Abdilahi Hassan gives interview after interview in Hoyo’s Kitchen, his Somali restaurant, trying to speak for an entire community and beat back negative stereotypes in the wake of another attack by an apparently self-radicalized Muslim.
“One person can affect the whole community. For all the progress and success stories coming out, that one incident will tarnish all of that,” he said. “We’re all affected by it. All of us.”
The 28-year-old Ohio State University alumnus seems at ease but is not. “This type of exposure is not going to be good for me,” he said. “I’ll be a target here.”
Hassan fears he won’t be the only one singled out. Roughly 100,000 Muslims call central Ohio home — somewhere between 45,000 and 70,000 of whom are of Somali heritage. It is the second largest Somali population in the United States, behind the Minnesota Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“Somalis are naturally nomadic. We go where the grass is greener but we found a home in Columbus,” said Hassan, whose parents left Somalia for college and stayed once civil war broke out back home. “Columbus sucks you in. People have laid roots here in Columbus and they don’t plan on leaving.”
As Hassan talks, the television nightly news flashes images of attacker Abdul Razak Ali Artan and interviews with his neighbors and victims.
Authorities are still searching for a motive for why Artan drove a silver Honda registered to his brother onto a crowded sidewalk on the OSU campus Monday morning and began swinging a knife at anyone who came into his path. Eleven people — most of them students — were injured before OSU Police Officer Alan Horujko, 28 and on the force for less than two years, shot Artan dead. Police say the officer used deadly force after Artan ignored multiple commands to drop his weapon.
The next day, ISIS took credit for the attack, though the FBI says it has no evidence Islamic militants were involved. Federal authorities are still working to authenticate that a self-radicalized statement posted to Facebook the morning of the attack came from Artan.
The attack sent convulsions of concern and fear through central Ohio’s Muslim and Somali communities, who are nearly uniform in their efforts to stay out of the public eye. Hassan put aside his own reluctance to speak to the media, he said, because he believes “people got to hear from the community.”
Hassan opened Hoyo’s Kitchen two years ago, nestled into a strip mall beside Italian, Vietnamese, Brazilian and Irish pubs and restaurants. Hoyo’s means “mom’s” in Somali — and everyone loves their mom’s cooking, he said.
Of his fellow Somali-Americans, he said, “We want to live in peace, we want to contribute to society, we want to pay our taxes and have a piece of the American Dream. There are bad apples in every community. We don’t condone violence.”
The Somali Student Association at OSU condemned the attack and said it has no affiliation with Artan. Beyond its written statement, though, Somali students at OSU turned away interview requests from reporters.
A Pakistani-American Muslim and OSU student said she would speak only on the condition her name not be used, saying she is fearful of harassment and backlash. The sophomore said her heart sank as soon as she heard of the attacker’s background – a Somali refugee and a Muslim.
“When I heard about it,” she said, “it was an immediate feeling of ‘Oh, no!’”
She said she is grateful to police officer Horujko and his quick response. With him in mind, she posted a quote from the Quran on a poster wall at the Ohio Union this week: “Whoever kills a person unjustly, it is though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a person, it as though he has saved all mankind.”
She condemned the attack but added, “If someone were to do the same thing and he were a white Christian, it would never be attributed to the fact that he is a white Christian.”
Indeed, some Columbus area Muslims brought up Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old on trial for the murder of black congregants at a South Carolina church last year. The fact that Roof attended a Christian church doesn’t get much media play, they noted.
Roala Allouch, board chair of the national Council on American Islamic Relations, said in the wake of the OSU attack: “Really, the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the nation and the world are peaceful, serving the communities in different ways. The acts of a very, very small minority don’t and should not speak for and represent the vast majority of the rest of us.”
A welcoming place
Columbus rolled out the welcome mat to Somali refugees fleeing the civil war in 1991. It triggered two waves of immigration – those who settled here via government sponsored programs and those who later came to join family members.
Word spread of Columbus as a welcoming place with affordable housing and a strong job market. The more Somalis who moved here, the more who opened restaurants and businesses that serve the immigrants. Entire apartment complexes on the west and north sides are largely occupied by Somali refugees, who typically have tight-knit families that average eight members. It is common for Somali families to take in newly arrived refugees — again, a large family — until they can get an apartment in the same complex.
Tucked away in strip malls in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods are businesses that cater to Somali refugees: restaurants, immigration attorneys, doctors, money transfer agencies, coffee shops and storefronts that sell traditional clothing.
