PART I: BACKGROUND
Somali Family Care Network was founded by Raqiya Abdalla in 2001. Before establishing SFCN, Abdalla conducted workshops nationwide on reproductive rights with refugee women from Iraq and Somalia as a consultant for Immigrant and Refugee Services of America (IRSA), a national voluntary agency that resettles refugees in the US. Her tenure as a consultant with IRSA offered Abdalla the opportunity to talk with Somali leaders and listen to the struggles and accomplishments they experienced in their efforts to serve the US Somali community. Through these discussions, it became clear to her that, while Somali leaders possessed a profound will and desire to advocate on behalf of their community, the grassroots organizations from which they organized these efforts often lacked the institutional capacity necessary to effectively meet the needs of their constituents.
With assistance from IRSA, Abdalla established SFCN in order to empower Somali refugees and immigrants by supporting the development and enhanced capacity of Somali grassroots NGOs in the US. This core objective continues to inform SFCN’s agenda, nonetheless, SFCN has recently begun to strengthen its advocacy capacity to respond to developments in the community since the attacks of 9/11 that pose a threat to the rights of the Somali community.
My main objectives as an intern for SFCN was twofold: First, I wanted to work with SFCN staff to assist them in developing the organization’s capacity to advocate for the Somali community. In February of this year, a Georgia-based Somali hawala (a money-wiring business and key channel through which Somalis in the US send remittances to friends and family in Somalia who do not otherwise possess the means to sustain themselves) received notification of closure from a large Northeastern bank. Despite several attempts, the hawala was unable to receive an explanation closing the account, nor did they manage to persuade the bank to keep their account open.
The hawala contacted SFCN in early spring. SFCN was very eager to challenge the bank, realizing that this closure could set a dangerous precedent for other banks across the US and thus seriously jeopardize the hawala system. Collaborating with Somali grassroots NGOs in Ohio, Georgia, and other states in the Eastern US, SFCN contacted Congresspeople, circulated a petition, and secured letters of support from Somali community organizations attesting to the importance as a means of survival for people living in a country where the infrastructure had been badly damaged by a protracted civil war.
SFCN has successfully managed to forestall the closure of the hawala’s account. But it was successful in other ways as well; SFCN managed to mobilize support from the Somali community nationwide by showing them why this seemingly parochial issue would have potentially global consequences and by collaborating with Somalis across the country to develop strategies for confronting a problem with which the Somali community was faced.
Since its inception, Abdalla foresaw SFCN as playing a role as a major advocate for the Somali community. During its first three years, however, the organization focused most of its institutional energies on working to make Somali grassroots NGOs more sustainable. I entered the organization at a key moment; Abdalla and Program Coordinator Eric Robinson were developing a proposal for what they referred to simply as the ‘national resource center’.
The ‘national resource center’ originally was what Abdalla had envisioned SFCN to be: a center where Somali leaders could learn more about institutional capacity building for grassroots NGOs and, more importantly, a nexus for mobilization around issues affecting the Somali community.
My most significant contribution to SFCN and my biggest personal accomplishment thus was working with the organization to develop a viable plan for this center through conducting research to identify models for the center; talking with members of the Somali community to assess what issues most urgently needed to be addressed; and, finally, discussing strategies for establishing such a center with other professionals who work with refugees.
Additionally, I wanted to gain insight into the challenges to Somali rights in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11. As many already are aware, US law enforcement agencies have adopted unprecedented security measures in an effort to root-out perpetrators of terror. Consequently, thousands of innocent people have been swept up in the hastily cast net of raids, investigations, special registration procedures, and detention. A significant component of my work at SFCN consisted in researching these human rights violations in the US Somali refugee community. I was able to strengthen significantly the documentation available at SFCN through accumulating articles from periodicals and reports from NGOs that monitor human rights violations in the US.
My biggest challenge at SFCN was trying to have more contact with the Somali community. SFCN does not offer direct services to Somalis, so apart from talking to staff members it was rare for me to interact with Somalis and learn more about their experiences in and perceptions of the US. Near the end of the internship period, I was fortunate to attend a training of Somali NGO leaders in San Diego, where I was able to have discussions with many Somali community members.
PART II: PERSONAL ESSAY
Interning at Somali Family Care Network through the Upper Midwest International Human Rights Fellowship Program has deepened my commitment to facing the challenges in the field of human rights by exposing me to the nuts and bolts of human rights work. More importantly, this experience allowed me to shape my role in the field of human rights.
I came across this fellowship opportunity in January while researching internship opportunities for the following summer. I had a growing interest in social justice and advocacy for Somalis in the US due in part to the seemingly sudden appearance of one of the largest diasporic Somali communities in the US right outside of the University of Minnesota's West Bank. In addition, I also took interest in learning more about the special challenges that Somalis faced as practitioners of Islam in a US political environment that was becoming alarmingly hostile to Muslims.
