Portrait of Abdirahman Mukhtar at the plaza next to Cedar Cultural Center where he hands out pizza and Somali tea and talks to teens and parents every Friday night. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

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People are already waiting for Abdirahman Mukhtar when he angles his car into a parking spot next to the Cedar Cultural Center on a Friday evening in March. He opens the trunk, and the scent of cardamom-infused Somali tea wafts into the air. The car is full of his regular Friday night supplies: In addition to the container of tea, there’s a folding table, an IKEA-sized plastic bag full of clean socks, tampons, toothbrushes, and a first-aid kit with Narcan and dressings for wounds. 

As he sets up next to a stack of pizzas, donated tonight by a nearby church, he greets almost everyone who walks past by name.

Wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the Somali word Daryeel, meaning “care,” under an unzipped black jacket, the 43-year-old starts handing out pizza to the young people and Somali tea to the elders. A former youth program manager at Brian Coyle Center, he knows the teens from taking them on field trips and to soccer games and helping them with homework. As a father of five, he knows the parents from raising kids in the neighborhood. 

Residents know that this plaza, in an area known for rampant drug use, is where they can come every Friday night to find free pizza, tea — and Abdirahman Mukhtar. “Everyone knows Abdi,” said KJ Starr, executive director of the West Bank Business Association. 

He’s the person people call when someone is ready to try rehab, or when a parent is desperately looking for news of an addicted child. When Starr was talking to an employee recently about ways to connect people to rehab, the staffer said they already knew how to do that. “We just call Abdi Mukhtar.”

Abdirahman Mukhtar is the founder of Daryeel Youth, a newly-formalized non-profit organization with a mission of helping East African youth on the streets — without judgment. Since 2019, fatal opioid overdoses have more than doubled in Minnesota. But the numbers are even more alarming for certain races: The rate more than tripled for Black Minnesotans, from 59 deaths in 2019 to 212 in 2021; and it quadrupled for American Indians, from 27 deaths in 2018 to 112 in 2021.

Although no state or national agency tracks statistics for specific communities, everyone in the Cedar-Riverside area knows the Somali community has been hit hard. 

Cultural stigma and shame often mean families don’t discuss the deaths as overdoses. But during the peak of the problem, Abdirahman said, he attended funerals for young people every week, sometimes twice a week. He estimates that at least 100 Somali youth have died from overdoses in recent years. 

Muhammad Abdullah, a funeral coordinator who oversees Muslim burials at many Twin Cities cemeteries, confirmed that there’s no way of knowing how many Somali young people have died due to overdose. Autopsy reports often classify deaths as “unknown” and don’t record details on race beyond “Black.” 

When you have a “17- or 20-year-old passing away in their sleep, that’s kind of a red flag,” Abdullah said. “A healthy young person doesn’t just go home, go to sleep and die.” 

‘We’ve never seen anything close to this’

Like many other communities across America, fentanyl caught Minnesota’s Somali community off guard, Abdirahman said. Cheaper and 50 times more potent than heroin, the synthetic opioid started flowing into the country in 2019. Soon after, almost every street drug, including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, was laced with some amount of the deadly substance. 

Drug overdoses skyrocketed. Gun violence surged. 

“That’s when young people were dying and parents were afraid of sharing how they died. So they said they died of a heart attack,” Abdirahman said. “It took us by surprise because with marijuana or smoking or alcohol — you can smell that. With fentanyl, you can’t smell much and it looks like a small blue pill. Parents see kids die in their bed or bathroom.”

The problem grew during the pandemic. Experts suspect people were more likely to use alone, said Molly Jeffery, a Mayo Clinic researcher who analyzed Minnesota death certificates during the pandemic. When fentanyl first hit the streets, many people — especially those who hadn’t used opioids before — didn’t realize they were ingesting the drug and likely died before help could reach them. 

Kids struggling with addiction often get kicked out of their homes, Abdirhaman said, and end up living in tents. Because of strict Section 8 public housing rules, landlords often force parents to make a difficult decision: kick out the child using drugs or risk eviction for the entire family. At first, kids lived in a nearby encampment, but since it was closed, they have scattered into smaller camping areas.

