Emerging community leaders bring Wedgewood youth hope, but more is needed

Fariha Tayyab
Siyat Mohamed with youth

“People still love you,” soccer coach Siyat Mohamed likes to remind one of his former athletes, a player who took the team to a championship their first year. “It broke my heart [to see him quit]. He was one of the most talented kids I had.”

Mohamed reassures his former players that they are always welcome back, regardless of the paths they’ve chosen. In a neighborhood built on tight, supportive communal ties, Mohamed is in touch with numerous families — those that have students enrolled in the recreational soccer program, and those who do not. 

Mohamed grew up in Wedgewood Village Apartments with a single mom, whom he considers his personal hero, and he now spends his days coaching and mentoring neighborhood boys in the same West Side housing complex, which is located in the Hilltop and bordered by three highways.

“It really worries me that I can’t be there to lead them and guide them,” Mohamed said, referring to the heavy burden he carries in the hours he can’t be with the players (the team meets five days a week, Monday through Friday, even in the offseason). While many young boys in the neighborhood turn to soccer as an outlet for stress relief, community-building and entertainment, Mohamed realizes he cannot save all of them from making bad decisions. Like many neighborhoods affected by extreme poverty, the residents of Wedgewood have little or no access to community resources and no city-provided, community programming.

The housing complex also has a violent recent pastthat residents and outside groups have worked together in recent years to try to overcome.

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“If we had this [soccer] program a few years back, there would not [have been] a lack of guidance,” Mohamed said of the promise he sees the team instilling in the neighborhood’s young residents. “Many turned to that [street] lifestyle because they lost hope.” 

Wedgewood, like Southpark Apartments in Franklinton, is home to a large Bantu Somali community, many residents arriving as refugees over the last two decades. Children in Wedgewood are often raised by single parents, with six or more people often forced to live in the complex’s humble two-bedroom apartments. Many parents work long hours or multiple jobs, leaving younger children at home with siblings who have not yet reached working age. 

The soccer program started in 2018, a year after local nonprofit My Project USA started to focus its efforts on Wedgewood, recognizing that residents lacked access to a community center and other opportunities for engagement. Along with the soccer team, the nonprofit also helped institute Boy Scouts within the complex, as well as police engagement events facilitated by Columbus Division of Police Commander Scott Highland.

Since Wedgewood’s last youth homicide, which took place at the end of June, My Project USA has approached its mission with increased urgency, expediting the launch of new programs that founder Zerqa Abid hopes can finally bring a degree of stability to the neglected neighborhood. The nonprofit has established a mentorship and wellness program for teens, career pathways for adults and is currently searching for a coach to head a girls soccer program. But these programs still aren’t enough to meet the demands of Wedgewood’s growing youth population. As a result, the neighborhood continues to seek further investment and support from the outside.

Mohamed and fellow youth leader Abdi Kadir Omar both wear many hats, operating as mentors and community liaisons, in addition to coaching soccer. In conversation, the two discuss the many similarities between Wedgewood and Southpark before landing on one notable distinction: The proximity of the Franklinton housing complex to Sullivant Gardens Recreation Center, which is located roughly a quarter of a mile away.

Afterschool Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit focused on ensuring all children have access to affordable after-school programming, has released data crediting these programs with a significant reduction in crime, lower drug use and fewer instances of teenage pregnancy.

Since schools and public spaces locked down amid the COVID-19 spread, both Wedgewood and Southpark have seen an uptick in crime, including recent murders that have taken place within each community. Both scenarios fall in line with a city-wide trend ofincreased gun violence.

In late April, just a few months after burying his mother, Hussein Osman Abdi, 16, was shot and killed,his body found in the hallway at Wedgewood Apartments. On June 21, MusseAbdikadir Hassan, 15,was killed while sitting outside with friends during a wedding celebration in Southpark.

“All of a sudden, the guns started blaring,” said one witness to the Southpark shooting. “It was a war zone with bullets flying everywhere.” People outside ran into the building, some taking refuge inside the apartments of strangers. Multiple windows were shattered, and an hours-long police lockdown followed. Witnesses to the spree, who declined to be identified owing to fears of retribution, said that days later the sound of the gunshots still resonated in their heads. 

“If anything, Bantu people want answers,” said one witness, who described what they viewed as police indifference to the killings. “We are being slaughtered and murdered in the streets.” 

Amid these circumstances, Omar and Mohamed believe a focus on the next generation is essential to turning around these communities. Both would like to see the city invest in a recreation center adjacent to Wedgewood, offering children a social outlet in a neighborhood in which these kinds of resources are often sorely lacking. In the interim, the two are investing long hours working alongside the kids, coaching soccer while also mentoring players off the field. When they look at these children, they see younger versions of themselves.

“For these kids, I am a parent to them. They look up to me as a role model,” Mohamed said. “I am so much more than a soccer coach.”

Children play at Wedgewood Village Apartments on Sunday, December 24, 2017. They are not identified.