Somali American Family Pays A Price For Cooperation With The FBI

Nov 20, 2019
Originally published on November 20, 2019 10:55 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the next few years, around a hundred prisoners convicted of terrorism-related charges are scheduled for release across the country. They were part of a wave of arrests that were made after 9/11, the beginning of the so-called war on terror. As they finish up their sentences, many face complicated homecomings. NPR's Hannah Allam has the story of one family from Minnesota.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Everywhere Deqa Hussen goes, the whispers follow. She hears them at the mall, at weddings - pretty much any gathering place for Minnesota's large Somali American community.

DEQA HUSSEN: Some people - there was a lady who was asking me a week ago - I swear to God, she came to my face. She say, hey, I just want to ask you one question. I said, what? She said, are you FBI? You work for the FBI? I said, no, I'm not FBI. I don't work for the FBI.

ALLAM: Liars, snitches, FBI informants - those labels have turned Deqa's family into outcasts in Somali immigrant society. The reason? Deqa's son, Abdirizak Warsame, was among nine young men from the Twin Cities who sought to travel to Syria to join ISIS. The FBI disrupted their plot and slapped them with serious terrorism charges. Each man faced a decision - to cooperate with the feds or not.

HUSSEN: A lot of people in the community - they are mad because he tell the truth.

ALLAM: Deqa's son, Abdirizak, helped prosecutors and appeared on "60 Minutes," denouncing ISIS. In exchange, he got a break on sentencing. Some of his co-defendants ended up with 30-plus years in prison. Abdirizak got 30 months. He was released over the summer but still lives under strict conditions. He wasn't allowed to be interviewed. His mom, Deqa, is always reminding him not to squander his second chance.

HUSSEN: You accept your mistakes. Guess what. You're out today. Just follow the rules, you know? Don't mess up your probation status. Follow the rules.

ALLAM: But in the Somali community, Deqa says, there is a different set of rules. Her family has broken them. For her son, it's the unforgivable act of helping prosecutors in a case that many Somalis see as overreach. They say the government came down too hard on recent high school grads with no criminal history. Deqa sympathizes with their pain but says it's not fair to blame her family.

HUSSEN: I did pay the price. I still pay the price. They still calling me snitch. They still calling me like I'm a bad person. They wish me dead.

ANDY LUGER: As long as there are voices that seek to penalize anyone who works with the government, then that is going to survive.

ALLAM: That's Andy Luger, the former U.S. attorney for Minnesota who led the prosecution. He's now out of office, but he saw firsthand how difficult these conversations can be. Luger remembers a meeting where 125 Somali mothers and grandmothers sat face-to-face with police and federal authorities.

LUGER: I said to them - I said, there are voices in the community that don't want you talking to us. What do you say to them? And a grandmother raised her hand and she said, we're here. We're talking. So does that mean Deqa and her son won't be ostracized by many? No. But that's the flip side. That's the other side.

ALLAM: Deqa says her son, Abdirizak, is doing well. He works. He comes home. She says he doesn't trust anyone. He apologizes a lot for what he's put the family through. Deqa says he already feels so guilty that she can't bring herself to tell him how bad the backlash has gotten. She didn't tell her son that she was on the dance floor at a wedding recently when another guest stared and made a throat-slitting gesture. Deqa says it's no longer just painful. It's scary.

HUSSEN: It's gone too far. It has been four years. I cannot take any more. I mean, I cannot - I can't take any more.

ALLAM: Some days, she considers filing a harassment complaint. Other days, she meets with real estate agents. Deqa says after nearly 25 years in the Twin Cities, maybe it's time to go.

Hannah Allam, NPR News, Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.