Mar 5, 2013 at 4:17 pm
WAITE PARK, Minn. (KNSI) - An educational event, which drew around 90 people to Waite Park today, has come under fire from an Islamic advocacy organization in the Twin Cities after being deemed culturally insensitive.
The event, called "Understanding the People of Somalia," was planned over the past few months through a partnership between the Waite Park Police Department and St. Cloud Catholic Charities as a community meeting to educate on the history and politics of Somalia in order to promote cultural awareness.
However, Lori Saroya, Executive Director of of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, (CAIR-MN) in conversation with KNSI News, explains that the organizations failed by not including leaders of St. Cloud's Islamic community in the planning process.
"It wasn't a meeting effectively bringing together the Somali Community," Saroya says. "They didn't reach out to major Somali leaders in St. Cloud. The Islamic Center wasn't contacted. The Muslim Students Organization wasn't reached. So it's really not the community meeting they were billing it to be."
Saroya says their disapproval of the program was further illuminated through a flier created for the event, which incorrectly insinuates that the activities of Islamist extremist organization "Al-Shabaab" are supported by the Muslim Community.
Steve Bresnahan, the Executive Director of St. Cloud Catholic Charities, agrees with Saroya's assessment of the meeting, and has since publicly apologized for the connection between Al-Shabaab and the muslim community as a whole, made in the flier.
Bresnahan says his organization has been working closely with the Somali community for 10 years on issues ranging from housing to education to childcare. He admits that the program was not planned with input from the Somali community and that the flier was inappropriate.
"It used language that was wrong. It was a mistake on our part. No one should ever think of anyone from the Somali or Muslim community as affiliated with a terrorist organization."
Bresnahan also agrees with Saroya that an event like "Understanding the People of Somalia" should have involved members of the community from the outset.
"We should have asked members of the Somali Community to plan with us from the beginning. Certainly the fliers shouldn't have been used," Bresnahan says. "As I said in the meeting, it would be like linking the Catholic Community with the Irish Republican Army. It's just not true."
Saroya says events like "Understanding the People of Somalia," have been protested and canceled in other communities around Minnesota after being labeled culturally insensitive. She says CAIR-MN supports community efforts to learn about the Somali people, but hopes the Waite Park Police and Catholic Charities will take a different approach in the future.
"They have a responsibility to consider who is speaking on the behalf of the Somali Community, and what their agenda is," Saroya says. "Everything comes with an agenda, and events like this create fear. It's regrettable Catholic Charities got involved in this."
More than 30 Twin Cities Somali and Muslim organizations protested a similar training event to be held in Minnesota, prompting police departments around the state to withdraw participation.
A similar training was also canceled in Mankato last year.