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After OSU attack, worried Somalis talk of love of America

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COLUMBUS — Hassan Omar hurriedly removed the framed painting proclaiming in bold red letters, “I ♥ Somali” from the back wall of his small office.

He didn’t want it to serve as a backdrop in pictures the newspaper photographer was taking.

The image, like much in these days after the Ohio State University attack, might be misunderstood or taken out of context, said the Somali Community Association of Ohio president as he tucked the painting under his desk and out of sight.

But it was hardly out of mind.

“I am American,” said Omar, who has worked with the U.S. military and was granted political asylum in the U.S. from his homeland of Somalia. “What some believe about us is not who we are.

“We love this country. We don’t separate ourselves,” Omar said. “We are not Somali-Americans.

“We are Americans.”

“We are Ohioans.”

“We are Columbus.”

Omar, like many of his Somali friends, spent this past week painstakingly explaining their country, their Muslim faith and the economic and social impact they’ve had here in central Ohio to anyone who would listen. Simultaneously, he and others vehemently denounced the erratic actions of the 18-year-old who carried out car-and-knife attacks at OSU Monday morning that left him dead and 13 others injured.

Federal authorities said the attacker, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, might have been inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda recruiter and propagandist, or by the Islamic State terrorist group. The FBI continues to probe Artan’s whereabouts before the attacks, his associates and his online life. Shortly before the attacks, Artan posted a rant on Facebook calling al-Awlaki a “hero.” He also wrote that the U.S. could stop “lone wolf attacks” by making peace with ISIS.

But Mohamed Diini, an imam in Columbus, said he knows one thing: Artan was not acting as a Muslim or in the name of Islam.

“The Muslim faith, Islamic theology is quite clear about this: He who tries to take the life, or takes the life, of one human being, it would be, in the sight of God as if he had taken the life of all of humanity,” Diini said at a gathering of Somali men Tuesday evening who gathered to talk to the media. “What happened at OSU was un-Somali, un-American, un-Islamic, inhumane.”

And, he added, criminal.

“I know our neighbors know better than to judge us by the actions of one lone, deviant individual,” he said.

Facts and fear

However, a tweet by President-elect Donald Trump crystallized their worst fear — even if few said it aloud to strangers here last week.

“ISIS,” Trump tweeted early Wednesday, “is taking credit for the terrible stabbing attack at Ohio State University by a Somali refugee who should not have been in our country.”

As of Friday, however, there was no known proof that Artan was part of any terrorist group. ISIS often takes credit for lone wolf attacks.

Officials have confirmed Artan was a permanent legal resident of the United States, having fled war-ravaged Somalia in 2007 with his family to a refugee camp in Pakistan. He and at least six family members entered the U.S. in 2014, first moving to Dallas and then to Columbus. Many Somalis move to Columbus to be close to family and friends because the city has a much lower cost of living than Minneapolis and Seattle, where many Somalis have resettled.

Estimates vary widely on the number of Somalis who call Columbus home — from 15,000 to more than 40,000. Some, like Omar, put that number closer to 60,000 and say it could be higher. Accurate population figures are nearly impossible to gauge because of secondary migration. It is widely believed Columbus trails only Minneapolis in its number of Somalis.

A 2015 report, citing the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said 5,936 Somali refugees have resettled in Franklin County. But that does not take into account children born here or other family members who migrated later.

“Somalis prefer to cluster where they have mutual support,” said Kenneth Menkhaus, a political science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina and an expert on Somalia. “They are very intentional on where they settle.”

Many may be financially poor, he said, ”but they are rich in social capital in ways Americans are not. They call on each other.”

Which is why the actions Monday of a dedicated student, who bought chips at a corner market and gyros at a Pakistani-owned restaurant next door and often helped his white neighbor, don’t seem to square for those who knew Artan.

“He was always smiling. He never talked about being Muslim,” said Niaz Sddiqui, the owner of Khyber Restaurant. “He spoke my language — Urdu — and I asked him once: ‘What’s a Somali guy doing speaking my language?’ He said he studied in Pakistan.”

The young man, who always wore jeans and had a backpack on his shoulder, also worked at Home Depot, Sddiqui said. Others said he helped his mom out with his younger siblings and might have dropped them off at school before the attack Monday morning.

Those actions all align with Somali culture and Islamic teachings.

Many, if not all, Somalis remit “as much money” as they can back to their families who remain in the fractured country of Somalia, which is in the Horn of Africa. About $1 billion to $1.5 billion is remitted back to Somali annually, Menkhaus said.

“It floats their economy,” he said.

Hundreds of business owners

Nuro Wardhere, who manages Nuro Fashions in the Global Mall on Morse Road — a neighborhood akin to Little Somali — sends as much money back as she can to her mother, sister and other family members. But, she is quick to add that America, and more specifically Columbus, is home.

“We are American. We live our lives here. We hope to do well together,” she said, while proudly showing the brightly colored and bejeweled dresses and scarves that line the wall of her booth.

This is the Somali community Omar points to. Families who help raise families, business owners who pool their own capital to get the next Somali businessman off the ground, car and truck dealers who provide interest-free loans to each other.

This is the Columbus Somali community he knows. A community that built itself up. He beams at their accomplishments in less than three decades here.

That 2015 report, called Impact of Refugees in Central Ohio, did not break out Somali-owned businesses specifically, but it estimated there are at least 873 refugee-owned businesses in the Greater Columbus area employing about 3,960 workers. In dollar figures, the businesses generate a total economic impact of $605.7 million a year in the area, according to the report.

For context, Somalis make up more than half of the total refugee population in the area.

