June 20, 2018
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Don’t turn rumor of Portland’s Somali community into discrimination

People attend the funeral of Selima Merali, 41, and her daughter Nuriana Merali, 15, who were killed in the attack by gunmen at the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi, September 25, 2013. As Kenya began three days of mourning on Wednesday for at least 67 people killed in the siege of a Nairobi mall, it was unclear how many more hostages may have died with the Somali Islamist attackers buried in the rubble.
By Mohammed Dini, Special to the BDN

In the immediate aftermath of the tragic attack in Kenya, speculation about a Maine connection began spreading among the local press. Could a Somali Mainer have been involved in the Nairobi attack?

Though based only on a single tweet, which was subsequently deleted from Twitter and linked to a fake account, a seed of mistrust was quickly planted in our community.

In a state as closely knit as Maine, repercussions from multiple, unsubstantiated news reports can be felt in tangible ways. Though incredible progress has been made integrating new Mainers over the past decade, rumors can still easily become the single story by which we are defined in Maine.

Reporting based on speculation directly impacts the everyday lives of immigrants in our communities. Discrimination still happens in the workplace. Young Somali Americans are still called “terrorists” and told to “go back home” by random strangers on the street, even if they were born in the United States or spent most of their lives living in Maine.

Although we do not define ourselves by the negative image that Somalia has in the media, we find ourselves up against it nearly on a daily basis — no matter who we are or what we have done as individuals.

Though it may not be widely known to many Mainers, members of the Somali community have developed strong, ongoing working relationships with local law enforcement, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security precisely to prevent terrorist recruitment from happening in Maine. As people who have lived through violence and disruption, it is our priority concern not only to prevent our children from experiencing it, but to keep terroristic violence out of our adopted communities as well.

None of us wishes for the chaos we escaped to re-occur on American soil. As it stands, my colleagues and I have not heard of nor witnessed any recruitment by al-Shabaab here in Maine. There have been no documented or verified cases to date of recruitment in our community.

Law enforcement on the local and federal levels are actively investigating the claim posted on social media, and we believe they are in the best position to assess the statements for validity. As we have done over the past several years, the Somali community in Maine will keep lines of communication open should the need arise to report any dangerous activity.

It is true that many of us in the immigrant community have not completely severed our ties to our home country. We often have family members still living there who we communicate with regularly. Importantly, we are committed to seeing Somalia rise out of the conflict that tore it apart.

Somalis in the diaspora have been deeply involved in establishing successful anti-terrorism programs back home, and it has been members of the diaspora — including from Maine — who have worked on the ground in Somalia to support a new democratic government, to help build much-needed infrastructure and to push back against the influence of al-Shabaab in Somalia.

This work goes on simultaneously with establishing our lives here in the United States and largely takes place outside of the media’s lens. We do it because Somalia’s progress toward stability is personal and inexorably tied to a terror-free future for Africa and the world.

Mohammed Dini is executive director of the African Diaspora Institute in Portland.

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