Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribu
Tracing the roots of radicals
"Somalis need to tell our own stories," says an ex-radio journalist whose documentary about the young men who left Minneapolis to fight in Somalia is showing this week.
Since she was a little girl growing up in Somalia, Fathia Absie dreamed of moving to America and becoming a storyteller.
With equal parts moxie and luck, she has accomplished both goals. She smiles contentedly as she talks about this, just days before the premiere of her first documentary film.
"I'm kind of proud of myself," says Absie, 38.
A former radio journalist for Voice of America's Somali-language news service, she spent two years making "Broken Dreams." The film explores the radicalization of 20 or more young Minneapolis men of Somali descent who left the comforts of the United States to return to their war-torn homeland, where they are believed to have become foot soldiers for the terrorist group Al-Shabab.
Their disappearance sparked one of the largest federal counterterrorism investigations since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and drew intense media interest worldwide.
We caught up with Absie, who recently moved from Virginia to Minneapolis, to learn more about this bold new voice in the Twin Cities Somali community.
Q What brought you to Minneapolis?
A The No. 1 reason was I wanted to do documentaries. This is what I've always wanted to do ever since I was a little girl. So I wanted to be closer to where the community is. As you know, this is the largest Somali community in the country.
Q Why did you choose this particular story for your first film?
A I left Somalia in 1988. I was 15 years old then. ... I always wanted to come to America. I never wanted to go anywhere else.
That's why it felt so strange -- we had these young people who actually came here as babies and some of them were even born in refugee camps and didn't know anything about Somalia. They would leave all this and go back to a place that is now known to many as "no man's land." It really touched me and became sort of personal for me.
Q Did you ever find out why they chose to go back?
A No. At the beginning, people didn't even want to talk to me. Especially the young people were afraid ... because there was such a huge division between the community. So everybody was afraid that if they say something, they might say something bad about maybe Islam or maybe about another tribe. So everyone was very careful. But at the end of the day, the film is not only about the boys but it's about the entire community and what they went through.
Q How did this case affect the rest of the Somali-American community?
A Things have changed for Somalis. They feel like nothing is as easy as it used to be for them, whether it's getting services or getting certain looks in transit or being interrogated at the airports or their citizenship being put on hold. Not being able to fly out because their names match someone on the no-fly list. A lot of people tell me they feel like they constantly have to apologize for a crime that some lunatic has committed.
Q What challenges, if any, did you face as a woman making this film?
A I am so shocked at how advanced the Somali religious people are, especially the imams and the sheikhs. The hardest part was dealing with the average people. I consider myself westernized. I'm a proud Somali Muslim-American. I like to think of myself as someone who is well-rounded and has the best of both worlds. But I don't wear the hijab. That was a big problem because everyone would say, "Why don't you cover your hair?"
Q You're pretty outspoken. Does that ever get you into trouble?
A Yes, it does. You pretty much look like you're the odd one out. I cannot just be quiet about some things.
Q What's your next project?
A A documentary about Somali women, in general, from the first Somali females who were allowed to go to school. There are three or four who are still alive. I'm planning to go to the refugee camps and to different parts of the diaspora to interview Somali women who made a difference in the lives of Somalis. Because without Somali women, Somalis would not have survived as much as we have. It's the Somali women who send the money, the ones who struggle to maintain a decent life.
Then I have the famous Somali poet, who died of love, which is going to be a movie.
God willing, I'll have a busy but lovely year ahead of me.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488