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Minn. Somali man to record stories at refugee camp

MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota artist who fled Somalia as a child is returning to the refugee camp where he lived for five years to record the stories of people who are suffering from a devastating famine that has killed tens of thousands of children.

Abdifatah Farah is scheduled to leave Friday for the nine-day trip and admits he's a little nervous to return to the camp in Dadaab, Kenya. With hundreds of thousands of people, it's the largest refugee camp in the world. But he believes the power of their voices, the human voice, will bring change and raise awareness about the crisis in war-torn Somalia.

"You look at the media and you just see statistics," the 24-year-old Farah said. "A lot of these people's voices are taken away because of the issues they are going through. ... We want them to be heard."

Farah has spent years working with Somali youths in Minnesota, which is home to the largest Somali population in the U.S. The community has been inundated with negative news in recent years about gang violence and the travels of at least 21 young men who authorities believe returned to Somalia to fight with al-Shabab, which the U.S. considered a terrorist group.

But Farah is working to promote positive messages, encouraging young people to pursue college and reach their maximum potential. He hopes his latest project helps promote the overall goal: peace in Somalia. The trip has already inspired some.


"It is very encouraging. ... This is compassion, enthusiasm, coming from young guys," said Omar Jamal, a longtime advocate for Minnesota's Somali community and first secretary for the Somali mission to the United Nations. "This is the opposite of the young guys recruited to join al-Shabab. Now you have an equal awakening from young guys that have a different mission and different goal in life."

Farah helped found Ka Joog, a Minneapolis-based group for Somali youths, in 2007, and is a senior at St. Cloud State University studying clinical psychology. He's also a spoken-word artist with Poet Nation, a multimedia website-based group that allows Somalis worldwide to share experiences through positive expression.

Matt Erickson, a managing partner of Poet Nation, helped come up with the idea for the video project after brainstorming with Farah — who is known by his stage name, Abdi Phenomenal — about how people in Minnesota could help.

"We thought, 'What do we do at Poet Nation? We make videos. We let people tell stories. So let's go there,'" said Erickson, who is going with Farah to Kenya. "Somalia is on the world's radar screen right now, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. We want to put a human face on it — give a voice to the voiceless."

In addition to recording the lives of refugees, Farah and Erickson will help aid workers hand out food in the Dadaab refugee camp. The camp was built in 1991 for 90,000 people but has swelled to more than 400,000 registered refugees because of Somalia's long-running civil war and the famine.

The U.S. contends that the famine has killed 29,000 Somali children younger than 5. The United Nations says more than 3.2 million Somalis need food aid.

Farah and Erickson hope to post videos to Poet Nation's website during the trip, and they plan to create a documentary when they return. The project will be called "Voices of Dadaab."

Farah left Somalia at the age of 3 and lived in the Dadaab camp for five years with his mother, his three brothers and one sister before he moved to the U.S. He lived in New York City for a few years then settled in Minnesota. He still has family in Somalia and knows many in the diaspora have relatives at Dadaab.


Farah believes that Somalis around the world are watching Minnesota's Somali community for cues on how to restore peace back home.

He said young people will play a powerful role in rebuilding Somalia. Many young Somalis in Minneapolis are having fundraisers for famine relief efforts and doing what they can to help.

"We might not have much in our pockets, but we have the will to make something happen, create change — and peace," Farah said.

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