MANKATO, Minn. — Nasra Ibrahim had it easy, relatively speaking, when she fled from her home in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Her city began to crumble during the early 1990s when political unrest turned into tribal fighting before exploding into a violent civil war. She was able to escape quickly by boarding a passenger jet and flying to Kenya, but she's heard the horrible stories about the dangers other refugees faced. Many of those stories are told to her by other Somalians living in the Mankato area.
Some people walked for weeks to escape the violence. Ibrahim's friend, Fatima Salah, rode inside a car full of people, including a few who road on top, to make the trip to Kenya. With Ibrahim translating, Salah recently talked about seeing the bodies of people who couldn't finish the trip lying next to the road. Some men carried rifles to protect their families and friends from hungry lions and other predators.
Escaping Somalia, surviving the refugee camps and adjusting to life in the United States wasn't easy. So both women said they were shocked when they heard about a group of young men who ended up joining the extremist military group al-Shabab. The men had been recruited to fight in Somalia by a group operating in the Twin Cities.
"It was horrible," Ibrahim said. "They were saying, 'Be glad you're living in Mankato.'"
The women said they don't believe those types of recruiters would be successful in Mankato. The Somali community here is too close and that has a lot to do with the support of the Mankato community as a whole, especially its education system. Both women have children in the Mankato Area Public Schools system.
At the same time, Ibrahim can understand the desire Shafi Qanyare has to one day return to Somalia to do positive work. The young Mankato man, who graduated from East High School in 2008 and is now a graduate student at Minnesota State University, is only a few years older than Ibrahim was when she left Somalia. He was 11 years old when he left the war-torn country.
Qanyare has a friend who returned to help build schools. He wants to do something similar, but his parents don't want him to go because they believe it is still too dangerous. Ibrahim agrees with that assessment.
"I would like to go back and help the Somali community, but I'm not ready yet and they're not ready yet," she said. "Maybe someday, but not now."
Qanyare knows many of the Somali teens and young adults in Mankato. There is no way a radical group could start recruiting young people in Mankato without Somali elders finding out and putting a stop to it, he said.
It is not uncommon for a local FBI agent to attend events at the Mankato Islamic Center. He knows the Somali elders, chats with the kids and listens to any concerns people there may have.
The agent, who didn't want to be identified in a story about a 2012 event, is welcome at the center, as is anyone else who wants to stop by, Qanyare said. The elders see it as a safety issue, Qanyare said. His father is an elder and the elders don't see any conflict with having an FBI agent visiting their place of worship.
"For me, it's all about safety," Qanyare said. "Why not be safe? Anyone who is willing to help is alright with me."
The FBI has a community outreach program in each of its offices in the state, said Special Agent Kyle Loven, the FBI spokesman for Minnesota. They participate in a variety of festivals and other events at schools and with any other group that's willing to participate. They only work with groups that want to work with them.
"Anytime the FBI shows up, the thought is something bad has happened," Loven said. "Through outreach, we are trying to be part of the community by providing education and showing the human side of the FBI."
One of those relationships was created with a group called Ka Joog in Minneapolis after the FBI learned about the young men who had been recruited to work with al-Shabab. The Ka Joog organization had been created in 2007 by a group of Somali-Americans in Minneapolis who wanted to present a positive image of Somalians through art. They also mentor youth with the goal of showing them that education is a way to avoid the stigma of being different.
The relationship, which is still being used in an effort to keep more young people from being recruited, earned Ka Joog an award from the national director of the FBI in 2012.
"For a lot of Somalians any type of contact with law enforcement in Somalia had not been positive, even if they were trying to do something good," Loven said. "We definitely had to overcome the innate fear a lot of people in the community have with law enforcement."
Loven said he couldn't make specific comments about the investigation into missing Somali youth, except to say it was ongoing.
"Radicals tend to target primarily young men who are isolated, disaffected, unemployed and not fully integrated into society," he said. "Anytime you can have community engagement, that's going to be positive."
A group such as Ka Joog isn't really needed in Mankato, according to both Somali adults and youth living in the area. Several people credited Mankato's education system for doing many of the things Ka Joog is known for, including educating other Mankatoans about the Somali community.
"District 77 is doing a great job to bridge that gap that a lot of immigrants have, like learning a new language and missing school," said Harbi Hassan, Ibrahim's husband. "Todd Miller (Mankato director of public safety) also changed the dynamic a lot when he came here by partnering with Somalians and Sudanese."
Sumaya Hassan is a senior at East High School who moved to Mankato after living in San Diego for several years. Her parents made the move because they had heard Mankato was a safe city and a good place to raise children, she said.
In San Diego, there were a lot of bad influences, Hassan said. In Mankato, those influences aren't as strong because the Somalians here, and school employees, don't tolerate them. She used a shopping trip as an example.
"When I go to Wal-Mart, I see other students and other people I know," she said. "That's something I didn't get in San Diego. Making connections was a lot harder there. It's easy here and those people you make connections with are also pushing you to be better."
Hassan doesn't think anyone trying to recruit a Mankato Somalian to go back to Somalia for the wrong reasons would have any success. Her classmate, East junior Hussein Mohamoud, agreed.
"If someone was trying to do that to me, I would ask a lot of questions and go talk to an adult," Mohamoud said. "I'd also discuss it with my parents, but I don't see that happening here."
If a Somali teen or young adult is getting into any type of trouble, it's addressed by the entire Somali community, Ibrahim said. That usually involves a family visit with the elders and a talk with an imam, a man who leads prayers at a mosque.
"We get together and talk about what the family is going through and they get advice from the elders at the Islamic Center," Ibrahim said. "Our religion doesn't allow for fighting, stealing or drinking."
Qanyare was a student leader at East and has become a student leader at MSU. He said he wants to take the skills he has learned from that, go back to Somalia for awhile and complete a positive project. He doesn't have any solid plans yet, but he knows his parents will be concerned if he finds a way to do it.
"I've always wanted to go back," he said. "I went back in 2007, but I didn't get enough of it."
Qanyare is already doing positive work in Minnesota by volunteering at a youth center in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. That's the location of Minnesota's largest Somali community and also the area where Ka Joog started its work after Somali gang members started drawing negative attention to the community by dealing drugs and committing violent crimes.
Although he believes Qanyare has good intentions, Harbi Hassan said he wouldn't want his two young sons to go back to Somalia right now. There are regular reports through international news organizations about violence resulting from the political unrest there.
"We tell them that Somalia used to be great and Somalians are great people," Hassan said. "But, politically, things are not good there."
Ibrahim said she would be concerned about the ongoing war and al-Shabab militants.
She's also had friends go back to find things there are not good in other ways. Basic things such as electricity, cooking fuel and decent plumbing are hard to find due to the destruction caused during several years of war.