It all adds up to the current untenable situation. “It’s bad,” said Starr, the business association director. “This is a pretty progressive neighborhood; when we’re talking about youth and homelessness, the businesses are empathetic. But no one likes it when it’s an open-air drug market. This past summer it was very bad.”

People who live and work in the area told Sahan Journal about what they see along Cedar Avenue, between Riverside Avenue and South 6th Street—a stretch younger residents call “the corner.” People buy and sell drugs here so regularly that many no longer bother to hide the transactions. In summer, residents added, expensive cars pull up and conduct business in the open, in the middle of the day.

“We’ve never seen anything close to this,” Abdirahman said.  

That’s why he never skips a Friday. All those small interactions build up week by week, until teens and young adults know they can trust that he will be there for them. “I know I can get them help if they ask,” Abdirahman. “That’s the hardest part. So I want to be sure to be there at that moment. That’s why I come back every Friday.”

The first death

In 2018, a 17-year-old who had worked with Abdirahman through the Step Up youth employment program in Minneapolis was shot and killed. That year saw a nearly 50 percent increase in gunshot victims in the area. Abdirahman worked with mothers on a project to curb the violence, which he said has been an issue since 2007. The group encouraged kids to remember their mothers instead of turning to violence, to avoid guns “for hooyo,” since mothers suffer when kids die or end up in jail.

The violence appeared to be linked to a change in the illicit drug scene: Synthetic marijuana, or K2, had hit the streets, leading to a surge of overdoses.

Abirahman thinks that something else is also at play: Past the age of 18, teens don’t have the same sort of supervised after-school programming options that younger kids do, especially since 2016, when many programs declined because of funding cuts. 

“The day you turn 18, they basically kick you out,” he said. “When you push them out from an environment they were allowed to be in for a long time, the alternative is to hang out outside on the corner.”

Abirahman and his wife, Sagal Abdi, a small-business owner, parent five children between the ages of 3 and 19. Abdirahman also works full-time as a coordinator with Minneapolis Parks and Recreation community connections department. Still, he decided to carve out time and meet the kids at risk where they were. 

“I’m not going to sit around and wait,” he said. “So I started street pizza. We have pizza so young people will come, and elders love tea.”

An email from Minnesota Poison Control alerted Abdirahman that East African boys and men were overdosing and ending up in local emergency rooms on Fridays and Saturdays around 8, when many shops close. That’s why he’s been on the plaza next to the Cedar Cultural Center around that time every Friday night, regardless of the weather, since October of 2018. One day when he was running late, he saw a young man running to the plaza, looking for pizza. As he sat in traffic, he noted the man’s disappointment — and his relief when Abdirahman called out to him that he was coming. “That’s the kind of thing that motivates me to come back,” he said.

Abdirahman has since formalized his work into Daryeel Youth, and the plaza has come to be known as Daryeel Corner. The kids come for the pizza, which is sometimes the only food they have that day, and a moment of human connection. The elders come for tea, and Abdirahman uses the opportunity to educate parents about addiction issues.

On a recent Friday night, Abdirahman talked about his work, pausing the conversation whenever he saw someone he knew, or to glance at his phone, which rings and buzzes with texts almost constantly. He hugged a young man wearing a headband and carrying a North Face backpack, who accepted the pizza with a sincere “thank you.” Abdirahman ran across the street to another youth with another plate and another hug. 

Others stopped by looking for him: “Is Abdirahman here?” “Where’s Abdirahman?” 

“People need someone to believe in them and say, ‘I love you’ and ‘I believe in you’ and remind them of the old days,” he said. “I call them by their names and I make eye contact.”

When people ask him why he risks his safety to do it, though, he gets frustrated. 

“That’s the part that sometimes bothers me,” he said, “because it could be my kids. People would say, ‘Why are you out there, are you not afraid?’ They don’t see that it’s our kids. Someone has to be out there. We should not be afraid of our kids.” 

Around 8 p.m., a woman wearing a colorful skirt and carrying several plastic bags approached Abdirahman, speaking in Somali. She’d left at 5 a.m. to go to work and was just on her way home. 

