Somali refugee Abdi Ali opened his nearly empty wallet and found his last crumpled banknote, worth about $2. He handed the money to volunteers on a muddy street corner who were raising funds for victims of the Westgate mall attack.
“I came here to help my brothers who are facing troubles, and the hostages are my brothers,” he explained simply. “I feel very bad for them.”
Mr. Ali, an unemployed 23-year-old who fled from the chaos of his homeland when he was a teenager, is a foot soldier in a Somali campaign against extremism – a campaign that will redouble itself after the horrific Westgate siege in which a Somalia-based militia claimed responsibility for seizing hostages and killing at least 67 people.
It’s a little-known grassroots campaign, working quietly through schools, blood donations, community policing, neighbourhood vigilance and painstaking efforts to preach moderation and integration to Somalis inside and outside their homeland.
The extremists who attacked the Westgate mall were eager to inflame religious differences. They brutally targeted non-Muslims, while sparing the lives of most Muslims. But there is strong opposition to religious zealotry in places like the Nairobi neighbourhood of Eastleigh, home to thousands of Somalis who were outraged by the Westgate attack.
“It is bad for the Muslim community,” Mr. Ali said, when asked about the attack. “I don’t think it will succeed.”
Another Somali refugee in Eastleigh, Osman Jeylani, queued up at a hospital to donate blood for the Westgate victims. “Our religion says, ‘If you save a life, it’s like saving the whole world,’” he said.
As the father of seven children, he was horrified by reports that the attackers were shooting children. “I didn’t sleep for two days,” he said. “They were killing innocent people and children. Any parent can feel for children when you see them dying senselessly. It’s so painful.”
On street corners in Eastleigh, groups of Somali volunteers have set up tents to collect food and other donations for the victims and for the Kenyan police and Red Cross workers at the Westgate siege. On Wednesday morning, the volunteers at one such tent had collected crates of tinned fish, boxes of biscuits and cartons of bottled water and juice.
Rejecting any religious divide, people in Eastleigh are quick to point out that the Westgate victims came from all religions and ethnicities. A number of Somalis and other Muslims were among those who were injured or killed by the Westgate attackers, despite their attempts to target non-Muslims.
Kenyan politicians have urged the country to rally together and unite in the aftermath of Westgate, but many people in Eastleigh are afraid of a backlash against ordinary Somalis. Many have stopped going into the centre of Nairobi since the siege, afraid of harassment by Kenyan police who have targeted Somalis in the past.
“There’s been a lot of anxiety and panic, mostly because of fear of other Kenyans,” said Hassan Guleid, chairman of the Eastleigh Business District Association.
He’s worried that the police harassment and other forms of discrimination against Somalis in Kenya could be a factor in driving young Somali men into extremist groups such as al-Shabab, the Islamist radical militia that claimed responsibility for the Westgate attack.
Unemployment and poverty are common among Somalis in Eastleigh, breeding resentment and anger. Some were born in Kenya, yet still cannot get Kenyan identity cards – often essential for jobs and bank accounts – because the authorities refuse to give them the cards without a hefty bribe, Mr. Guleid said.
“It can push them into extremism,” he said. “They can become very bitter and they can join al-Shabab.”
This danger of radicalization is a key reason for the Somali efforts against extremism. Groups such as Mr. Guleid’s business association are pushing for tougher networks of community policing, with volunteers organized in every block of the neighbourhood to watch for suspicious activity.
“We have to be very vigilant,” he said. “If criminals try to mix with us, we should expose them and report them to the authorities.”
A committee of moderate Somalis, meanwhile, holds monthly community meetings in Eastleigh to try to steer young people away from extremist ideas. It has also opened four schools in Kenya and southern Somalia in the past two years to teach a moderate interpretation of Islam.
One school in southern Somalia, in a region now controlled by Kenyan troops, had previously been supervised by al-Shabab. About 50 of its students today are former members of the militia. “They had only been taught about jihad, that they would go to heaven if they killed someone,” said Abdi Nassir, a 24-year-old Somali teacher and committee member in Eastleigh.
“We teach them that they have to respect everyone, no matter what religion. Islam is a religion of peace.”