There they stood – a group of Somali men, some in their late-twenties and others in middle-age, congregated around the coffee shop located on the corner of the plaza, on a Friday afternoon. It was a typical rainy day in Seattle as I was driving down to the local Somali shopping mall, and the sight of these men was all too typical. Around several major cities in the US and Canada, where Somali immigrants live in large numbers, there is this phenomenon of “Starbucks Dads” (SD) – Somali fathers who gather at coffee shops, including but not limited to Starbucks, talking idly for hours on end. To clarify my position, in no way is this column meant to denigrate Somalis or Somali men, nor is it meant to cause fitnah. This phenomenon is a symptom of the disease that hampers our progress as a multi-ethnic Muslim community in the West. To approach this topic, we should first examine what factors motivate these men to engage in this activity. What are the social repercussions as a result? How does the immigrant Somalia experience parallel that of disadvantaged minorities in America? What is the role of the father in Islam? What did the Prophet (SAW) teach us about wasting time? And finally, what are the level of responsibilities necessary to addressing and fixing this social problem?
As an ethnic group in Diaspora, many Somali families have fled the civil war that erupted in Somali in 1991. Similar to many immigrants, a lot of Somalis have strong ties to families that may still be back home – one reason why money transfer businesses are a staple of Somali shopping centers. As an ethnic group, the integration of Somali families into Western societies has not always been smooth. A major reason for this is because Somalis are relatively recent immigrants to Western states, compared to other communities such as the Arabs and Pakistanis, who began immigrating to the West decades earlier. Thus, since the 90′s, many first generation Somali Americans are just now in the prime of their youth. The obvious impact of this is that Somalis have not had as much time to take advantage of educational opportunities and white-collar careers that come with being a long established immigrant community. Added to this delicate balancing act is the strong tribal affiliation that is present in Somali culture. In terms of the SD phenomenon, you may ask, how is the cultural baggage of Somalis contributing to this occurrence? I have been told by male relatives who were witness to these gatherings that a lot of times the discussion of clan politics is ever present. Back home, as the patriarch in the family, fathers gained a strong sense of identity from clan relations. With government corruption running rampant in Somalia, often times, clan relations made the difference between a good lifestyle or a bad one. Because these gatherings are often times marked by tribal affiliation, they allow Somali fathers the opportunity to recreate the reality they had left behind, all the while blocking out the frustrations of adjusting to a different society. These frustrations may stem from the realities faced by many immigrants. The father, who may have occupied a middle-class job back home, in the US, is forced to take up a labor skilled job because his work credentials from Somalia don't match up to those found here. Thus, in major metropolitan areas, it's common to see many Somali men who are taxi drivers. Frustrated with dismal job prospects and changing family dynamics, these Somali fathers attempt to retain a semblance of old tribal order by meeting up with other like-minded Somalis, to vent over clan politics from back home. But the obvious question becomes, with all of these dads hanging around, what about the children?
According to the Bridging Refugee Youth and Children's Services, one of the factors that may complicate social adjustment for Somali youth is “family conflict due to cultural adjustment, in addition to other family stressors [which] has…led to homelessness or gang involvement” among this age group. This report cites a recent study of Somali youth in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, which “identified three distinct Somali youth gangs in the Twin cities area, two of which were engaged in crime and violence” and “noted that only 1% of gangs in the Twin Cities are comprised of Somali youth.” Now, that 1% may seem insignificant, but imagine the effect that gang members have on other children in the family, who may one day decide to pick up the gun themselves. But, how did we get to this point? While SD's are sitting in cafes, the children are bereft of a father figure. And who fills that vacuum? It may be the drug dealer on the corner of the street or the gun-toting hustler on the basketball court. Not only do fatherless homes have a devastating effect on youth in general, but it should be observed that the plight of Somali-American youth is strikingly similar to that of black American youth.
Although this article is not an in-depth sociological exploration of this phenomenon, one of the repercussions of SD is that the children of those fathers end up hanging out with the wrong crowd. Often times, when you look at who these Somali youth are imitating, it is the stereotypical black “ghetto” male or female. If these youth came to the West as children, and if they're coming from a fatherless household, they are left to finding another source of guidance. Given that many Somalis are relocated to “ghetto” like government housing projects, they are more likely to be around the “ghetto lifestyle.” Thus, they begin to imitate the gangster lifestyle – listening to rap music, talking and dressing like rap moguls. Although this is an anecdotal claim, there is evidence in the psychological literature that children are prone to imitating their friends. A fatherless home does nothing but compound this easily influenced population. As a means to ameliorate this social problem, some may suggest that Somali immigrants be relocated to the suburbs, that way they may imitate middle-class, oftentimes “white” children. But the truth of the matter is, the way to fix this problem is not a change of venue, rather we can find the medicine to this social ill grounded in the tradition of the Prophet (SAW).
