Somalis who fled war in their homeland say they fear Islamists are snatching or luring away their children from the safety of their new life in Kenya to fight Holy War in the failed Horn of Africa state.
Representatives of the hardline al Shabaab insurgents, seen by Washington as an al Qaeda proxy, are battling the moderate government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed for control in the latest twist of an 18 year civil war.
Worried Somali parents in Kenya say al Shabaab representatives are targeting children on the streets of Nairobi or at Islamic centres popular with Somalis who have taken refuge in the Kenyan capital or provincial towns.
“Seven students are already missing,” said Sheikh Ishaq Miruka, head teacher of Fathu Rahman Primary School sited near a noisy air force base in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood.
The religious primary school espouses Sufism, a moderate form of Islam associated with contemplation, not combat.
Although none of the missing students are from Fathu Rahman, Miruka says he was once offered a job at one of the schools from which some children have disappeared.
“We found out that they were hired by a militant group in Somalia. Children, all boys, aged between 14-17 years were transported from Eastleigh to Somalia.”
He said the institutions are financed from abroad and that most Somalis did not have any qualms about enrolling their children in the schools.
“Most of these institutions do not rely on local money. They are financed by al Shabaab and its agents in Kenya,” he said.
Frightened by the experiences of fellow Somalis whose children have disappeared, Fadumo Mohamed, 34, closes her small Nairobi business three times a day to check on her four children at the school.
“I cannot stay at my shop uninterrupted during working hours. I fear bad people will take my children away,” said Mohamed, who fled to Kenya to escape the near-daily mortar fire and gun battles of the Somali capital Mogadishu.
“Children disappearing from some parts of Nairobi and in Garissa should be a warning for every mother,” she said during a lunch break visit to the school, the day’s second.
Garissa is a town in Kenya’s North Eastern province where hardline Somali Islamists have reportedly also been recruiting.
Fathu Rahman, set up to provide moderate Islamic education integrated into the Kenyan secular syllabus, is seeking to win the hearts and minds of the young Somalis in its care.
Like many parents at Fathu Rahman, Mohamed is anxious fundamentalists may still have access to her children’s impressionable minds.
“We monitor our children’s behaviour daily so that we can stop them before they become radicalised and persuaded to go back to Somalia and fight for al Shabaab,” she said.
Many schools in Nairobi’s Eastleigh district teach salafism and Wahhabism, ultra-conservative traditions in Islam.
Sufism on the other hand places a greater focus on prayer and recitation and its followers have tended to stay out of politics.
Madrassa (Islamic) schools and a radical 24-hour cable television channel in Kenya have become new breeding and indoctrination grounds for rebel groups based in Somalia, residents say.
The call for peaceful Islam is winning over some parents and students. In just over a year, Fathu Rahman has grown from a dozen students to a hundred.
“The only thing we can do is to equip our students with enough Islamic education that will help them identify bad groups, then they will not fall victim to misinterpreted Islam,” said Sheikh Khalif Moalim Hussein, a moderate cleric and chairman of Fathu Rahman.
Pic: Flag of Somalia