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Sending sons home to Somalia for safety

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Anab Garuf watches a video of her son, Kayse and his wife. Anab is one of the leaders of the Somali community fighting the drug problem in Rochester. (MPR photo/Sea Stachura)
Drug dealing amongst Somali teens in Rochester has increased steadily over the past five years according to police and community leaders. Some community members are offering a surprising solution. The mothers of these teenagers want to send the dealers back to Somalia.

Rochester, Minn. — Afternoon prayer has just finished at Anab Garuf's apartment. It's dimly lit but filled with brightly colored silk flowers. She's lived here eight years with her children. Her husband died last year.

As her eldest son, Kayse, comes home they talk and she pours her cardamom and cinnamon tea for Biyod Shakia, another mother. Anab says her son attends college and stays away from drugs, but a lot of Somali males, she says, are selling drugs all over town.

"The Somali boys is walking, to groups," she says in broken English. "But they sell drugs, is use drugs, is not listen to the parents."

Rochester police say an increasing number of 17 to 22 year old Somalis are dropping out of school to sell cocaine and khat. It's a leaf which some African immigrants chew as a stimulant. Anab says the problem is unbearable now.

For years she and other moms saw their sons with plastic baggies full of pot, but they didn't know it was drugs.

Yet as more kids have dropped out of school and left home they've learned. Anab says moms and aunts have tried talking with their kids. Her approach has sometimes been even more direct.

She's chased dealers out of parks. Some kids, she says, run away when they see her. But others ignore her even after she's yelled at them and told them she's calling the police.

"I said, 'Stop selling the drugs!" she says. "He said, 'I need the money.' I said 'I'm calling the police.' He said "I don't care.'"

But Anab didn't call the police because, she says, they don't do anything. Maybe they arrest the dealer, she says, but he's out the next day.

Avni Patel is a project coordinator at the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association.

"And so what these moms are saying is: 'This is mighty America? Why are kids not getting locked up for doing the wrong thing?'"

She says mothers called their friends crying about their sons. One mom would hear about another in a different clan with the same trouble. They felt helpless. So Anab and Biyod took it upon themselves to organize.

At a community meeting Avni says the mothers told her they wanted police to discipline their children severely and immediately. If they didn't, the teens would be lost.

"Oh, they want them deported," she says. "That is what my subgroup told me. Deport these children. If they are only in America to cause trouble for their family and their community they shouldn't be here. Send them back. And one of these mothers who's leading this effort did send her son back to Somalia."

Biyod is that mom. Her 15 year old cut school and dis-respected her. He wasn't selling drugs yet, she says. But Biyod saw no other solution. In March she returned to Somalia with him. He lives with her mother and uncle.

"Because why I sent him because I'm going to save him," she says. "That's why I send him. I'm going to save my kids, why I came here, yeah, civil war."

"He's happy too," Anab adds

Biyod says Somalia is safer today than it was at the start of the civil war in 1991. By and large representatives of Somalia agree. And Biyod says American culture got in the way of Somalian values.

The clan structure has weakened in the US, she adds. Back home people watched out for her son, and he respected adults. She knows he's in danger in the turmoil of Somalia. But she says it would be better to die in a civil war than live as a drug dealer.

Anab says for Somali people their children are their lifeline. She says just as Americans depend on social security for their retirement, Somalis depend on their children. Without their sons, they're lost.

"You use the social security. But Somalian people, we don't have social security," she says. "My social security is my kids. You understand? My social security is lost. That's why the Somalian parent is worried."

In Rochester many of these women are widowed or their husbands are missing. A lot of the women have limited job skills and little English. Still Anab says knowing their sons are selling drugs in the alley behind the tea house in downtown Rochester is a disgrace.

And at the end of that alley is the local YMCA, where 14 year old Farum plays basketball with his friends. Farum was orphaned by the war and lives with his grandmother. He says everybody knows Somali kids do drugs, and the moms are too late.

"If they started this a long time ago none of this would have started," he says. "But they didn't do that first. So it's kinda hard to stop it now cause there are a lot of people doing it."

Farum says he doesn't do drugs. But he's seen kids use, even in junior high school. And he says he knows the police aren't stopping them. He doesn't know why kids use. Social service studies show Somali teens feel unsupported by their families with parents often working two jobs. Farum agrees the abusers should be sent back.

"Somali ladies have to send the kids that are selling drugs back to Africa. That's the only way it's gonna stop, unless you send all of them back," he says.

It's highly unusual for Somali women to take this kind of leading role. They hold meetings with public officials. Anab and Biyod have walked into Congressman Gil Gutknecht's office and demanded he listen to them.

Anab's 16 year old daughter, Ishwaq, says the clan system that once watched out for the kids and had people visiting each other's homes constantly is now missing.

"And here obviously the clans get divided and mixed up and there's not that sense of community and I guess what their trying to do is unite as Somali parents," she says.

The women's action is a major break with Somalian tradition. Sharif Osman, a community leader says Muslim women in Somalia are taught to listen not speak.

"Woman should be polite," he says. "Should keep quiet. Should follow orders. Should accept what her man says, and that is how she will go to paradise." Sharif says he doesn't necessarily agree with that, but it's a widely held belief. He acknowledges the moms are taking over some of the father's roles. Sharif says dads feel they can't parent the way they did in Somalia where they could use corporal punishment. Now living in America they'll get in trouble with the law if they hit their kids.

"I could give him a slap or beat him and he would stop," he says. "But if I would do that, immediately the police and law enforcement would come and arrest me, so what can I do?"

Ultimately he says, under the traditional system father feel the mothers are responsible for their kids. If the moms fail, the fathers will divorce them.

But Anab and Biyod don't offer that as a reason for taking action. Anab says the drug problem has spread across Rochester and the future of the Somali community is at stake. She says if her friend's children are selling drugs it's like her kids are selling drugs.

"Because I am same country," she says "I am same language I am same religion. That's why."

Whether or not Anab and Biyod save the lives of their children they have changed their own. They are leading a community of women from a dining room table covered in silk flowers.

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