Breaking the Ice

Why would 11 brave Somali-American boys seek a sense of belonging in a place far outside their comfort zones, up in the Boundary Waters, in the middle of winter?

In partnership with guides from Wilderness Inquiry, the youth from Ka Joog experience a winter outdoor adventure, complete with dogsledding rides.

Photos by Alex Potter

The world outside the 15-passenger van is blindingly white. Snow blankets the forest floor, the white pine and birch trees, and falls from a phosphorescently bright, white sky. 

Inside, 11-year-old Saed Mohamed of Minneapolis presses his nose against the window. “How’d you know there’d be snow up here?” he asks the twentysomething wilderness guide at the wheel. Somewhat apprehensively, Saed zips his coat up to his chin and pulls his hat over his ears. Though he’s grown up in Minnesota, this is totally new territory for him.

Making a pit stop on the way to the YMCA’s Camp Menogyn

More than 300 miles north of the Twin Cities, a group of 11 Somali-Minnesotan boys, ages 7 to 14 years old, arrives in an expansive forest within the Boundary Waters. Cell phone signals drop, and the boys breathe collective sighs of discontent. The van parks at the edge of Bearskin Lake, one of 1,175 in the Boundary Waters that are now frozen solid, making the area less of a boundary and more of a bridge.

Building bridges is what has brought them up here in the first place. The group includes four guides from Wilderness Inquiry—a nearly 40-year-old, Minneapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to making the outdoors accessible for all, including people with disabilities and underserved youth—and two leaders from Ka Joog, a Somali youth advocacy group.

The group takes turns sledding

Ka Joog, which in Somali means “stop” or “stay away,” champions a simple goal that takes exhaustive work to execute: get Somali-Minnesotan youth outdoors, outside of their comfort zones, and speaking out about their experiences. In doing so, they hope the youth will feel less dislocated, less alienated from their non-Somali peers at school, and a greater sense of belonging.

 “If we don’t get involved, some of these young people will alienate themselves,” explains Ka Joog’s executive director Mohamed Farah. “They might get involved in gangs, recruitment, drugs, negative influences. They’re in the middle of an identity crisis, trying to be part of the American fabric, but also identifying as Somali and dealing with the pressure of being Muslim-American. We’re trying to help them be part of that American fabric without rejecting the identity they carry with them, which is rich.”

Ka Joog was founded in 2007, in light of fatal gang shootings within Minnesota’s Somali community and the first few Somali-Minnesotan youth to join al-Shabab, the militant group trying to overthrow Somalia’s government and enforce strict Sharia law. Since 2006, the FBI believes that between 30 and 40 Somali-Minnesotans have left the U.S. to fight for al-Shabab and ISIS, the violent militant group based in Syria and Iraq, which has become one of the world’s deadliest terrorist organizations. The most recent and polarizing case was that of the nine young Somali-Minnesotan men sentenced for up to 35 years in federal prison for conspiring to join ISIS in Syria and to commit murder abroad.

These individuals and their stories, however, hardly represent those of most Somali-American boys, and the more than 30,000 people of Somali heritage living in Minnesota. Mohamed Farah and Ka Joog are trying tirelessly to counter the extremist narrative by creating opportunities for these boys to create their own roots and stories here, in their home state.

Before hopping in the vans to go north, the boys prepare for the trip by rifling through boxes of gloves, hats, jackets, snow pants, and boots at Wilderness Inquiry’s headquarters in Dinkytown. Accessing Minnesota’s frozen wilds requires gear that can make innately Minnesotan pastimes prohibitively expensive, and most of the boys lack the requisite cold-weather infrastructure many locals take for granted.

All of the boys live in Minneapolis, St. Paul, or Eden Prairie, the three cities that are home to the largest Somali diaspora in Minnesota, the state with the largest Somali diaspora in the U.S. Today, one in three Americans with Somali ancestry live in Minnesota.

As first-generation Americans born to Somali immigrants, these boys are growing up belonging to multiple groups: American, Minnesotan, Somali, black, and Muslim. Juggling these identities, along with navigating boyhood and adolescence, family, community, and school expectations, can be extraordinary. “They’re put under a lot of pressure,” Mohamed Farah says. “We want them to be exposed to the same things young Americans are being exposed to, because they are American, and the kids in the group tend to identify first as Americans.”

As first-generation Americans born to Somali immigrants, Somali children grow up juggling multiple identities

One 13-year-old from Eden Prairie explains that he speaks only in English throughout the day, at school and among friends, switching to Somali when he goes home to his family. He has a diverse group of friends, but his heritage rarely comes up, with them or in class. “We don’t talk about it at school, and I don’t think most people are interested,” he says.

The boy assumes kids at school probably see him as Somali, first. “When I go home, everything is Somali,” he says. Almost all of the boys experience the significant cultural dichotomy between life at school and life outside of it that many children of new immigrants experience. After school, many of the youngest ones attend Somali-oriented day care centers, live in areas where their closest neighbors are also of Somali heritage, and participate in sports teams and clubs with other kids from Somali families. At home, their parents take pride in preserving their culture and teaching it to their children. At school, the boys say, this culture hardly comes up, doing little to assuage the divide between who they are at home and who they are among their peers.

Most of the boys have never left the Twin Cities, or traveled much within Minnesota. For Saed, it’s his first time venturing outside of Minneapolis and he has come, first and foremost, “to see the beautiful stars,” he has heard are so much more visible the further north one goes.

The boys stomp across Bearskin Lake with their pack sleds. Saed is so excited about the “Canoe Area” part of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and Canoe Area he sees written on a map that he forgets the lakes are iced over in the winter.

