Invisible Communities, Part 2: Fear Of Extremism Splits Manchester Somalis03:42

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Illegal immigration has gotten a lot of recent attention with the passage of Arizona’s controversial law. What often gets lost, however, is how immigration — legal and illegal — changes our country and our state. But few really know what goes on within these communities — to many, they are “invisible.” This is Part 2 of a WBUR Series: Invisible Communities.


MANCHESTER, N.H. — Muktar Idhow runs a new kids program at a city-owned multicultural center here in Manchester. Visiting on a Sunday afternoon, one might see about 30 Somali Bantu kids sitting around long tables. Girls and boys are separated, sitting youngest to oldest. Idhow holds a yard stick and passes out worksheets with multiplication problems to the fifth-grade boys. Some of the boys seem better at math than the adults in the room.

"You're so wrong! You're so wrong," yells one boy when Idhow challenges his answer. Idhow uses longhand to calculate the answer. "You're correct," he says. "I didn't know how you got it. 132. OK."

In the meantime, the oldest students — all girls wearing headscarves — learn how to speak Arabic and write their names in Somali. Their teacher is a young Somali Bantu man who's studying at the local community college.

"A-S-N-I..." the girls say in unison.

Mohammed Osman Mohammed (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)
Mohammed Osman Mohammed (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

On the other side of town, Mohammed Osman Mohammed — another Somali Bantu — lives on the first floor of a squat apartment building with his seven school-aged kids. The neighbors call this "the Somali building" because most of the tenants are Somali Bantus.

Inside the apartment, green floral fabric lines the living room walls. Mohammed and his wife have covered the carpet with a vinyl cover that looks like hard-wood flooring. Mohammed sits on this floor with his twin baby boys, kissing them and whistling to get their attention.

"Hello, Nasir! Anybody home?" he says as he pretends to talk on the telephone with one of the twins.

This is a new division of labor for a new home. Mohammed says if he were in Somalia he would take more wives. He complains that some Somali Bantus continue the practice here in secret. But he's interested in following the rules: anything to fit it and help his kids become American.

These two men — Mohammed and Idhow — have known each other for years. They're both Somali Bantus and both spent 15 years in the same refugee camp in Kenya. So it's a little surprising to hear that Mohammed thinks Idhow's program for kids promotes hatred toward Americans.

"I'm telling the people in Manchester to investigate this," Mohammed says through an interpreter. "But they are not investigating this. I think the FBI has to investigate this."

Essentially, Mohammed is accusing Idhow of running a "madrassa." In Arabic, the word "madrassa" simply means a Muslim religious school, but often in this country the term scares up images of a training ground for terrorists. So for someone like Mohammed Osman Mohammed to use it to describe a program on U.S. soil — and in public property — it gets a lot of attention.

I think that the differences are more about the Somali Bantu struggle to integrate. Some are finding more solace in their religion, some are embracing all that’s out there in our culture.

Kim Calhoun, school social worker

Idhow is offended by the accusation. "There (are) 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees brought to the United States, not one of those individuals has ever been blamed of doing any stuff like this," he says.

Idhow calls his program a "homework club." It's meant, he says, to help keep kids in school. And as for religion, there was no Qur'an in sight when I visited.

Idhow also has American supporters who think what he's doing is important. Dan Caligari is a former poltical consultant, but now he spends his days mentoring Idhow. He uses the phrase "enculturation process" to explain the program.

"(The program helps) them become citizens and responsible Americans as quickly as possible," Caligari says, "so they can be freed up to live a life that most Americans want to have — job, housing, health care, education."

But, to Mohammed, it doesn't make sense for him to send his kids to a program taught by other Somali Bantus who don't have teaching credentials or a curriculum. He's suspicious of teaching Somali and Arabic, saying that will slow down his kids' integration.

In many ways, he sounds like generations of immigrant parents who have rejected bilingual education for their kids, afraid they wouldn't learn English. But those parents didn't have the same "scare words" that Mohammed has — "madrassa," "terrorism".


"They are brainwashing the kids," Mohammed says, "telling the kids you can't go to the other after-school programs. They are teaching the kids not to go to the Catholic areas."

Muktar Idhow (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)
Muktar Idhow (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)

The fallout of this Mohammed-Idhow split on this community of 400 people is tremendous. Families no longer pool together their money to pay for funerals. And each side of the divide sends its children to different schools. They use different interpreters.

They both accuse the other of undercutting their role as a community leader. Idhow is disturbed by Mohammed's association with Somalis from a dominant clan living in Boston. He says the claim that he's running a madrassa must have come from those Boston-based Somalis.

"That was the only allegation they thought would create a tension between the Americans and the Bantus," Idhow says.

Idhow insists this is typical of the "tricks" he says Somalis play on each other. But he says he doesn't blame Mohammed. "It hurts him, too," he says. "It hurts every single Somali Bantu in Manchester."

Those who work with the Somali Bantus in Manchester worry how this dispute, and accusations of extremism, will affect their standing here.

Kim Calhoun is a school social worker in Manchester and says this division is typical of new refugee groups who are trying to establish themselves.

"I think that the differences are more about the Somali Bantu struggle to integrate," Calhoun says. "Some are finding more solace in their religion, some are embracing all that's out there in our culture."

Idhow says that in a year's time, he hopes everyone will see the results of his homework club: Somali Bantu kids with better grades, staying in school.

His rival, Mohammed, hopes that Idhow realizes that he's in America, and that it's important to embrace all that's American, including the education of Somali Bantu kids.

This program aired on May 11, 2010.