Saturday, November 20, 2010

Somali girls: Caught between two worlds

Somali girls: Caught between two worlds

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

As many as 40 percent of the 70,000 Somalis living in Minnesota are 18 years old or younger.

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

When Mohamed Barre heard the disturbing news about prostitution involving gangs and young Somali girls, his thoughts quickly turned to his daughters.

"They are lovely, American," he said softly of the 5-year-old twins, just starting to venture out into the world. "I'm really so worried."

Prostitution is a worst-case scenario. But in the wake of federal charges against 29 people accused of selling underage girls for sex, Somali parents and youth workers are getting more worried about the pressures facing girls.

Already fighting an internal war to hold on to their cultural identity in a new country, they can face situations at home far more tense than the usual mother-daughter conflicts. Some arrived here without their mothers but in the care of aunts, cousins and older sisters. Some resent the control of their surrogate parents. Others are treated more like servants than daughters. Programs to support Somali girls are so scarce that once away from home, they can quickly find trouble.

"This issue is bigger than that case," said Abdirahman Mukhtar, youth program manager at the Brian Coyle Community Center. "It's a youth crisis within the new immigrants."

Minnesota is home to an estimated 70,000 Somalis -- the largest Somali concentration in the country.

Generally speaking, Somali girls growing up in America are thriving. In the culture, parents often take a more protective attitude toward girls, believing that their reputation upholds the dignity of the family.

"Mothers and fathers keep more of an eye on them than the boys. It means most of them turn out well," said Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, who noted the large number of girls graduating from high school and attending college. "This parent obsession of preserving the purity of their daughters and the well-being of their daughters helps a lot."

But some girls aren't handling the pressures as well.

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