“Refugees in Franklin County are more than twice as likely to start a business as the county population in general,” said the report, which was a collaboration between US Together, Community Refugee & Immigration Services, World Relief Columbus and the City of Columbus.

The report did not analyze the fiscal impact the community has on infrastructure or public services. While the state keeps data on total refugees who receive state aid, it is not broken out by specific group, said Jon Keeling, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

These are the stories, Omar said, that don’t often get attention. While he won’t comment on Trump’s tweet — “He’s our president now” — Omar can’t seem to square how Trump, a business owner, can’t see the impact Somalis have on Ohio’s economy.

“If we went away,” he shakes his head while touring the north side of Columbus pointing out Somali-owed businesses for miles, “Columbus would feel it.”

Judged in the court of God

Omar won’t speculate on what may have motivated Artan or why, in such a close-knit and supportive culture, a young man who seemed to have so much would turn into a knife-wielding madman.

Wardhere, a mother of a teenage boy, said he must have suffered from a mental illness, because his actions were not based in Islam.

Menkhaus, too, said that the attack did not seem to fit neatly into any clear pattern. But he added “we have so few of these lone wolf attacks that there isn’t a profile. They don’t fit a profile.

“This is a great mystery for the Somali community there,” he added. “It’s a great mystery for law enforcement, at least right now.”

Diini, the Imam, said it is the Islamic burial ritual that Artan’s body would be washed before it is wrapped in cloth and that prayers would be said over his body at a local Islamic Center before he is put to rest.

But he will not be forgiven.

“He has done a crime. But, he is not an animal,” Diini said. “But his accounting, his judgment will be in the court of God.

“Justice will be served there,” he said.

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Chris Graves is metro columnist for Cincinnati.com and The Cincinnati Enquirer. Follow her on Twitter @chrisgraves.

Diaspora

Somali Man charged the deaths of 4 in fatal I-55 accident

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STAUTON, IL – A Colorado truck driver has been charged following an investigation into a multi-vehicle accident that killed 4 people and injured 11 others. Mohamed Jama, 54, of Greeley, Colorado, turned himself in to the Madison County Jail Monday.

The accident happened on southbound I-55 in Madison County on November 21, 2017.

The fatal accident killed 2 sisters, Madisen and Hailey Bertels and a friend, Tori Carroll, and an out of state woman, Vivian Vu in another vehicle.

Authorities say the accident occurred when a tractor-trailer driven by Mohamed Jama failed to slow down and stop for cars in front of him in a construction zone.

By the time it was all over, 7 vehicles were damaged and the people inside them injured or killed.

The sisters attended high school in Staunton.

The deaths deeply touched Staunton where people knew the young women or knew people who were their friends. Many in town were still grieving the loss. Matthew Batson said, “I’ll hear stories about them all the time, even though it’s been five months? Yes, it’s a lasting effect.”

The Madison County State`s Attorney Tom Gibbon said if convicted of all the crimes Mohamed Jama could spend the rest of his life in prison. With summer coming on and more construction zone Gibbons says there`s a warning for all of us.

“Each of us out there in our cars we really need to pay attention, watch out, slow down you never want to see something like this to happen again it so terrible for all the victim I’m sure that no person would want to be the cause of something like this.”

Jama is charged with 4 counts of reckless homicide and 8 counts of reckless driving. He`s being held in the Madison County Jail without bond.

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Books

CANADA: Edmonton author aims to boost diversity in children’s book publishing

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EDMONTON—Two years ago Rahma Mohamed’s then four-year-old daughter saw an Elsa costume, complete with blond braids, and pleaded with her mother to buy it so she would look “beautiful.”

That’s when Mohamed decided her kids needed more cultural inspiration than the blond princess from Frozen.

After a year of work, the first-time author published Muhima’s Quest, a children’s book that tells the story of a young African-America Muslim girl who wakes up on her 10th birthday and goes on a journey.

Now, Mohamed’s at work on her second book, which is due out at the end of the month. She’s on a journey of her own, she said, to boost diversity in children’s publishing.

“I wanted to create a character who had African descent and is a Muslim in a children’s book because I just found out that there were none that were available in the mainstream,” she said.

Her books show kids it’s OK to be different, she said. Take her first book: some Muslims don’t celebrate birthdays, she explains, and the little girl in the book struggles with her faith and questions why she doesn’t celebrate like her classmates do.

“The overall message is that we do things differently, but that part is what makes us beautiful,” Mohamed said.

She said she felt it necessary for her kids to see themselves represented in the books they read in order to “enhance their self-confidence, as well as bolster their sense of pride.”

Mohamed, who writes under the pen name Rahma Rodaah, self-published her first book and since last summer, has sold 200 copies locally.

“It does take a lot of resources and you have to self-finance, but I believe in the end it’s worth it,” she said.

She hopes to go bigger with her second book, which focuses on the universal concept of sibling rivalry, and features a young girl who plans on selling her little brother because she believes he is getting all the attention.

“My overall goal is to portray Muslim Africans who are basically a normal family.”

Mohamed says her previous book was well-received by parents at readings she had done at public libraries and schools.

“Most of them who are Muslims really loved that the kids could identify with the characters,” she said.

The books also acted as a conversation starter for non-Muslim families, she said.

She said, for her, the most exciting part of the journey is knowing that she is making a difference in shaping the minds of young Black Muslims.

“We are underrepresented, misunderstood and mostly mischaracterized. It is time we paint a different picture.”

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Minnesota

When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway

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Mukhtar Ibrahim

In October 2013, two Somali teenage girls named Ayan and Leila shocked their parents by running away to join ISIS in Syria. Their radicalization story is unusual in that it happened in Norway.

Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.

Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.

“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”

His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.

When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”

It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.

“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.

“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”

Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.

When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.

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