The Muslim-American girls of Minneapolis are engaged in a triumphant journey of education, art, and community service, paving the way for what is to become the next generation of local doctors, lawyers, and political leaders.
Helping to lead this charge is educator, leader, and community organizer Farheen Hakeem, mentoring a number of girls through her involvement in the Girl Scout movement as well as a new Muslim-based initiative dubbed the “Me” program.
Ms. Hakeem and her loyal band of Girl Scouts are no strangers to the media – they have been featured on the front page of the New York Times (11/28/07), as well as in the 2008 College Emmy Award-Winning documentary “Bismillah”, produced and directed by Jolene Pinder and Sarah Zaman (destined for the Film-Festival Circuit and PBS in early 2010). I spoke with Ms. Pinder regarding this story and asked, upon viewing the film for myself, about her take on the effect Ms. Hakeem is having on the girls she has come to serve. “Farheen is empowering a new generation of girls,” gushed Ms. Pender. “She’s an amazing role model … shap[ing] how the girls see their role in the community – the power and voice they can have.”
And it’s true. The girls I met from the film are enthusiastic about life, about the power of their voice, as well as a future that Hodo Ibrahim, age 14, described as “beautiful and bright.” Such optimism helps foster creativity, courage, and success.
I was able to shadow two additional girls from “Bismillah”, Mary Metchnnek, age 15, and Ayan Deria, age 16, as they traversed their Cedar-Riverside community of downtown Minneapolis – dubbed by locals as Little Mogadishu.
Starting from the Brian Coyle Center of the University of Minnesota where Somali children of all ages worked on computers, talked music, and played basketball, we moved through the inner-city landmark of Cedar-Riverside Plazas, a low-income housing set of buildings – all colorful beyond belief – which have been reclaimed from a once drug/gang infested stronghold. “You used to not be able to enter that area,” explained Ms. Hakeem, who ran for City of Minneapolis Mayor back in 2005 under the Green Party banner. “But now you can walk around freely, even at 10pm at night. When the Somali refugees began to arrive, they naturally moved into the least expensive section of town – Cedar-Riverside.”
As I entered the neighborhood to meet Ms. Hakeem and the girls, my taxi driver, Hassan Mohamed, age 25, explained how this is so. “We [as Somalis] get along in America … when we came to America we are very helpful to each other and other people too … Back in Somalia it’s all about tribes and every tribe wants to be the president. But here [in Minneapolis] we put the tribes to the side – to come together.”
Part of learning about pride in your community comes from actively pitching in to help it out. As we moved along the streets and under the bridges, Ayan and Mary introduced me to their latest community project – a mural of Minneapolis they are working on in conjunction with “Articulture”. Here, Executive Director Elizabeth Greenbaum explained that when it comes to at-risk kids mixed with art, “art is a wonderful equalizer, especially for students who don’t succeed in other subject matters. When you think about it and take it a step further, we’re talking about the basic understanding and the basic concepts to write – and that leads into reading and that leads into learning – so [the] arts are very much orientated to learning on all levels.”
When asked what the mural of Minneapolis she was busy working on meant to her personally, Ayan smiled broadly before exhorting, “I guess I’m proud of it because we worked on it for months and I feel really great looking at it.”
Adjacent to Articulture is Jim’s Barber Shop, who between himself and his father, have manned the shop for the past fifty years. I asked Jim what he thought about the mural, now bordering one side of the building his shop inhabits. Without thinking, he simply said, “I think it’s a great idea. I’m very impressed with the groups of people who go there.” When asked how the old-school, predominately German and Swedish community is adapting to the large influx of Somali refugees, Jim thought before explaining, “While most people are okay with it, overall I think a lot of the seniors aren’t adapting.” Although he was quick to point out that after all, these same old timers had once been immigrants as well.
Part of a journey is looking back, as with Somali immigrant and political refugee Safia Wardere who, along with her husband, took part in the physical journey to America back in 1993. While for the next generation of Somali-Americans, like unto Safia’s daughter, Shachi Hussin, age 13, the journey is two-fold: one foot here and now meets the next step firmly planted in an American-based future – a future that is indeed both beautiful and bright.