Sunday February 5, 2023
By Michael M. Phillips
The Saleban family left Minnesota for Somaliland, where disobeying parents is illegal and carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison
Seckie Saleban last year in Loring Park near downtown Minneapolis, Minn. THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
BORAMA, Somaliland—Seckie Saleban, groggy after a late night binge-watching TV, woke up to voices in his room. His first thought was that “The Office” was still playing. He rolled over and saw two policemen standing at his bedside, wearing military camouflage and armed with AK-47 rifles.
The officers bundled Seckie into a three-wheel motorized rickshaw, delivered him to a concrete police station, and locked him in a cell.
His parents were so upset with Seckie’s behavior that they had called the police, deciding their son would be better off behind bars. In Somaliland, an impoverished, self-declared independent state, it is illegal for a male older than 15 to disobey his parents.
I can’t believe they’re doing this, the 20-year-old recalled thinking when he realized what was happening to him.
The way his parents saw it, Seckie had been letting them down since he was in high school back in Owatonna, Minn. His father, Mohamed Saleban, had moved the family to the U.S. from East Africa when Seckie was 4 years old. Like many immigrants, Mr. Saleban wanted his children to embrace the American dream. Instead, he was horrified by Seckie’s embrace of American teenage rebellion—marijuana, girls, and late nights.
Some parents might try counseling or punishment. Mr. Saleban and his wife brought eight of their nine children back to their homeland, where they hoped Seckie would learn to be a good Somali man. Yet even after their return, Mr. Saleban didn’t believe his son would straighten up without more drastic measures.
“You think Africa is like America,” Mr. Saleban told Seckie during one of their nobody’s-listening-to-anyone arguments. “I am going to show you that Africa is not like America.”
Over the past 30 years, 2 million Somalis have fled the violence and hardship of their homeland on the Horn of Africa, many seeking safety and prosperity in the West. Some 170,000 people in the U.S. have Somali ancestry. The largest share lives in Minnesota.
Emigration from the conservative Muslim culture of Somalia to the freewheeling West has often proved difficult for parents. They struggle with children who use drugs, run afoul of the law or simply act too much like Western teenagers, failing to show respect for their elders.
Men gathering at a cafe in Borama, Somaliland. PHOTO: MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Like Mr. Saleban, thousands of these parents have moved back to Somalia, bringing wayward children with them. Others send their children to live with family there. Some consign their U.S.-raised teens and 20-somethings to abusive rehabilitation centers in Somalia or Kenya, with tragic consequences.
Seckie’s parents chose prison. It didn’t work.
This account of the family’s experience is based on interviews with Seckie, his parents, his friends, State Department officials and Somaliland prosecutors and police, as well as emails and court records.
Seckie was a dreamer. His father was a doer.
In 2003, Mr. Saleban moved his family to Owatonna, a town of 26,000 between Minneapolis and the Iowa border. He started on a factory assembly line making locks for windows. He became a supervisor and then left to branch out on his own.
Later he drove for Uber, as many as 14 hours a day, seven days a week. He hoped to pass on grander ambitions to his first son.
When Seckie was a boy, his father had him practice English by writing letters describing his day. Mr. Saleban wanted his children to learn American culture, as well as their own heritage. He taught them the Somali language on a whiteboard in the garage. In 2015, Mr. Saleban took Seckie to visit Somaliland, where the boy herded camels with his grandfather and learned to skin a goat.
In high school, Seckie was known as Ziggi, an easygoing boy who dabbled in writing novels, rap lyrics and screenplays. He joined all-night videogame sessions with friends and hung out with girls, not all of them Somali. Seckie smoked pot, and his mother once found codeine pills in his backpack. He said he planned to sell them, not take them, small consolation to his aggravated parents.
Mr. Saleban hounded Seckie to come up with a plan for his life. His lectures ran on and on. Seckie let his mind wander, he said, tuning in just enough to nod when he noticed something that sounded like a question.
Seckie Saleban’s basement room where he lived in St. Paul, Minn. PHOTO: MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
After he graduated from high school in 2017, Seckie’s parents enrolled him at a community college and gave him a car for the commute. He soon quit but didn’t tell them. When his father found out, he took away the car.
Seckie had a dream, but it wasn’t a college degree. He wanted to design fashion streetwear. When he was supposed to be in class, he browsed vintage clothing stores for inspiration and adorned old jeans with fabric and graffiti.
In May 2018, Seckie and a high-school friend moved to Detroit to try to start fashion careers. They had a couple of sewing machines and an embroidery machine, as well as T-shirts, jeans and hoodies to transform with their designs. A few weeks later, Seckie returned to Minnesota so broke he had to borrow money for bus fare home.
He lost one job after another: assembly line work, a caretaker at a group home and sandwich maker at a Jimmy John’s restaurant.
