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Minnesota Somali group says rejecting federal grant was right

MINNEAPOLIS — The leaders of a Minnesota nonprofit that works to improve the lives of young Somalis knew the stakes were high when they rejected $500,000 in federal funding earlier this month.

Eighty students who were expected to go through a career mentoring and job placement program over the next two years now might not get the chance. Workshops designed to help hundreds of Somali parents might have to be cancelled. And plays meant to get people talking about difficult topics may have to be scaled back.

Still, Ka Joog is proud of its decision. The group was among several U.S. nonprofits that rejected federal grant money designed to counter violent extremism, citing actions and statements made by President Donald Trump that they view as anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, including the ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries that he tried to impose.

Ka Joog is planning an April fundraising event to try to make up for the half-million dollars it turned down, in hopes that it can expand its programs as planned to help as many young people as possible.

“This money would have impacted Ka Joog and the community and young people in so many ways,” said executive director Mohamed Farah. “But it’s not about the money, to be honest. It’s about the principle and about what we stand for, and that’s priceless.”

The name Ka Joog is Somali for “stay away” and is symbolic of the group’s message: Stay away from negative influences of drugs, violence and radicalism and keep your life on a positive track by attaining higher education and serving your community. The group hosts fun activities, such as arts events, barbeques and wilderness experiences, as well as serious forums that give young Somalis a platform to share their opinions.

Though the group wasn’t started specifically to combat terrorism, its programming to keep kids engaged has been welcome in Minnesota, which has the largest Somali population in the U.S. and has been a target for terror recruiters. Since 2007, roughly three dozen young Somalis have left the state to join militant groups in Somalia or Syria.

Farah said Ka Joog served about 500 young Somalis last fiscal year, up from about 330 the year before. Most were between the ages of 12 and 24, though it serves younger children as well.

Ka Joog relies on donations, and aside from a handful of paid staffers, most of its workers are volunteers. The federal grant — $250,000 in each of the next two years — would have comprised a large part of its operating budget, which was $423,260 for the fiscal year that ended July 31, Farah said.

Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, said it’s rare for groups to turn down grants. In most cases, groups simply don’t apply for grants that might pose a conflict. But in this case, a change of national leadership came in the middle of the funding process, he said.

“When it comes to government funding, there’s an old saying, ‘If you take the king’s shillings, you do the king’s billing.’ Sometimes there are conditions attached to something that organizations do not want to accept,” he said. “It’s a lost financial opportunity, but probably the right decision in terms of serving their community.”

Farah said there were no conditions attached to this money, which was part of $10 million awarded nationwide from the Department of Homeland Security to counter violent extremism. The money was awarded shortly before President Barack Obama left office, but had not been distributed.

Farah said his group had planned to use the money to expand programs it already operates and to reach even more people in need. The funds were destined for three programs: a career mentoring program, which helps place students in jobs; a parent-engagement program designed to strengthen families, and the arts.

Farah said that last year, 25 students applied to participate in the career mentoring program, but Ka Joog only had funding for 18. Because of the increasing need, Ka Joog planned to use the federal money to expand the program to help 80 students overall — 40 in each of the next two years. Nearly 30 have already applied for this year, and Farah said unless money can be raised, Ka Joog will have to tell them that the money isn’t there for them to participate.

Still, he’s confident, and said donations have been coming in from around the country since the group announced it would reject the federal funding.

“We are going to get that 500,000 back one way or the other,” he said. “We believe that this White House is really against everything that we stand for. We thought it was best for us to really stay away.”

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