It is a well known basic fact to all Muslims that the Prophet (SAW) is the best example sent to mankind. This is repeated at almost every Islamic conference we attend – rightly so. But, as with everything in life, we have to walk the talk. For us, as human beings struggling with daily life, one of the most critical roles of the Prophet (SAW) was his fatherly role. Anas ibn Malik, who was the Prophet's servant for 10 continuous years, stated, “I have never seen a man who was more compassionate to his family members than Muḥammad.” (Muslim) Countless Hadith have produced for us the image of a Prophet who treated his children equally, and most importantly, was there to give them advice in the affairs of daily life. One example is found in Ibn Hambal and Muslim when one of the Prophet's male grandchildren wanted to eat a date that had been given to him to be distributed as alms. The Prophet immediately took it from him and stated, “Anything given as alms is forbidden to us.” He didn't destroy the boy by rebuking him or changing his demeanor, he instructed him politely in a manner that contributed to the righteous upbringing of these grandchildren. If SD are not around enough to ingrain these small, yet significant principles in their children, who do we expect they will learn morals from? The Messenger's example of fatherhood is one that should not be trivialized, but when it is not being imitated in Muslim households, the effects can be pronounced – it can make or break a Muslim's life course.
At the crux of this issue is the concept of time. What is happening when fathers are idly chatting up their buddies in cafeshops? They are wasting time. And with the reality of the life of this world jumping out at you in countless Quranic ayat, that is not something the Muslim can afford. In one of shortest Surahs in the Qurʾān, Al-‘aṣr, Allāh clearly states “By the time, Verily! Man is in loss.” Wasting time on non-beneficial activity will certainly decrease one's īmān, but it will also drive you further from Allāh's mercy. As a caveat, in Islam there is nothing wrong with a man occasionally hanging out with buddies and socializing with them, in fact socialization is a critical facet of a healthy human lifestyle. But, when a healthy activity reaches an extreme, it is bound to have an effect on one's worship. Another blog topic can be spent on just extrapolating meaning from this short Surah and the many Hadith that speak about using time well. For a good lecture on the dangers of wasting time check out Wasting Time by Nouman Ali Khan. But in terms of understanding the SD phenomenon, it is important to know that not only does this problem affect the family unit, it also weakens the relationship between the Creator and a servant. Now, what can we all do as Muslims to address this issue?
It can't be stressed enough that this problem is wide reaching, and it is not only limited to the Somali community. Concurrently, this social problem may not necessarily be widespread in the Somali community, but anecdotal observations warrant that we bring this issue to the fore. So how do we go about tackling this issue? As with many other social problems, there are levels of responsibility in how to address this problem. In no way are these proposed solutions exhaustive, but they are a foot-in-the-door.
Firstly, at the masjid level, imām's should be the first line of defense in bringing this issue to light. As the weekly congregation prescribed by Allāh, the khutbah can be used to pinpoint the social ills of the community, within the framework of proper naseeha of course (i.e not pointing fingers to individuals or to a specific community). These khutbahs should be dedicated to explaining the role of the father in bringing up a healthy household. Besides the khutbah, imām's and masjid boards can take action on this issue by creating Father/Son or Father/Daughter activity days, which can create a structure that encourages family cohesion. At the second level of social responsibility is the mother. There are a myriad of solutions that Muslim moms can engage in to preserve their children, but if these moms find themselves running a household singlehandedly, most critically, they should create or maintain a strong connection with the local Muslim community. This assumes that there is an activity Muslim community nearby, but a lot of times this is not the case. Regardless, bringing children up with a masjid-centered outlook can have profound effects on their lives as Muslims. And finally, the last level of responsibility in addressing the SD phenomenon is the community level. A lot of times we Muslims enter the masjid and we may walk out after prayer without saying nothing more than salam to those around us. And a lot of times, our social circles are limited to those of our own skin color. Just reaching out to Muslims of other ethnicities can create strong bonds of trust in our communities. Give it a try the next time you go to the masjid: sit next to someone of a different ethnicity/race other than yours, strike up a conversation with them and perhaps even exchange contact info with them. Call them up to go out for lunch or dinner, or invite them to your house for socialization. Make an effort to sit next to them at the next AlMaghrib course – if there is one in your city. Just as children like to imitate their friends, grown-ups are not immune to this either. If some family-oriented brother reaches out to a Starbucks Dad and demonstrates how he engages with his children, imagine the self-introspection that could take place. As with every social problem, we can all contribute to eradicating it – the SD phenomenon is no exception.