Doc Star of the Month: Yusuf Abdurahman, 'Accept the Call'
For many years Yusuf Abdurahman, the charismatic protagonist of Eunice Lau's Accept the Call, seemed to be living the American Dream. A refugee who fled civil war in the '90s, Abdurahman went from a life filled with famine and death in Somalia to one of hope and possibility in Minnesota. One of the founders of what is now the largest Somali community in the United States, Abdurahman married, had kids, and today works as a translator and facilitator at a Head Start office. Though divorced, he continues to lovingly devote himself to his seven children—including his eldest, Zacharia, the reason Lau picked up her camera.
At the age of 19, Zacharia was arrested in an FBI counterterrorism sting, which split both the son from his family (Zach is currently serving a 10-year sentence) and the father from his community. A practicing Sufi, Abdurahman became convinced that the metastasizing Wahhabi influence in the neighborhood mosques was at fault for his son’s radicalization. (And Zach was indeed radicalized. Though the FBI's heavy-handed tactics could be considered entrapment in many people's eyes—including those of Abdurahman’s activist daughter Ikraan, who continues to advocate for her brother's release—the fact that Zach had made a prior, ultimately failed, attempt to leave the country to join ISIS in Syria has never been in dispute.) In other words, Abdurahman believed that his own community needed to take a hard look at itself. Which, needless to say, is a radical POV that could easily be construed as victim-blaming in this current age of aggressive anti-immigrant policies and dubious law enforcement surveillance of non-white folks.
Documentary spoke with this deep-thinking, courageously clear-eyed "Doc Star of the Month" a week before the film’s January 20th premiere on PBS' Independent Lens. The film is now streaming on pbs.org/independentlens.
DOCUMENTARY: How did you meet Eunice in the first place—and why trust someone from outside the community to tell such a fraught story? Had you seen her short Through the Fire, which dealt with Somalia's civil war?
YUSUF ABDURAHMAN: There’s a lot of misconception and mistrust between my community and the media—people from the outside coming into the community. The first time that I met Eunice was through my daughter Ikraan. So she came and she met Ikraan. And then we got together at a diner, we talked and she kind of introduced me to her profile—how she’d been involved with the Somali community at refugee camps and did that little film [Through the Fire]. She looked genuine to me, and I kind of related to her other stories and to where she comes from.
Mostly, [the crew] didn't know about Somalis and their culture. Maybe they went to some Muslim countries but, you know, not all Muslim countries are the same; not all people share the culture. So they might say something that is a little bit offensive, and she says, "No, that's not true; that's what you heard from the media. These people are not like that." She kind of educates her own crew; that is really awesome. Plus, she's so sincere. Always she asks me if this clip is okay, if this is okay with your culture, what do you think about this? And when she herself sees something that is not okay with the community in general, sometimes she just advises me, "Maybe you don’t have to say this; this is not okay with your community." So I feel that is genuine.
And she calls me, she emails me, she talks to me. We sit places, we eat together, we talk, we joke. It's a relationship that has developed over the years.
D: The doc is filled with scenes of you chatting with Zach, really digging in with questions regarding his way of thinking, his radical ideology. Which actually had me a bit worried since prison phone calls are monitored. So was there certain aspects of the case you were advised to steer clear of, not wanting to make things harder for Zach’s plight? And wasn’t there also the overall fear that the film itself might spark a retaliation against Zach from the authorities?
YA: I was afraid because it says the phone will be monitored and recorded. But there's no other way that I can talk to him. There's no other way that he tells me how he got involved in this situation, in something that I don't believe [in], that's something that my family doesn't believe [in]. But to tell this story and to complete this story, he has to be there, he has to be involved.
I think one time somebody told me he's already convicted, and he’s not saying something that the government doesn’t already know. I mean, the informant already recorded this.
D: The film centers mostly around you and your relationship both with Zach and your activist daughter Ikraan. We never see your ex-wife’s face or really get to know your five other kids. So what exactly was off-limits to the film crew? We don't see Zach in prison, and I take it your ex-wife and perhaps others refused to participate.
YA: They didn't allow the film [crew] to go into the prison. So he called from the prison and they recorded his story. But they did interview my kids. They filmed us doing all kinds of activities—snowballing, playing in the snow, coaster rolling, going to the mall or going to the Somali restaurants. But they decided that the relationship of the father and the son—that is where the story is.
With my ex-wife, we just have different views. I understand and respect her. She's protective as a mom. She says, "I don’t want to put my son in trouble by me saying stuff." But then the film came out and Eunice sent me a link so that I could watch with my kids and my family. She saw the reaction of the kids, how they liked it, so she kind of changed.
But also, in Somali culture we have to take consideration of what people outside of the family say—how I raise my children, how I discipline my children, how I worship my God, how I love or not love. So there’s a fear about what people are going to say about her, what people are going to say about us.
So we mostly don't stay stuff, don't participate in things, especially in this kind of a movie.
D: I'm wondering how things have changed—or not changed—for your community since Trump's election. Is there a feeling of closing ranks—perhaps making it more difficult for you to preach the painful truth of Wahhabi radicalization to your neighbors?
YA: Definitely I think things are worse now. There's all kinds of people just saying that I'm part of the problem, that I'm a snitch myself, that I'm an informant. But I've been doing community work, and community outreach, and social justice for a long time. I've also been upfront talking to Somali people about those that would discriminate in Somalia.
I mean, we have also Somali minorities that we discriminate against. Somali Bantus is one of them, you know, the Midgans. I've been writing about this stuff for a long time—since 2004, I guess—so people don’t like that. People come up to me and say that this ruins our reputation, things like that. I got used to that.
But really, Somalia was a mainstream Sufi country before 1990 when the war broke out. People were then indoctrinated in the refugee camps, and now they don’t know any better. They are victims themselves. They don't know if this is Islam or not. Those who use the extreme literal translations and literal interpretations are really less than five percent of the Muslim world. They are just a few, but they are very powerful in terms of resources and money. They have a lot of wealth from Saudi Arabia and places like that. But Wahhabism just uses the same brainwashing that Neo-Nazis use.
I've been advocating on behalf of the majority of Somalis that live in Minneapolis, who are peace-loving and mainstream people, but are controlled by a few people that have some extreme ideology. I think the authorities know this, but because of the freedom of religion and freedom of speech I think they cannot do nothing about that—until our children get brainwashed and recruited.
And as a community, we are in denial. We have problems because of the fear of authorities, because of the fear of our culture, because of what other people say about you. We come from a not very democratic country where the police beat up people. So there is all kinds of mistrust between the community and the authorities in many ways.
D: What are your ultimate hopes for your son—and the film? How is he holding up? Has he seen it yet?
YA: No, not yet. That’s because they don’t allow internet and all those things. Right now he's taking courses from Ohio University, and when he comes out he wants to dedicate himself to helping other radicalized youth.
My hope is that this film will be seen as not only my story, but the story of many families around the globe, across race and faith and culture, because so many families are struggling with their youth. Eunice came here and showed it at my workplace, where 400 people work. About 100 Somali people and Muslims, they all cried, and they all loved it, and they all said, "We want to show this film to our youth."
And you know, sometimes you think that you've got problems, but when you see other people and what they're going through, you feel like maybe I'm blessed in some way. There are families here in Minnesota—their children die in Syria or Somalia. When I see that, mostly I feel blessed. I'm sorry that my son's in prison and serving time. But he's alive and he's here.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.