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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Japanese man provides new hope to young Somali refugees

Maho Kawabata

Nov. 28, 2017

With no end in sight, many young Somalis have fled as refugees to neighboring countries. Having lost their homes and jobs, they often become prey to recruiters from gangs and extremist groups. A young Japanese man is dedicating his life to helping Somalia's next generation find a better future.

Yosuke Nagai is the head of Japanese non-profit organization Accept International that provides support to young Somalis who are exposed to extremism. The number of Somali refugees living in Kenya exceeds 300,000. Many of them face discrimination and have difficulty finding work. Some become involved in gangs and commit crimes of theft and violence. They are also vulnerable to being recruited by extremists.

"I heard that militant groups were taking advantage of gangs, so I thought it was worthwhile to approach young Somalis. I thought there must be something people their age could do...something we could do," says Nagai.

It all started when Nagai was a university freshman, and traveled to Kenya during his summer vacation. "All the Kenyans I met told me Somalis were bad. They said, 'All Somalis are refugees and criminals.' That's when I grew interested in this matter. I did research to see if it was true," he says.

Six months later, a friend of Nagai's introduced him to a young Somali taking refuge in Kenya. They started working together on a support group there.

Nagai has created a space in Nairobi where gang members can talk about their troubles. He also encourages young people to go to school or join local job-training courses. It's all part of the continuous support he provides to stop them from being radicalized.

When he began his project, many older Japanese advised him to stop. He described these encounters in a book he published last year. "Yosuke, you will be killed if you go to Somalia now." "Even if you go to Somalia, you will only get in their way. What can you do there?" he was told.

"Those adults rubbed me the wrong way. I thought, 'We are doing this because you people are doing nothing,'" says Nagai.Those adults rubbed

"I would just start a conversation by asking a guy his age and telling him mine. The ones in a gang joined to protect themselves. They say they've lost their father or mother to violence. They say they are all by themselves. So I listen to what they are going through."

Gang members gradually opened up to Nagai. This summer, he succeeded in breaking up a gang that had 40 members. 20-year-old Chicha was one of the gang members. He's joined Nagai's non-profit organization and works on rehabilitation programs for young Somalis. "My dream is to become a pilot or computer engineer. I'm grateful for his support," he says.

Nagai's work is driven by his belief in the power of youth. He has been giving lectures across Japan to encourage university students to engage in aid work overseas. "International cooperation can only be provided by certain people. Who could that be? I think young people should be expected to play a part," he says in a lecture.

"I was impressed that he forced himself to go to Somalia in his first year in university."
"I learned there are many things we can do," say the students who listened to the lecture.

"When you have no job, living is tough and you have no goal in life. You wonder how you should live your life. My goal is to help young people be proud of themselves and to find their way in life," says Nagai.

Nagai is now starting a new program with the UN-Habitat in Kenya, close to the border with Somalia. It's a way of expanding his mission to protect young Somali people and help them build a better future.