Silencing an Uppity Immigrant

When a mentally ill Somali man was shot and killed by police in March 2002, Omar Jamal was there. When a 66-year-old Somali was beaten to death at a bus stop in Oct. 2001 and the FBI was hesitating to investigate it as a hate crime, Omar Jamal was there. When brawls were breaking out between African-American students and Somalis at a large high school in Sept. 2001, Omar Jamal was there. And when the FBI began investigating Somali charities and currency transfer businesses after Sept. 11, he was there as well.

Jamal is currently facing federal criminal and civil charges that he gave false information on his immigration documents when he entered the country five years ago. If convicted, he would likely be ordered deported, though given the fact that there is currently a ban on deportations of Somali immigrants, he might find himself facing an indefinite stint in detention. The Department of Homeland Security and Attorney General John Ashcroft are still seeking the right to deport Somalis, with the war on terrorism bolstering their arguments.

Since he arrived in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area five years ago, Jamal has been an outspoken advocate for the nation's largest community of Somali immigrants. The 30-year-old immigrant, trained as a microbiologist, is the founder and executive director of the St. Paul-based Somali Justice Advocacy Center, which does pro bono legal work for Somali immigrants along with community organizing and activism.

There are an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Somalis in the Twin Cities, though the 2000 census lists only 11,164 in the state. Most came since the start of the civil war in Somalia 1991. There are substantial strips of Somali restaurants and bazaars, and many residents describe it as a welcoming place for Somali immigrants.

But as in most cities and towns with large immigrant populations, there are plenty of tensions and problems. In a metropolis which is 60 percent white, Somalis are not only African but Muslim as well, making them targets of racism and prejudice manifested in housing discrimination, hate crimes and police brutality. Somalis say the release of the movie Blackhawk Down, about the United States' ill-fated intervention in Mogadishu in 1993, noticeably added to the racism and misunderstanding they encountered from non-Somali residents.

Since Sept. 11 tensions have gotten much worse. The FBI investigated two Somali charities and the U.S. Treasury Department shut down a number of Somali currency transfer outfits because of supposed links to Al Qaeda.

"It's instilling a fear in the hearts of these people," Jamal said of the heavy FBI surveillance of the community several days after Sept. 11. "The Somali community are not terrorists. [This is] creating a witch hunt atmosphere."

Meanwhile most Somalis are afraid to become activists or join community organizations because of their experience in their homeland. There, to speak out or stand up for one's rights would often mean to be killed. So for Somali immigrants, Jamal was a lifesaver.

But as part of the war on terrorism crackdowns, Jamal's future in the city -- in fact his very life -- is in jeopardy and by extension, the whole Somali community is facing a serious blow to its well-being. The commuity would have to deal not only with the loss of Jamal as an advocate but with the chilling effect his prosecution will have on already gun-shy immigrants -- immigrants who by nature of their ethnicity and religion are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment and civil rights violations related to the war on terrorism.

If deported, Jamal, like most Somali refugees, would be in dire danger. Legally, immigrants can only be deported to countries which accept them, which would make a country without a functioning legitimate government like Somalia ineligible. Up until January of this year the INS had still been deporting Somalis, arguing that regardless of whether an immigrant is accepted by the government they could be deported to their country of birth.

In February 2002, 10 Somalis were deported to Mogadishu from Minnesota; there are currently about 2,000 Somalis around the country facing deportation. The January ban was the result of a class action suit involving five immigrants in the Seattle area and a case in Minneapolis involving a Somali named Keyse Jama, who had served a one-year jail sentence for third degree assault and was then ordered deported. Meanwhile, although the Supreme Court ruled in June 2001 that immigrants can't be held in detention indefinitely, close to 1,000 immigrants of different ethnicities still find themselves in that situation. Jamal's supporters hope he doesn't become one of them.

Jamal was arrested in early April and released on $6,500 bail with an electronic monitoring device after three days in jail. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security say he was arrested based on complaints by other members of the Somali community that he was "abusing the system" and using a false social security number.

His case is being heard in Memphis, Tenn., over a day's drive from the Twin Cities, making it an economic burden for Jamal himself to get to the hearings and making it virtually impossible for his local supporters to attend. Jamal is in the process of pleading not guilty and asking the case be moved to the Twin Cities. A defense committee has been set up in his name, largely to help him raise funds. On April 11, over 200 people rallied at a community center in Minneapolis to raise money and show support for Jamal.

"This is going to be a very long journey, this will not end overnight," Jamal told the Minneapolis Star Tribune after his arrest. "Now I'm going to work twice as hard to assure them that I will continue fighting for their legal and social issues."

"Somalis are one of the most traumatized immigrants groups to come to the U.S. from a country ravaged by civil war, disease, starvation, intertribal fighting," said Phil Steger of the group Friends for a Nonviolent World, which is the fiscal sponsor of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. "Here they have to adjust from a system of anarchy to one organized by laws. Jamal's is one of the organizations who have stepped in to help people make that transition." And there is no doubt he is outspoken.

After police shot and killed Abu Kassim Jeilani, the mentally ill man who was wielding a machete and a crowbar, Jamal told T.V. reporters that the city was becoming "a slaughterhouse for immigrants" and demanded the removal of the police chief. Later he met with police chief Robert Olson and the city instituted sensitivity training courses in Somali and Muslim culture for police officers and public housing security guards. Likewise at Roosevelt High School, where fights broke out between Somali and African-American students, the intervention of Jamal and other activists resulted in the formation of a Unity Group.

Speger said that Jamal's prosecution is having a huge ripple effect on the Somali community and dissident groups in general.

"For one thing, Jamal is just such a well-liked person who is genuinely caring about all the people he works with," said Speger. "Secondly, in addition to being well-liked, he's been incredibly important for us in stepping forward into the breach opened up by the PATRIOT Act to try to combat the impact it will have on us. Third, there's the broad implication of this action by the Department of Homeland Security which is really chilling. The DHS is doing this as a test case to see what the reaction will be when they do this to a civil rights spokesperson for a particularly embattled community." Speger added that in his view Jamal is the "only nationally recognized Somali spokesman," and his arrest came shortly after he had done a national speaking tour about human rights and issues facing the Somali community.

"Why him, and why now?" asked Speger. "There's a lot about this that sounds fishy. They're seeing if they can get away with this, and if they do, who knows what would be next. People are really nervous." Mahamoud Wardere, another Somali immigrant, is not one to criticize the United States or the government. He loves living in the Twin Cities; he is pleased that staff of former Sen. Paul Wellstone and current Sen. Norm Coleman have taken the time to meet with him; he has even run for mayor. "Minnesota is our home, we have restaurants, shops, we are politically active," he said. "Our students are doing great in the schools. Sometimes people here don't understand Somalis, but we are trying to educate them. The better they get to know us the more they like us."

But he says it is clear what is happening to Jamal: "The guy was outspoken, that's why he was investigated." Speger said the irony of it all is that Jamal was known for being a passionate believer in the U.S. Constitution.

"Jamal just has an extraordinary faith in the constitutional and legal system that exists in America," Speger said. "He's always trying to convince the Somali community that the way to work here is to organize, and that no harm will come to you if you stand up for yourself because you are protected by the Constitution. He's done an amazing job giving Somalis faith in this system. But now that faith is really threatened. [If he's deported] they'll say, 'Look, this is what we thought would happen. It's just like Somalia -- the big chiefs don't want you saying things they don't want to hear.'"

Kari Lydersen writes on Rights and Liberties issues for AlterNet.

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