Mohamed Mohamud seethed as educators told him his son was failing his classes in 2007. He questioned why he hadn’t been alerted until April. He threatened a lawsuit.
But the brunt of Mohamud’s anger — all the more bitter because he worked as a teacher — he directed at himself.
“You have failed your kid,” he told himself. “You are educated; you can afford a tutor. Who will help a single mother of six who doesn’t speak English?”
That day, Mohamud conceived a nonprofit that would answer that question. He has since grown his Somali American Parent Association (SAPA) into one of the largest East African nonprofits in the state. Today, in his pinstriped suit and tie, he paints a painfully personal contrast for his staff on the power of hands-on parenting: the illiterate single mother who saw all six of her kids go to college, and Mohamud himself, with his master’s degree, who watched his two sons flailing in his new homeland.
The past two years have been pivotal: Riding new interest in Somali community investments by philanthropists and public officials, SAPA almost tripled its budget. Meanwhile, Mohamud drew criticism after stepping to the forefront of a federal pilot project to prevent radical recruitment.
Mohamud got his first school job two months after arriving in Minnesota in 1997, as a parent liaison in a Minneapolis elementary. He had left Somalia before the civil war and spent 17 years in Saudi Arabia working for a United Kingdom management company.
He started on a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls and would later pursue coursework for his teaching license at Hamline University. Then, tragedy struck: His wife died of complications from diabetes. Mohamud became the single father of two young boys. He resolved to stay focused on his job and studies.
He got his first teaching job at Edison High School in Minneapolis, where the number of Somali families was on the rise. Larry Lucio, the principal at the time, recalled Mohamud juggling teaching with an informal role as counselor and social worker. He launched a student group that helped blunt tensions between Somali and African-American students. He could summon Somali parents to the school within the hour; he visited their homes to follow up.
Some colleagues complained that work was a distraction from teaching, that he and other Somali teachers had come to run the school. But, Lucio said, “It was clear he was really dedicated to his community.”
Still, Mohamud’s sons struggled. His older son acted out at Edison. Then came that April call about the younger son’s academics in a suburban high school. At first, Mohamud blamed the educators, for assuming he was an uneducated refugee. Deep down, he blamed himself.
“I chose my progress and education over the progress and education of my kids,” he said.
‘You can always help’
On a recent Tuesday morning, Mohamud stopped by to meet a group of Somali mothers taking a SAPA class for recent refugee arrivals.
“If you can’t speak or write English, can you help your kids?” he asked the women in Somali.
They glanced at their notebooks and hesitated.
“Yes, you can always help,” Mohamud said. “Just talk with your kids. Sit with them. Don’t trust that they did their homework.”
Mohamud started working on SAPA the year after his teaching position was cut. The modest budget the first couple of years came from his 401(k). Gradually, small grants and contracts arrived. There were ups and downs: The Minneapolis district discontinued SAPA and other tutoring programs after a review failed to show enough improvement in reading and math.
Last year was a turning point: Thanks to a grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and support from private foundations, SAPA’s budget jumped from $192,000 in 2014 to $553,000. Mohamud now makes about $55,000 a year.
Supporters say while other immigrant nonprofits remain “suitcase organizations” — with makeshift operations and vague missions — SAPA carved out a niche in helping refugee families navigate the schools. It is not immune to the deep mistrust of nonprofits and their leaders. But, said fellow community leader Jibril Afyare, “As an elder, Mohamed is well-respected and well-listened-to.”
At the Minneapolis Foundation, which gave SAPA a $30,000 grant this year, Patrice Relerford said she was impressed by its leanness and deep community ties; the nonprofit exceeded a goal of training 150 parents with the grant this year.
Juweria Ali, one of the mothers in that recent training, said she used to pull double shifts at a meatpacking plant. The training taught her to take time to supervise homework even if she didn’t understand the assignments fully and to ask questions about her three children’s learning.
Mohamud is known for unvarnished talk. He has criticized East African parents for spoiling their boys even as they set high expectations for girls. He accuses a growing class of Somali-American professionals of not giving enough back to the community. And he talks freely about his regrets as a parent.
Mohamud’s younger son dropped out of high school and had brushes with the law. Feeling adrift after high school, Mohamud’s older son decided to travel to Somalia. He learned about his roots, including a grandfather renowned for his charity.
“He found what many Somali youth in Minnesota are lacking — a sense of identity,” Mohamud said.
But in late 2014, the 23-year-old was on a bus that was stopped at an army checkpoint. He argued with a soldier who demanded to inspect his documents and walked away. He was shot to death.
Unfazed by criticism
Mohamud said his preoccupation with the identity search of Somali-American boys led him to SAPA’s latest and most controversial initiative. As U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger’s office prosecuted nine Twin Cities men who tried to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, it also launched a pilot project to prevent radical recruitment. Last spring, SAPA, along with nonprofit Ka Joog, won an $85,000 grant — among a slew of nonprofits that received $300,000 in youth engagement grants.
Community critics have said the pilot project casts young Somalis as a threat and could help the government keep tabs on them. On social media and elsewhere, they circulated a flier with the nonprofits’ logos that reads, “Warning: The following organizations are participating in a federal entrapment and surveillance initiative.”
Filsan Ibrahim, a community activist, said she feels the “tainted money” damaged the organizations’ credibility.
“I do feel for the nonprofits taking the money,” she said. “They need the money. But they are selling out our youth for an opportunity to enhance their agendas.”
Mohamud dismissed the idea that his program is a front for spying. Terror recruiters are using the internet to prey on immigrant youth grasping for a sense of identity, he said. At the Cedar-Riverside high-rises, SAPA adapted its parent training to add a session on monitoring children’s online activity.
But Mohamud said mistrust of the program made it harder to assemble a group of parents. He doesn’t know what partner Ka Joog, which did not respond to questions, is doing.
Mohamud seems unfazed by the criticism. In his early 60s and a new grandparent, he says he has no plans to retire. He dreams of opening a community center to house parent trainings, tutoring and wellness programs.
“My mission is to reach the majority of East African parents and train them,” he said.