Better Days

They went through hell in Mogadishu. But for 17-year-old Mohamed Abdullahi and other Somali immigrants, in Minneapolis it's still an uphill climb.

Privately, some Somalis disdain the Benadiri tendency to isolate themselves. Though they acknowledge the hardships the Benadiri underwent, they point out that no Somali immigrant has a corner on suffering. (For example, Baidoa, located well to the north of Mogadishu, was leveled by bombs and then so completely racked by famine that it came to be known as "the City of Death.") But Saeed Fahia is more diplomatic. "We would like to work more closely with the Benadiri," he says. "But I could put myself in their shoes and realize terrible things happened to them. They probably believe they need to work by themselves on some issues and take more control over their lives."

The founder and president of the Somali Benadiri Community, Mohamed Husein, is a man of irrepressible goodwill. Invariably dressed in a suit and tie, Husein has the curiously winning habit of punctuating his speech--even chilling accounts of wartime atrocities--with a short, giddy laugh, as if to convey that, however tough the circumstances, he's glad to be alive. A former English teacher at Somali National University, that country's most renowned institution of higher learning, Husein served as an interpreter for the Red Cross and the U.N. after the war broke out. But when he was informed by neighbors that he was on the verge of being kidnapped by a warlord and ransomed back to the U.N., he fled to the refugee camps. He had hoped to resume teaching in America but found that in order to do so he'd have to invest years of training here. Instead, he decided to study business administration, "to get the knowledge to run this [organization] so I can better help my people," he says. He's now one semester away from receiving his degree from Metro State.

Even with a 12-member board of directors and an unpaid part-time co-worker, the SBCM is, for all practical purposes, a one-man operation. Husein doesn't draw a salary for his many SBCM hours. Because money is tight and he is rarely home, his wife and children are living with his sister-in-law in Chicago. On the walls of his small, second-floor office at the corner of Nicollet and Franklin avenues in Minneapolis, he has typed and tacked up numerous aphorisms in big bold letters. One reads, "If we open a quarrel between the past and present we will find that we have no future."

On the phone Husein is a bureaucratic handyman, dispensing advice and gathering information about everything from welfare applications to apartment listings, credit histories, and bus schedules. ("It is easier to get people a good job than a good place for them and their family to live," he comments, punctuated by one of his who-would-have-believed-it laughs.) Outside the office he becomes a delivery man, translator, and taxi service. While adding steadily to the 146,000 miles on his 1989 Toyota, he tells of times during the war when gunmen would grab him and take him to an elder. Had the elder not verified Husein's assertion that he was a resident of the neighborhood, he would have been killed.

And how does it feel to be near death? "It feels like you need to do good things for people," he says, "so that if you die you will go to heaven and not go to hell."

Between errands he stops to eat at Jubbaland, a Somali hub at the corner of Franklin and Chicago avenues. As he walks through the door, Husein is greeted effusively by a heavyset man, who hugs him and shouts, "Benadiri! Benadiri!" This is Mohamed Maye, one of the establishment's four owners (and the lone Benadiri among them). In Mogadishu Maye was a renowned chef. Last month he catered a wedding party for 700 in Rochester. Lunch consists of enormous portions of salad and steaming plates filled with rice and goat meat. Eventually a sullen busboy comes to clear the table wearing headphones and a Vikings jersey bearing the number 7, with "Ahmed" spelled across the shoulders where "Cunningham" would normally be.

Though he doesn't restrict his group's work to assisting fellow Benadiri, Husein says a Benadiri organization is necessary because "some Benadiri feel better talking to other Benadiri. There is more confidentiality with each other. There are a lot of problems and bad memories from the war." The SBCM exists for immigrants such as Orka Ali, a Benadiri elder whose family was one of the wealthiest in Mogadishu before the war, thanks to a lucrative jewelry business. Of her nine children, three were killed and two are missing. Now she lives in a public-housing project in Eden Prairie and takes medication for depression. One of her arms is misshapen at the wrist, where a gun barrel broke the bone when she struggled unsuccessfully to prevent the death of one of her sons. Her face is filled with indelible sorrow.

The SBCM's secretary, Omar Ali (no relation to Orka), matter-of-factly recalls walking 150 miles with his wife and two-year-old daughter to a refugee camp in Ethiopia seven years ago. Pride and pleasure animate his voice as he recounts how, on May 26, 1996, he landed a job as a parking attendant. The company provides medical benefits for his wife and three children, two of whom were born in America. "There are regular raises of money," he says. (He now makes $10.75 an hour.) "The place is close to my home in downtown Minneapolis; five minutes and I am there. I like the people, I am good with the customers, and I have a lot of friends."

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