Had Abdirahman seen her daughter, she wanted to know. 

Not since last Friday, Abdirahman told her. But he listened to her list of concerns about her daughter’s fentanyl use. 

“When you’re a mom with other kids and someone in that household is doing drugs and addicted, it can become very challenging for the parent because they don’t want the other kids to see what their sister or brother is doing,” Abdirahman said. Parents don’t want to kick their kids out, but they don’t see an obvious solution. 

“That’s why a lot of times parents are crying for help because they don’t know what to do and the kids are crying for help because addiction is not something you choose randomly,” Abdirahman explained. “They want to get away from it. They see their friends dying and overdosing and they want to get help, but they don’t know how.”

In this case, the mother is single and the breadwinner of the family. One thing she can count on: If her daughter hasn’t overdosed, she will stop by to see Adbirahman, and that he will tell her to go home. 

“I tell them it doesn’t matter what you’re dealing with: Go home for the night because your mom is worried,” Abdirahman said. “And if you don’t come home she won’t sleep because she’s worrying about what will happen to her daughter.”

A recent Friday night on the plaza. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

Building a village

Recently, Abdirahman has partnered with more volunteers with medical backgrounds. One of those volunteers is Adrienne Thayer, a community engagement nurse with the University of Minnesota’s Mobile Health Initiative. She is passionate about helping people on the streets, and was told the best way to do that was to work with Abdirahman. She joins him every Friday that she’s able, putting together the medical kit with Narcan and other supplies.

“Literally his work lights up my heart,” she said. “Just to see some of these adults that used to know him as kids, to hug him and say, ‘This man saved me.’ Sometimes that’s all it takes; one person who cares about you to make you love yourself.”

It may take 150 interactions before that happens, she said, but “showing up every week is part of the thing.” 

Abdirahman’s connections make it relatively easy to find help once a person is willing, he said, and he often sends people to culturally-specific places, such as Fairview Recovery Services. 

Since last summer, the young people showing up have come from increasingly diverse backgrounds. Often the slices of pizza get picked up quickly, in under an hour, especially in summer. On slow nights in winter, a couple dozen people may show up over the span of several hours, and he will bring leftover pizza to encampments or kids out playing basketball.  

Some small signs give Abdirahman hope. Increasingly, families are joining in difficult conversations. Abdirahman doesn’t shy away from topics that are traditionally taboo in Somali culture. For example, he makes sure that young women have tampons and clean underwear and he talks to them about sex trafficking, because women often turn to prostitution in order to buy drugs.

“It took so many of our kids dying to talk about this,” he said. “But then we started having conversations, and we started sharing stories.”

Several Somali youth who have overcome addiction have spoken up about their experiences; a group called Generation Hope was founded to destigmatize the issue. Prior to that, few people in the East African community chose to get treatment for addiction, said Generation Hope co-founder and executive director Abdirahman Warsame, who is now 25. 

“There aren’t a lot of East African people who work toward recovery for addiction, community outreach and violence prevention,” Abdirahman Warsame said. “It’s really a big new wave and I’m glad to be a part of it and look up to people like Abdirahman Mukhtar who’s been paving the way for us. That’s the type of person I want to be 5, 10, 20 years from now, still working on the same thing. Changemakers like that don’t come often.”

Abdirahman says that a number of people have contributed to the project, including Trinity Lutheran Congregation, the church that sends volunteers and pizza once a month, and community members who donate winter clothing and pizzas. Abdirahman’s wife and kids also support his efforts, sometimes coming along to the plaza on Fridays. “We’re building a village that every kid needs. To most it may not seem like a lot. But to these young people, it’s everything.”

Later that night, the daughter of the single mother showed up. Abdirahman talked to her, and she agreed to go home for the night. Before he packed up, Abdirahman checked with the mother to make sure she’d made it there.

“It makes me happy to see them every Friday because I know they’re alive and they haven’t overdosed,” he said, “but it also makes me sad to think that one Friday I might not see them.”

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred writes stories about health equity for Sahan Journal. As a freelance journalist, she has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, NPR, STAT News and...