During the 2001-2002 academic year, I participated on the Minnesota Studies in International Development to Senegal. While in Senegal, I received continuous accounts from friends and family of the treatment that Somalis in Minneapolis were receiving after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Increased scrutiny by federal law enforcement agencies. Closings of Somali hawalas, or money-wiring businesses. Racially motivated murders. Police brutality.
Shortly after returning from Senegal, I attended a teach-in on the loss of civil liberties after 9/11. The speakers included August Nimtz (Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota), Phil Steger (executive director, Friends for a Non-violent World), Peter Erlinder (law professor, William Mitchell College of Law) and Omar Jamal (executive director, Somali Justice Advocacy Center). Having seen the events and subsequent political fall-out of 9/11 from afar, I was eager to learn about the different experiences of those in the US. I was most impressed by Jamal whose enthusiasm and ardor maintained the rapt attention of the audience until the last word of his speech.
To say that Jamal was merely a spokesperson for Somali rights would underestimate his broad-based accomplishments in social mobilization in Minnesota and elsewhere over the past several years. Through speaking out on issues from immigrant rights to racism and police brutality to US aggression in Iraq, Jamal not only managed to bring issues affecting the Somali community to the attention of average Minnesotans, but sounded the alarm on a variety of issues of concern to most, if not all, Americans. As a friend of mine would later comment, Jamal embodied a site of resistance that was interstitially positioned between the peace movement, the civil rights movement, and a contemporary civil rights movement in Minnesota.
Like most fields, human rights, is overwhelmingly large and conceptually inchoate seeping into other fields like law, international development, and public policy. It was difficult to imagine from the outside what 'human rights work' comprises, and I found it even more difficult still to imagine what role I could play in human rights work. This fact did not, however, diminish my enthusiasm or interest in finding out what this role would be and four months later I arrived in Washington, DC about to begin my first day at my new internship.
When I arrived at my internship site, an unassuming building amidst a tangle of county roads and strip malls at the outer limits of the DC suburbs, I was surprised by how little this resembled the mental image I had been tracing in my mind over the last several weeks. I had imagined SFCN as occupying the modest office suite of an old building in one of DC's middle-class residential districts along with neighboring NGOs and nonprofits. In reality, SFCN was located in an eye-sore of sixties commercial office space and shared a floor with a personal injury lawyer from Brooklyn named Glenn who insisted on talking to me about football, a topic about which I knew absolutely nothing (but now know considerably more, thanks to Glenn).
After getting over this initial shock and growing accustomed to the hour-and-a-half commute from DC to my internship site, I started realizing the potential benefits that could be reaped from my internship: I would be a key co-partner in developing a grassroots advocacy campaign. I would get to witness human rights work at work.
Working with Eric Robinson, the Program Coordinator and Raqiya Abdalla, was truly inspiring. Abdalla is a born leader and commands respect not just from other members of the Somali diaspora in the US as a former high-profile Somali politician who regularly featured on the evening news while in her home country, but also from her American counterparts in Washington, D.C. and nationwide as the founder and president of a rising national ethnic organization. Robinson has a long history working with refugees and generously shared his experience and wisdom with me throughout the internship.
One of the remarkable lessons I learned while at Somali Family Care Network served to corroborate the dictum that changes at the local level can truly have palpable global impacts. An obvious example is that of the hawalas: the lack of remittances, due to the closings of hawalas in Minneapolis and Seattle by the FBI, threatened the survival of tens of thousands of people in Somalia. Conversely, by aiding in organizing a coalition of Somali US grassroots organizations, contacting US Congresspersons, circulating petitions, and acquiring letters of support attesting to the importance of the hawala, SFCN was able to provide hawala-owners some measure of protection by pressuring law enforcement agencies and the federal government to consider other preventative mechanisms for stemming the flow of dollars to terrorist organizations.
Upon my return, I plan to share my experience and raise awareness of the challenges faced by Somalis in Minneapolis as well as the aims of the Somali Family Care Network and other organizations like it in our community by producing a radio dcumentary through KFAI radio’s Wave Project. KFAI is a volunteer-based community radio station that transmits programming to a Twin Cities audience of diverse racial, social and economic backgrounds and strives to provide a voice for people misrepresented by mainstream media in order to increase understanding between peoples and communities, and foster the values of democracy and social justice. The Wave Project is a weekly program conceived by KFAI with the intent to provide listeners with the opportunity to create and broadcast their own radio shows. KFAI radio serves as a forum for Minnesota Somalis to discuss cultural, educational and economic issues pertinent to their community through the Somali language program Codka Beesha Soomaaliyeed (Voice for the Somali Community), produced by Hussein Samatar. With the collaboration of Hussein Samatar and other Somali community members in Minnesota, a program radio documentary produced through the Wave Project would serve as an ideal vehicle to help a broader audience understand the changing face of Minnesota.
This experience has allowed me to make a significant contribution to meeting the advocacy needs of the Somali community and to developing the advocacy capacity of Somali Family Care Network. At the same time, it has allowed me to conceptualize it has allowed me better conceptualize the field of human rights and understand what role or roles I will play in this field in the future. Last, but not least, this opportunity has proved a valuable experience on which I can base my future human rights work.