His father bought him a business suit and polo shirt, and Seckie was stunned by how little they understood one another. Seckie went to stay with Somali friends. “I was sick of being berated at home, so I just left,” he said.
His mother, worried about Seckie’s influence on the younger children, persuaded Mr. Saleban that it was time to leave the U.S. They gave Seckie a choice. He could stay in Minnesota and fend for himself. Or he could join them in Somaliland and start fresh.
Seckie saw his life in Minnesota headed nowhere. He chose Somaliland.
“We had to show him what opportunity he has here, and how other people around the world struggle, so he can understand that the life he has is precious,” Mr. Saleban said.
By November 2019, the family had settled into a two-story house on a packed-dirt street in Borama, a city of 80,000 people on the Ethiopia border.
Pomegranates, tomatoes and onions grew in the gated yard. Guava and papaya farms lined the nearby highway to Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa. Camels grazed on scrub by the road while herders stared at their phones.
Seckie, by then 20, found a circle of friends who had also been moved out of the U.S., and he sometimes sneaked out at night to play basketball or videogames.
Camels and a three-wheel taxi cross paths in Borama, Somaliland. PHOTO: MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The breaking point for Seckie and his father came when he spent the night escorting a visiting friend, who spoke no Somali, to the airport. Seckie said he told his parents he was going to sleep at the mosque, an obvious lie.
He returned home in the early morning hours and later woke up to see his father standing over him, furious. “I’ll show you my power,” Seckie recalled his father saying.
A week later, armed police stood in his bedroom. The officers told him he needed to come to the station to deal with an ID card. He was too drowsy to argue. At the station, they sat him on a bench in the courtyard, and he dozed off.
When Seckie awoke, officers seized his phone and shoveled him past a steel door into a holding cell. “I’m not here for this,” he protested. He punched the walls in frustration.
Seckie knew his father was behind his arrest. He didn’t know that Mr. Saleban had reported his son for using drugs. Seckie spent nine days in the holding cell. Mr. Saleban dropped off meals: flatbread and tea for breakfast, rice or pasta for lunch, sometimes minced chicken in the evening. Seckie refused to speak to him.
On the seventh day, police forcibly cut a furrow through his Afro, Seckie said, in a demonstration of their authority.
During a trip to the outhouse the following day, Seckie tried to escape. He raced to the perimeter wall and managed to swing a leg over the top before an officer pulled him back.
A section of Somaliland’s 2012 Public Order and Discipline Law says, “The parent can request the district court discipline a child older than 15. When the court investigates and is satisfied with the parent’s reasoning, it may sentence the boy to no more than six months in jail.” The law sets no maximum age.
Saeed Yusuf Abdi, deputy attorney general of Somaliland, traced the disobedience problem and its legal penalties to the war between independence-minded Somaliland and Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in the late 1980s. Families fled to Ethiopia, where their children lost touch with Somali ways. “In earlier days, children didn’t dare talk back to their parents,” he said.
After finding no evidence of a drug offense, officers brought Seckie from his holding cell to the local attorney general’s office. Five prosecutors awaited. Seckie’s mother watched him arrive.
“You were arrested on 31 January 2020 for disobedience to your father,” Seckie recalled one prosecutor saying. “Were you guilty or not?”
“Yeah, I’m guilty,” he replied.
The sentence, the prosecutor said, would be up to his parents.
The attorney general’s office in Borama sees about 10 disobedience cases a month, often related to drug use among Somali youths returning from other countries, said Abdi Haibe, chief regional prosecutor.
Guleid Ahmed Jama, a Somaliland human-rights lawyer, said efforts to repeal the public order law, aimed primarily at quelling political protest, have gone nowhere.
After Seckie’s admission of guilt, police drove him to the town’s stonewalled prison. The facility was made up of three large cells, each housing about 45 prisoners serving sentences for crimes from drunkenness to murder. Prisoners slept side by side on thin mats.
The prison in Borama, Somaliland, where Seckie Saleban was held. PHOTO: MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
New arrivals like Seckie were assigned spots by the squat toilet, where the stench was overpowering. A guard whipped Seckie when he fell ill and skipped a sermon by a guest preacher. Inmates stole his boxers and T-shirts.
Seckie was allowed short visits in the warden’s office to see his mother, who brought food and clothing. On his mother’s third visit, Seckie cried. “I’m dying in here,” he recalled saying. “I’ve learned my lesson.”
She called her husband and handed Seckie the phone. “I’ll change,” Seckie told his father. “I’ll do better.”
Mr. Saleban agreed to drop the charges. “Just be a man of your word,” he said. “I did this for your own good.”
Days later, police delivered Seckie to court in handcuffs. The judge ordered him to agree to a list of actions to show his parents he had reformed: Go to college. Study the Quran. Help with his siblings. Be home by dark.
The judge told Seckie that if he failed to comply, his father could bring him back to court, and he would serve a six-month term. Seckie certified the agreement with a blue-ink thumbprint.
