Somali kids’ program put on hold
By BETH LAMONTAGNE HALL
New Hampshire Union Leader
January 28, 2010
MANCHESTER—A federally funded weekend education program for Somali refugee children has been put on hold after allegations it was teaching Muslim doctrine.
Police Chief David Mara, Mayor Ted Gatsas and Superintendant of Schools Tom Brennan recently received a letter saying the Somali Bantu Community Association is teaching from the Quran during its weekend youth program.
Mukhtar Idhow, director of the group, said the program is not a religious school, but is a tutoring program for Somali children. The program is run through Southern New Hampshire Services and is housed at the city’s Multicultural Center on Maple Street.
The goal, Idhow said, is to raise graduation rates in the Somali community. The program will not meet this weekend and will be on hold until after the group speaks with city officials and decides whether to continue, he said.
Idhow and other local officials say the letter is part of an ongoing feud between the leaders of the Somali Bantu organization and the Somali Development Center, another nonprofit group that provides aid to local Somali refugees.
“There’s been a lot of rumors about bad blood between the different factions, said Dan Calegari of Southern New Hampshire Services. “I work with these people daily. There’s never even been any hint of religious activity … It really comes down to animosity between different segments of the Somali population.”
Mara said he also heard the letter was part of a feud and is working with the groups to address the rift within the Somali community.
“We’re trying to mediate, but we are not shutting out either group,” said Mara. “We’re doing our best to keep the animosity down to make sure this doesn’t turn into anything bigger.”
Somali Bantus, the descendants of African slaves, are a marginalized minority in Somalia that suffered greatly during the country’s civil war. Many were evicted from their farmland by other Somalis and fled to neighboring countries. Thousands of these refugees eventually made their way to the United States.
There is a language difference between Somalis and Bantu Somalis, said Idhow, which is how the rift all started. Because some Bantu refugees were more fluent in their own tribal language than Somali, the local elders thought it best to have a group that specifically served the Somali Bantu community.
Abdirahman A. Yusuf, director of the Somali Development Center’s regional office in Boston, said he believes the allegations have merit and should be investigated.
“Members of the community were concerned about actions that could divide the Somali community and the larger host community,” said Yusuf. “It’s something that should be looked into.”
Whatever disagreement exists between the groups is not ethnic, he said, but based on a previous, unrelated disagreement between the leaders of the two groups.
City officials said they are talking to members of the Somali Bantu group and looking into the allegations. Brennan said he has no reason to believe the independent program is teaching religion and has asked a department social worker to speak to the group.
Mara said he has referred any questions regarding the group’s grant to the federal agency in charge of its funding.