Group aims to stop violence among Somali youth

A surge in violence in recent years among Somali youth in Southwest has prompted a group of police, city staff, outreach workers and community leaders to join forces to address the issue.

Insp. Kristine Arneson of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 5th Precinct started the collaborative earlier this year with V.J. Smith, leader of the local chapter of MAD DADS, an organization that connects with troubled young men through on-the-street outreach. Neighborhood leaders, City Council staff and representatives of the Somali community are also involved.

Young Somali men are suspected in 14 robberies and three assaults this year in the 5th Precinct, according to information from police. Several young Somali males have been arrested for robbery, including four booked earlier this month for stealing a woman’s purse in Lowry Hill East. The trend is carried over from last year, when several Somali homicides in different parts of the city also made headlines.

“We noticed more Somalian youth coming into the Juvenile Detention Center and we were wondering, what is this?” Smith said. “They were coming from all over the U.S. and many were acclimated to gang life. Some learned it here. Our goal is to teach them, connect with them, show them how to guide their lives in a positive way.”

Smith, Arneson and the rest of the group have met twice so far to brainstorm outreach methods, which include connecting with local mosques and putting together a round table with area Somali leaders. The group hopes to have a solid plan in place by the time school is out, to prevent young Somalis with little to do from turning to crime.

Group member Nimco Ahmed, a Somali activist and policy aide for City Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward), said many young Somali men have no father figures. Some youth were sent to the U.S. from their war-torn homeland without any parents and the parents who are here often work long hours to provide for their families, Ahmed said.

“It’s tough and I’ve personally known some of these young men for a long time — known them when they were just little kids and it’s hard to see them just being on the streets and not doing anything with themselves,” Ahmed said. “It hurts my heart and I don’t really know what to do, but I think many times they might just need someone who can hold their hand and help them cross the street and maybe find them something on the other side of the street.”

She said Smith is a good person to help with the effort, since he pulled himself out of a criminal life before starting his outreach work. Many mosque leaders probably don’t have that first-hand experience to help youth relate, Ahmed said.

But she said MAD DADS, known for its strong Christian faith, has to be careful about its tactics. Praying in the street might not be the best way to reach Somalis.

“That will not work in our community,” Ahmed said. “We don’t want people to think that the 5th Precinct and the city of Minneapolis collaboration with MAD DADS is sending MAD DADS to streets where young Somali men are hanging out and they are being converted to become Christian.”

Ahmed said MAD DADS should share strategies with mosque leaders already engaged in outreach.

Smith said that’s the plan. MAD DADS, in collaboration with other members of the outreach group and broader community, wants to guide young Somali men into positive programs that will keep them off the streets, he said.

The approach is human-based and faith is not at the forefront of the effort, Smith said.

“The ultimate goal is if I can see less Somali kids in prison, if I can see less Somali, African American kids being shot and shooting other people, that’s what I want to do,” Smith said. “I’m not going to let politics get in the way and I’m not going to let religion get in the way of saving the lives of young people in our community. I’m not going to let that happen.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or