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The Suburban Terrorist

Local Somalis Say Their Kids Are in Crisis—It's Time We Listen

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MOHAMED OSMAN MOHAMUD was born in Somalia, but he was raised in Portland from age five. He attended Beaverton public schools and studied at Oregon State University. His dad worked for the state's largest employer, Intel. It's hard to admit, but he came from us.

When asked how Oregon raised a child who grew up supposedly determined to kill "a huge mass" of families (as Mohamud, according to the FBI, explained his plan to bomb the Pioneer Courthouse Square tree lighting), local Somali American leaders replied that their youth are in crisis. Maybe Mohamud's alleged plot is a wake-up call, and Portland needs to start listening.

"We have a crisis on our hands. Not just in Oregon, but the whole country, and it's not only the responsibility of the Somali community," says Kayse Jama, executive director for the Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO). Jama and others, including Mayor Sam Adams, spoke at a hastily organized unity rally Sunday, November 28, at Portland City Hall after the mosque Mohamud had attended in Corvallis was firebombed. Jama repeated the belief that local Somali teens often feel isolated and frustrated.

"They deal with all the issues that youth of color deal with. We need to create a safer space for these kids to come together to speak about the challenges they face," says Jama.

"Clearly everybody's shocked and condemns that act, of course," says Taj Suleyman, CIO's Beaverton community organizer who led a "Beaverton Diversity Summit" in August.

"There are tough cross-cultural issues that the Somali community faces, specifically the youth and the isolation that they're facing," says Suleyman, pointing to differences like language. But Suleyman also describes immigrants feeling unwelcome and having no public space to discuss their frustration.

"Let's start with listening," says Suleyman. "Let's start with having dialogues in the community, with this calamity the Somali community faces right now." No further acts of retaliation after the mosque firebombing have been reported, but organizers say they are hearing a lot of fear.

Oregon takes in about 1,200 refugees a year, according to the Immigration and Refugee Community Organization. And Portland's Africa-born population has recently skyrocketed, growing 90 percent since 2000. About 5,000 to 8,000 Somali Americans live in the region, most of them arriving as refugees in the early 2000s, long after Mohamud's family settled here in 1996. The number of Somali-speaking students in Portland Public Schools jumped from 17 kids in 2005-2006 to 335 this year, spread throughout Southwest, North/Northeast, and outer Southeast Portland.

And yet Oregon seems to be failing its Somali population in key ways. About .7 percent of Portland Public Schools students speak Somali at home, but an audit found only a third of English-learning students mastered the language. Portland Public Schools employs only one native Somali-speaking staffer. Unemployment is high among Somalis—at Kateri Park, a predominantly Somali development in SE Portland, it's at 50 percent among refugees. Jama and Suleyman lament the dearth of programs for Somali youth and in civic outreach overall.

In many ways, Mohamud seems more like a frustrated teen than a driven jihadist. He didn't live like a radical Muslim; friends and classmates told national media he was "chill" and would talk about girls and drink beer—something prohibited by Islam. Although he penned three articles encouraging jihad in English-language magazine Jihad Recollections, Mohamud's Corvallis mosque says he quit attending services in recent months. He never trained with terrorists; he was acting on his own. With the right outreach and community, he may never have turned down a violent road.

At the rally Sunday, city human relations staffer Muna Abshir Mohamud (who wears a hijab and introduced herself as "visibly Muslim") lamented that the teenage Mohamud made the choices he did:

"It might be too late for this particular Mohamed, but there are many, many Mohameds who are out there who are at risk. "We need to direct the right and appropriate resources to make sure young Muslim men do not fall through the cracks."

Correction — Due to a Portland Public Schools math error, this article originally reported that eight percent of PPS students speak Somali. The actual number is .7 percent.

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