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Soccer seen as way to help engage Somali youths

FARGO - When Abdi Jama started coaching youth soccer at Jefferson West Park, he would show up three days a week to supervise drills and scrimmages. But the kids, largely from families new to America, told him that on off days, "We're bored. We ca...

FARGO – When Abdi Jama started coaching youth soccer at Jefferson West Park, he would show up three days a week to supervise drills and scrimmages. But the kids, largely from families new to America, told him that on off days, “We’re bored. We can’t do nothing at home.”

So now Jama and the kids are at the park every evening playing and laughing on a soccer field not far from Community Homes, a south Fargo housing complex where many refugee families live.

Jama said the program, run by a local group called Global Youth United, began a few years ago. Back then, most of the players were Somali. Today, there are still a few Somali kids, but most of the youth are Bhutanese or from other backgrounds – a result of changing demographics at Community Homes, he said.

Jama, who came to Fargo from Somalia 17 years ago, said he wants to attract more Somali players and build a competitive program. He believes soccer, a sport most Somali youth know and love, can steer them away from not just routine mischief, but also terrorism.

"If we have program for them, it will help us bring them together” and get to know them, he said. “Somebody change behavior or whatever, it’s easy to identify.”

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The question of how to keep Somali youth engaged in positive activities has become a pressing one following the random stabbing attack on Saturday, Sept. 17, in St. Cloud, Minn.

A 20-year-old Somali man named Dahir Adan stabbed 10 people at the Crossroads Mall. During the attack, he reportedly made references to Allah and asked at least one person if he or she was Muslim.

The Islamic State has since claimed Adan as a “soldier.” But authorities have not linked him to the militant group nor have they pinpointed his motive. What’s clear is that he grew up in Fargo until his family moved to St. Cloud at least six years ago, according to a local Somali leader.

Fargo police Chief David Todd has said there’s no indication that any youth here are being radicalized by terrorist groups. Jama and other Somali coaches said the same as Todd, but they noted that some young Somalis find themselves in court because of commonplace crimes like drunken driving and theft.

“We have good youth, but some of them end up being in trouble,” Jama said. “We have a lot of Somali kids in jail.”

Twin Cities terror recruiting Since 2007, the Somali community in the Twin Cities has had to reckon with terrorist groups, like Al-Shabab and the Islamic State, recruiting young men to fight overseas.

To stymie recruiters, law enforcement agencies have reached out to the community, and a handful of Minnesota programs that work with Somali kids, including a youth sports group, have received grants through a federal pilot project meant to prevent terrorism. Minnesota legislators have also set aside $250,000 for similar programs.

With no such funding available in North Dakota, Jama and others like Ali Abdi, who volunteer as coaches through Global Youth United, have been searching for ways to fund an expansion of the soccer program. But so far, they’ve come up short. “We don’t have anything – zero,” Abdi said.

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Right now, the kids in the program play among themselves. Though, as they grow older, Jama says, they lose interest in simply playing for fun.

“They want to play competitive games, but we don’t have that,” he said.

To remedy this, the coaches are seeking funds to pay for equipment and for fees associated with league and tournament play in the hope of attracting older players. By covering these costs, Jama says, the program could draw kids who don’t have the money to otherwise join a soccer club, the price of which is prohibitive for many families.

‘Invest in the kids’ On Tuesday, Sept. 20, Global Youth United’s program drew about 15 boys and girls, mostly ages 11 to 15, to Jefferson West Park to play soccer in the evening light. There are also groups of kids who play at two other Fargo parks, Jama said.

The city has other afterschool programs for at-risk kids, including Somali youth, but none of the programs offer competitive sports. Also, the Somali community here has a soccer team called Motown, but it’s only for ages 16 to 25.

If Global Youth United is able to form a competitive program for a range of ages, Jama said, he envisions it as a way for players to be noticed by high school and college teams.

Joel Vettel, executive director of the Fargo Park District, said district staff have been in talks with Global Youth United about helping its soccer program secure fields and register players. He said the district doesn’t have grants to give out, but parks staff could assist in seeking funds from other sources.

“We need to invest in the kids,” said Jamal Jama, another coach with Global Youth United. “If you do good in soccer, then you can go get better education and go to school.”

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If the program does become competitive, Abdi Jama said, players would be required to meet a certain GPA so they could play. He said no such requirement exists now, but the coaches do offer homework assistance along the sidelines.

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