Police Report Increase In Somali Gang Violence

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Columbus Police report they see a definite increase in recent gang activity within the Somali Community. Columbus Police Department’s Strategic Response Bureau Commander Jeffrey Blackwell estimates fifty to one hundred Somali youths are involved in gang violence — but admits that the number could be higher.

Blackwell says those who immigrate to America at 17, 18, and 19 years old are just as much at risk as those who were born here or come here at a very young age. Blackwell says Somali youths join gangs for the same reasons as other young men.

“Obviously peer pressure is probably the first factor: the need to fit in, the need to belong, the need to be accepted. And quite frankly, in some of these neighborhoods, it’s very dangerous and unsafe, so they join gangs for safety, for protection. But then they also join gangs also as a means to make money,” says Blackwell.

Blackwell says that – while there are exclusively Somali gangs in Columbus – some Westernized Somali youths are joining more common street gangs, like the Bloods and the Crips. Blackwell says the Somali gang members have been involved in felony crimes such as drug dealing, weapons offenses, and robbery. He characterizes a lot of the crimes as common street violence.

“Home invasions, street robberies, street assaults, things like that. A lot of it is to just get credibility, but a lot of it now is to actually gain income. They’re becoming organized in an effort to make money,” says Blackwell.

Somali community leaders in Columbus admit gang violence IS on the rise, but they’re trying to reverse the trend.

At this classroom in the Somali Community Association of Ohio on Cleveland Avenue, seven students – six women and one young man – are learning English as a Second Language, or ESL.

The class is part of a program called the Somali Youth Venture. It’s geared to young people ages 16 to 21 who often have had little or no formal education. The Venture provides courses in E-S-L, mathematics, and computer science. The classes are free, and the goal of the program is help students pass the high school equivalency test.

Somali Community Association of Ohio President Hassan Omar created the program. Hassan says he knows gang violence is on the rise in the Somali community. He wants to create his own brand of peer pressure to encourage youths to educate and improve themselves.

“When we get a large number of kids who are out of school and become involved gang activity in the neighborhood, we tried to get a program that helps them, that educates them, and make their life better,” says Hassan.

One of the students in the class, 17-year-old Liban Ahmed, has only been in the United States for a year and a half. He’s one of many older Somali teenagers who spent time in refugee camps where there was little or no access to education. Ahmed says his English improved dramatically since he came to the US.

“The first time I came in America, I wasn’t speaking English. So I was zero at that time. Right now, I’m feeling good right now,” says Ahmed.

Ahmed says he’s taking advantage of the program because he wants to go on to Columbus State.

Other members of the Somali Community are stepping up to help as well. Abdulkadir Ali is the Chairman of the Somali-American Chamber of Commerce, based in Columbus. Ali founded a new organization called New Hope to help deal with the growing problem of gang violence – although the organization is still looking for funding. Ali says he wants to direct troubled youths towards something positive:

“A better life than just going gang-style. Whatever they’re doing now, it’s not actually something beneficial to our own communities, or their own families,” says Ali.

Columbus Police estimate 50 to 100 Somali youths are involved in gang violence.