Trekking across Bearskin Lake

Most weekends, Saed and his 8-year-old brother, also on the trip, spend both Saturday and Sunday afternoons in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood studying the Quran, the Islamic holy book. They love their classes and they get to be around their friends, but they’re also curious about cabins. “There’s a guy in my class who’s always talking about his cabin and going to his cabin,” Saed says. “This is my first time at a camp. In the winter, I don’t really go outside much.”

The night before the trip, the boys went to Wal-Mart with their mom, Muna Muse, to buy gloves to wear in a territory that could not be further from the place she grew up. Muna is from Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, and came to the U.S. in 1995. She is raising her boys by herself and commutes daily to St. Paul to work as a janitor at Hamline University.

For most of the parents, the four-day separation from their kids is a new and worrisome experience. Save for school, religious classes, and day care, Muna’s boys are never apart from her. “I’m nervous for them,” she admits. “This is their first time away from home.”

The half-mile walk north across Bearskin Lake brings the group to the YMCA’s Camp Menogyn, and a giant, vaulted log cabin that will be home for the next four days. The boys shed their winter layers in a flurry before claiming bunks and challenging each other to matches at the ping-pong table. By nightfall, a few texts from parents have made it through to Mohamed Farah’s cell, checking on their children. He makes a call from the lodge’s landline and asks some of the boys to speak into the phone to reassure their parents.

The group arriving at YMCA’s Camp Menogyn

The next day is for dogsledding, which presents a very visceral cultural divide between the kids’ upbringing in the U.S. and that of their parents. There is historical aversion to dogs in Islam that today mostly just means  unfamiliarity with them. Mohamed explains this to one of the Wilderness Inquiry guides by saying that there are passages in the Quran that describe dogs as impure. Depending geographically on where Islam is practiced, a follower can be seen as less pious for owning and handling dogs.

The night before meeting the sled dogs, the boys are told that the parents have requested they not touch the dogs. But when the first half of the group heads down to the circle of small, square doghouses and rollicking barks, the barometer of curiosity rises.

“There’s a lot of Minnesotans born and raised in Minnesota that don’t get into this type of wilderness.”

One boy boldly steps forward and approaches the pack slowly, his hand hovering in midair, angled at a dog’s back. The dog turns and bows its head to the boy, who pats it with gentle tact.

When the boys hop on the sleds and the dogs take off running, the forest’s stillness is broken with barks, the boys’ laughter, and shouts from the mushers demanding left turns with “Haw” and right turns with “Gee.”

“There’s a lot of Minnesotans born and raised in Minnesota that don’t get into this type of wilderness,” a Ka Joog leader remarks while the sleds bolt into the distance. “They’re Minnesotan, more Minnesotan than most people I know,” he says. “At the same time, they’re raised with their heritage and their roots. Most of these kids are from urban families. Immigrant families. Most of their dads are probably back home, or not in their lives. It’s difficult to get a whole family here.”

At night the group eats like a family at long wooden tables. Mohamed and the Ka Joog leaders weave in and out of conversations with each other in Somali, and in English with the Wilderness Inquiry guides. In both languages, the Ka Joog leaders make liberal use of that token Minnesotan affirmation, “Oh yah,” throughout.

 Greg Lais, founder of Wilderness Inquiry, explains the impetus behind the partnership between his group and Ka Joog, which began in 2012 when they teamed up to take a group of Somali-Minnesotan boys to camp at Lake Elmo for three days. “For all kids, no matter where they come from, if they’re experiencing our public lands and seeing the richness and the beauty of those lands—especially if they can stop and think and can get the concept that they actually own those lands, as part of the public—I think that’s a huge connector, a big thing that helps them put in roots and think of themselves as a Minnesotan and as part of the fabric of this country.”

The joint trip to Lake Elmo was Mohamed Farah’s first experience in Minnesota’s natural world and, at 26 years old, his first time getting out of the metro core. “Coming from a Somali family as I was growing up, I never left home,” he says. “It’s not because my parents didn’t want me to leave, it’s because there wasn’t enough information. I didn’t know the resources around me. Now that I know some of these resources, we’re trying to provide resources to these kids.”

In his youth, Mohamed lived in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, the largest refugee camp in the world, before moving to New York City in 1995 with his family. When he was in ninth grade, his mom moved the family to Minneapolis, to be closer to relatives who had already settled here. “None of us wanted to move,” Mohamed recalls. “To me, this was sort of a very wilderness state. Now I cannot imagine going back to New York City.”

Since that first trip, Wilderness Inquiry and Ka Joog have made yearly excursions as far away as Yellowstone National Park, alternating taking groups of all boys or all girls to respect parents’ wishes.

During their last full day, the group hikes onto a peak overlooking Bearskin Lake and, with lungs full of cold air, everyone howls into the expanse above the trees. Later, they head to a tiny outdoor sauna along the shoreline, where the boys heat up inside, preparing to take turns jumping into a 4×5-foot hole in the ice.

A highlight of the trip includes a dramatic plunge into one of the frozen lakes (followed by a warm up in the sauna)

They’ve fallen on skis together, eaten their first s’mores together, sledded into trees and snow banks, laughed and persevered through snowball fights and unexpected windstorms. They have unburdened themselves of their parents’ fears, broken a few rules, grown and suffered together. This plunge into a natural ice bath will bring them to the pinnacle of all of that—it’s considered a rite of passage in the north woods, though one seldom experienced by even multi-generational Minnesotans. Hats and coats are abandoned and steam comes off the boys’ bodies as they run through the snow in nothing but shorts and t-shirts. One by one—scared, cold, shocked—they plunge beneath the surface, then suddenly burst upward, splashing wildly like fish in the water.