On March 3, 2020, he returned to the family’s house in Borama and stood in the garden while his mother sprayed the lice off him. He had already begun to plot his escape.
Seckie emailed the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with desperate lies he hoped would get the attention of the State Department. He said his father had forced him into jail for refusing to enter an arranged marriage and then sent him to an abusive boarding school.
“Somaliland is known for abusing people that are disobedient to their parents,” Seckie wrote.
U.S. Embassy officials passed his message to their counterparts in Djibouti, a former French colony abutting Somalia. The pandemic was in full swing, and it took months for American diplomats to secure permission for Seckie to enter the country. Djiboutian authorities finally gave approval in November 2020.
Seckie packed a duffel and told his mother he was going to visit his uncle. Then he paid $40 to men with a Toyota Land Cruiser to drive him 170 miles to Lawyacado, a speck of a town on the Gulf of Aden.
He crossed the border into Djibouti on foot and met a U.S. consular officer, a State Department security officer, and a Djiboutian embassy employee, U.S. officials said. In the car, Seckie said he had escaped a rehabilitation center. It was a needless lie. The State Department is required to help any destitute U.S. citizen obtain a ticket home and, if needed, issue an emergency passport. Seckie was given a hotel room as well as cash to buy food and a passport photo, U.S. officials said.
Seckie’s family grew worried when he didn’t show up at his uncle’s house. “Just come back,” his mother pleaded in a phone call, Seckie recalled.
He instead signed a form promising to repay the federal government $1,336 for the hotel and his airline ticket home.
‘I can’t help you’
A childhood friend from Owatonna picked Seckie up at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Thanksgiving Day 2020.
Seckie said he stayed with a former neighbor and slipped immediately into his old ways, staying up late smoking marijuana and playing “Call of Duty” and other videogames.
A month after Seckie’s return, a Somali friend offered him Percocet, an opioid painkiller. He crushed the pill into powder and snorted it off an iPhone screen in the friend’s car. He felt euphoric and slept soundly, without the night sweats and shakes that had haunted him since he was in prison, he said. The drug brought relief, and he wanted more.
Seckie spent weekends in the Twin Cities with friends who shared opioids. On Jan. 28, 2021, he woke up in an emergency room after taking a tainted street pill.
The neighbor in Owatonna who had offered Seckie a bed asked him to leave. He said he lost a job working nights at a tire company after he was caught sleeping under a desk in an empty office during the day. He couch-surfed with friends who soon tired of him. For weeks, he said, he survived the Minnesota winter by following strangers into apartment buildings and sleeping in little-used stairwells. He cadged pills from other addicts.
In November 2021, Seckie entered a drug detox facility in St. Paul, Minn., and then a drug-rehabilitation program. Neither one worked for him, he said.
In January 2022, police arrested Seckie on suspicion of stuffing four iPad keyboards under his jacket and walking out of an Apple store, court records show. The next month police reported him taking an iPad Pro from a Target store in West St. Paul, Minn.
At the end of March, Seckie tried to steal a laptop from an Office Depot and ended up in a tug of war with a salesman, according to police. He spent five days in Hennepin County jail and went through opioid withdrawal. All told, he faced the possibility of 20 years in prison, court records show.
Last spring, Mr. Saleban visited the U.S. and took Seckie to Burger King, where he spotted a help-wanted sign. He suggested that Seckie apply.
“I can’t help you if you don’t want to help yourself,” Mr. Saleban told him.
Seckie Saleban in the basement storage room where he lived in St. Paul, Minn. PHOTO: MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Seckie lived for months last year in a windowless basement storage room in a St. Paul housing complex. The Somali family in the apartment upstairs charged him $250 a month to live there and use their bathroom and kitchen. He kept the bare bulb over his mattress lighted at night to discourage rodents.
A court ordered Seckie to undergo drug-dependency assessment. He entered an outpatient treatment program last summer, a step he hoped would win him leniency in his pending criminal cases.
“If he had listened to his mother and father, this wouldn’t have happened,” said his mother, who remained in Borama. “I pray to God to guide him on the right path. He’s my son, and I love him.”
“I don’t know about that boy—what he wants and doesn’t want in his life,” his father said.
Unresolved is whether the harsh tactics of Seckie’s parents backfired—or whether Seckie was already down a road he couldn’t exit.
Seckie is torn between shame at the way he has conducted his life and anger at his father, he said. At moments, he understands his father’s decision to have him arrested and wonders if he would have done the same.
“Your son’s 21 years old,” he said. “You fear he’s going to fail at life. Maybe he saw no other way.”
Seckie, now 23, said he would only return to his parents free from drugs, employed, and ready for college. He longs for his father’s approval but can’t see the path to winning it. “I’m stuck,” he said. “Can’t he see I’m stuck?”