Young adults lobby for change: The Ogaden Youth Network

ogaden+youth+093

By Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva
TC Daily Planet
February 26, 2008

Hodan Dualeh has never set foot in the Ogaden, but her passion for the land and people could not be stronger. Dualeh is president of the Ogaden Youth Network (OYN), a youth group from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.

“Our aim is to change U.S. foreign policy specifically as concerns the Ogaden,” Dualeh said, using the gestures of a politician to help get her point across. “That is really the main objective, whether it’s though lobbying or through education,”

The Ogaden is a large desert in eastern Ethiopia. Most of its residents are ethnically Somali and speak Somali. The Ethiopian government has a record of perpetrating human rights abuses in the region, mainly through the military. This treatment has caused local groups to develop their own rebel militia. The conflict between militia groups and the military continues to ravage the region.

According to the Minnesota state demographer’s office, it is difficult to tell exactly how large Minnesota’s Ogaden community is, because it is not identified as a separate category. Most Ogadanians count themselves as Somali instead of Ethiopian, which further complicates the figures. Members of the OYN estimate the number to be more than 15,000.

For more information on the current situation in the Ogaden
see this article and video in the New York Times.

Dualeh never actually lived in the Ogaden. Her mother was born there but fled to Somalia, where Dualeh was born in 1981. They moved to Kenya in 1991 and then came to Minnesota in 1996, where Dualeh attended the School for Environmental Studies in Eagan. She went on to major in biology at the University of Minnesota and is pursuing coursework in epidemiology. There are about 30 core members of OYN like Dualeh. Most were educated in American high schools and are now in college, have graduated, or are working to save money for postsecondary education.

These young adults founded the OYN in June 2005. In 2006, they raised funds for drought relief in the Ogaden region, and organized a national Ogaden youth conference at St. Thomas University, where 600 people gathered. The second annual conference will be held this August in San Diego.

Besides preparing the upcoming conference, the OYN is lobbying in Minnesota and in Washington. The OYN educates elected officials about the Ogaden and lobbies for a change in American foreign policy, which has been backing the Ethiopian military.

Last October the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2003, the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007. The bill, sponsored by Representative Donald Paine (D-NJ), emphasizes human rights and humanitarian efforts in the Ogaden region.

The U.S. Senate has not voted on the bill, which is why the OYN is eager to influence Senator Norm Coleman, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“We have gone to Senator Coleman’s office and met with his representatives, but never with him,” Dualeh says. “And he has yet to take any aggressive action regarding Ogadania.” Otherwise the OYN says that many elected officials have been very supportive, including Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative Keith Ellison.

The OYN also invites guest speakers to educate its own members on the Ogaden. Last Saturday, members gathered in a dimly lit room in the Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis. Kadra Abdi, Secretary of the OYN, started off the monthly meeting by introducing Hassan Mohamed Ciise to speak about his recent trip to the Ogaden. Twenty-five young adults listened to his account, told in Somali but sprinkled with an occasional phrase in English, such as “without justice, there cannot be peace.” Speakers like Ciise help OYN members stay current on a region that many have not visited in years, if ever.

Not all of the OYN’s activities focus on the Ogaden. OYN members are preparing voter education and participation activities for the upcoming election. They will determine which candidate to endorse, something they have done before. In 2006 Representative Mark Kennedy supported the Ogaden, who in turn endorsed his candidacy and encouraged members of the Ogaden community to vote and volunteer for him.

Dualeh and the other members of the Ogaden Youth Network have their work cut out for them. It seems, though, that Dualeh at least has strong support within her family. Her mother, Hawey Mahad, is also active in the recently formed Ogaden women’s group, an adult version of the OYN. Mahad attends most of the OYN meetings, more as an observer and silent participant than an active member. Kadra Abdi says of Dualeh’s mother, “She helps us a lot; if we need finances, she goes and raises money from the community, and she gives us a lot of advice.”

As Dualeh and Abdi recount their goals and activities in the OYN, Dualeh’s mother sits in the background with her arms crossed. Occasionally she reminds her daughter in Somali “to talk about the human rights abuses.” It is not likely something Dualeh or other members of the OYN will overlook.

Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva (peterson.delacueva@gmail.com) is an educator and has taught in various contexts, including junior high social studies and adult basic education. She is transitioning from a career in teaching to freelance writing and is interning at TC Daily Planet.

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