A welcoming community is very important for refugees’ integration, said Sarah Lyons-Padilla, a cultural psychologist at Stanford University who researches intercultural conflict and motivations behind terrorism.
“Ensuring successful integration of Somali refugees means more than encouraging them to forge an American identity. It means making space for people to maintain their own cultural customs, traditions, and community ties,” she said.
Research shows people who become radicalized may be looking for significance or meaning in their lives, which is often linked to feeling like you belong, she said.
Somali-American Abdi Diini, 31, who owns a home health care agency, said he visited cousins in Columbus years ago, “fell in love with the city,” and moved here.
He grew up in Somalia but spent five years in refugee camps in Kenya in the early 1990s before his family resettled in northern Virginia. He described the camps as “hell” — no running water or electricity, not enough food. “It was probably the most difficult years of my life.”
Diini said he is frustrated by attacks like those carried out by Artan. Refugees taken in by America and given opportunities, should be even more loyal and patriotic to this country, he said.
“We believe that one can be religious. One can also be a patriot,” said Diini, who said he gained American citizenship in time to vote in the 2008 elections. “We are Americans and we are grateful for the opportunities that we have in this country.”
Suspected terrorism incidents
The attack carried out by Artan is the second in central Ohio in less than a year. In February, Mohamed Barry, a native of West Africa, injured four people in an attack at a Columbus area restaurant. Barry, who was killed by police, attacked with a machete in an apparent case of lone-wolf terrorism.
Other suspected terrorism cases too have had ties to Columbus:
- In June 2004 Somali-born Nuradin Abdi was arrested over a plot to blow up a Columbus area shopping mall.
- In 2009 American-born Christopher Paul was sentenced to prison after he pleaded guilty to terrorism acts.
- In June 2011 a federal court in Minnesota indicted Ahmed Hussein Mahamud, a Somali American who lived Franklin County, on terrorist charges.
- In April 2015, Abdiraham Sheik Mohamud of Columbus was indicted on federal charges that he provided material support to terrorists in Syria — his case is still pending.
- A brother and sister who graduated from Columbus Metro High School were reported to be radicalized and fighting on the front lines of Syria, according to an NBC News report in May 2016.
- In November 2016, federal authorities arrested Aaron T. Daniels on the belief that he was heading to Libya to join ISIS.
After the 9/11 attacks in 2001 brought terrorism to Americans’ front door steps, many have taken a dimmer view of cities that welcome refugees. In the past 15 years, attacks and attempted terrorism in the U.S. and around the world — including difficult-to-predict lone wolf strikes — have intensified worries, particularly in cities with large populations of immigrants from politically unstable nations.
Somalia definitely qualifies: President Obama last week expanded the legal scope of war against Al Qaeda to include Shabab, an Islamist militant group based in Somalia.
Throughout much of the last year and a half, President-elect Donald Trump has promised to take a tough line on immigration, saying at one point he would ban Muslim travel to the U.S. and institute “extreme vetting” for potential immigrants as a way to weed out Islamic extremists.
The animosity by some toward Muslim immigrants was on display last week following the attack at Ohio State. When this newspaper live-streamed a press conference held by the Council on American Islamic Relations-Ohio, nearly 800 viewers responded to the video, many with negative comments.
“Muslims are the scumbag trouble makers, looking to change our beliefs of our country along with some others,” said one. “Go home you pieces of trash. You are not welcomed here.”
Zerqa Abid and Dorothy Hassan say they try to prevent radicalization of the Muslim immigrant population in Columbus through grassroots outreach and civic engagement of Muslim youths and their families. The two run My Project USA, a non-profit that offers a food pantry, thrift shop, soup kitchen, youth outreach and training and other services.
My Project USA’s storefront is less than two miles from Artan’s townhouse. Abid said her strategy to prevent self-radicalization is to engage Muslim youth in the Columbus community, through service projects and training. In January, My Project USA hosted a training for 150 young Muslims on how to recognize radical messages from ISIS, why they don’t represent the Islamic faith and how to counter those messages, Abid said.
While candlelight vigils held in wake of the OSU attack have a purpose, Abid said refugee families need support beyond that. “Unless you feed a child or hug a mom, it’s not going to make a difference on the ground for people who are desperate for help,” said Abid, a Pakistani-American.
There are signs of support for Somalis here even amid the worries about a backlash because of the OSU attack.
Nikki Ore of Bexley brought her daughter to Hoyo’s Kitchen, she said, to “let them know they have friends here.”
“You put your money where your mouth and heart are,” she said.