When Ahlaam Ibraahim’s cousin was killed in a drive-by shooting last summer as he was leaving the funeral of another friend who’d also been gunned down, she knew her community had a problem.
Shootings in Seattle increased more than 33 percent through the first half of this year, with police attributing many new incidents to feuding gangs of young East Africans.
“It’s sad that these parents immigrated because their lives were in danger from wars and violence, so they expect their kids to go to school and have opportunities they didn’t have,” said Ibraahim. “Instead the kids are part of the very thing they left their countries [to escape].”
For older Somali Americans who made their way to the Northwest as refugees fleeing civil war, it seems like success should come easy for youth raised in this new, safer environment. But many in the community say they see a disconnect between parents and children. Youth feel constrained by the expectations of what feels to them like a foreign culture, and parents are frustrated by the outsized influence that their new home has on their children’s lives.
For community leader Ubah Warsame, this generation gap boils down to communication.
“Children here have a voice and can stand up to their parents and say ‘no’ to what they are told,” said Warsame. “Back home, that was a big no-no. You are expected to keep your opinions to yourself.”
According to Ibraahim, who is a senior at Rainier Beach High School, one aspect of this gap is the pressure that parents tend to put on their children to pursue a limited scope of high-salary careers: medicine, law and engineering,
“Say a Somali teenager wants to grow up to be a hooper or a writer, their parents will quash their desire, and the kid will turn to drugs and gangs because he has no hope of pursuing his dreams,” she said.
Of course, not all the blame falls on parents’ shoulders, Ibrahim said, and youth who take to the streets hurt not just themselves, but their families as well.
“Parents are in denial of the issue, and think America is what’s destroying their families.”
Warsame says conversations about young East African men getting shot and especially “locked up” are common in their community. The rise in violence lead her to organize an event in South Seattle last month that brought parents and children together to discuss the generation gap and how to tackle it.
The goal of the meeting, held at the New Holly Gathering Hall on October 31st, was to open up dialogue.
For youth, Warsame said the challenge is to get them to understand and appreciate their parents’ background as immigrants and refugees, and the values they are trying to raise them with. Parents, she said, need to learn how to listen to their kids’ needs and feelings, and then talk to them in a way that they’ll want to listen.
“Parents are in denial of the issue, and think America is what’s destroying their families,” Warsame explained. “The environment is just different — not bad. Our expectations just need to adjust.”
Companion Athletics is another program working to address the generation gap. The non-profit organization runs a basketball league for young East African Muslims to give them a productive way to spend their free time.
Chairman Ayanle Abdikarim said the weekend tournaments between teams from North Seattle down to Kent serve to promote integration. While soccer is the sport of choice for many in the older generation, boys raised in the U.S. have gravitated toward basketball.
“[The games] help parents understand that their children enjoy the positive things that America has to offer, and they can help them stay away from things that don’t fit their culture,” he said.
Abdikarim is also working with a committee of East African mothers to encourage civic engagement and parental involvement in schools. Stats show that nearly 4000 students (7.4%) in the Seattle Public Schools speak East African languages like Somali, Amharic and Tigrinya. But many of those parents are coming from countries where there wasn’t a culture of PTAs or parent-teacher conferences.
Warsame says the dialogue meeting she organized is just a start, but if they can prevent just one or two youth from going to jail, she will consider it a success.
“But the issue is still a big elephant in the room,” she said. “We have a problem, and we can’t change anything until we admit we have a problem.