Young Somalis seeking dialogue

Assimilation, stereotypes are forum topics

Shadiyo Hussain of Portland, Maine (left) and Amal Ahmed of Charlestown spoke at the conference yesterday of their experiences growing up in New England. Shadiyo Hussain of Portland, Maine (left) and Amal Ahmed of Charlestown spoke at the conference yesterday of their experiences growing up in New England. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)
By Ben Wolford
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2011

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While media attention on Somalia seldom strays from terrorism, piracy, and a 20-year-old civil war, those problems are among the least pressing for young Somali-Americans, according to participants in a weekend conference in Boston.

The issues most relevant to them, they said, don’t make headlines: the strain between Americanized youths and their Somali parents, the barriers of access to American society, and the stereotypes that plague them as black Muslims.

“The goal is to get the Somali youth galvanized and get them to take a hold of their futures,’’ said Abdinasser Egal, 32, of Cambridge, who helped bring the Somalia Diaspora Youth Conference to the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury this weekend.

“We’re trying to identify the next group of leaders that come out of Somalia because it’s obvious the older ones have failed,’’ he said, referring to the 1991 civil war that continues to ravage the country.

The conference is being broadcast over the Internet today. It includes topics ranging from learning from the past to breakdowns in intergenerational communications.

Shadiyo Hussain, 18, of Portland, Maine, said such discussions are rare and welcome.

“Where I’m from, Maine, we don’t have an organization or a community where we have interaction between the old generation and the new generation,’’ she said.

Hussain said she wants to start a chapter of the Somali Diaspora Youth in Maine to spark a dialogue.

The sponsor of the gathering, Somalia Diaspora Youth, is a loose association of community activists based in Virginia, Ohio, and Ottawa, the Canadian capital. They seek to maintain ties among Somalis living abroad, scattered as refugees.

About 6,000 Somalis live in the Boston area, Egal estimated.

“We have a joke that wherever you go, you won’t need a hotel,’’ said Egal, whose sister moved to Canada while he fled to America.

The far-flung population, fearful of losing traditions, has tried to raise children as Somalis, but young Somali-Americans yesterday said keeping a solely African identity is not so simple.

“The older generation likes to stay together, but my generation likes to assimilate,’’ said Huda Yusuf, 31, a chemist at Boston Scientific Corp. who lives in Shrewsbury.

Having arrived in Canada at age 11, knowing almost no English and having more or less formed her Somali identity, Yusuf said she straddles both generations, insisting that “you have to be respectful of both.’’

Amal Ahmed, 18, is firmly in the new generation. She never used to wear a hijab, the traditional Muslim women’s head scarf, because in high school in South Boston, wearing it was too great a risk, she said.

Now, as a second-year education and medicine student at Northeastern University, she wears it proudly.

“The older I get, the more interested I get in the Somali community,’’ said Ahmed, who has lived in Charlestown since her family fled Somalia 15 years ago. “I think it’s important to be educated about your community back home, because that’s home.’’

But loyalty to tradition has a price when you live in the United States - particularly where the Department of Homeland Security is involved, Ahmed and others said.

“I was at the airport in Minneapolis yesterday, and even though I passed through the metal detector, they pulled me aside to check my scarf,’’ she said. “I got into an argument with her: ‘If you don’t trust your metal detector, why do you put it there?’ ’’

Stereotypes in the United States are fanned, they said, by news about Al Shabab, a Somali terrorist group, and worries about recruitment efforts within this country.

And last year, when Governor Deval Patrick pledged to Boston’s Muslim community his support in combating prejudice, then state-treasurer Timothy Cahill accused him of “playing politics with terrorism.’’

But terrorism is a nonissue, said Somalis yesterday in Roxbury.

“We’re part of this community now,’’ Egal said. “We want it to do better, too. We gain nothing by seeing something bad happen. Our kids are born here now.’’

Ben Wolford can be reached at

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