recruitment or possible discrimination in a new environment are far from his mind. He does have one small fear, though.
“The school is really big,” Abdullahi said. “So I’m worried a little that I might get lost.”
Photos by Courtney Walston