Better Days

Fred Petters

The first time he saw someone murdered, Mohamed Abdullahi was seven. It happened on a road outside Mogadishu, on New Year's Day of 1991. He was walking beside his mother, who had his little sister on her back and his younger brother clinging to her leg. A man was stopped by militiamen who asked his clan affiliation, then sent him on his way. "And as he walks away, this dude takes an AK-47 and shoots him," Mohamed recounts. "He fell down, and I just ran."

Life was simple before the civil war in Somalia, says Mohamed, who is now 17. His father was a physician who worked at the police hospital in the capital city of Mogadishu. His mother's father, also a doctor, practiced at Mogadishu's huge Digfer Hospital. The family lived in a house in the Medina district near the airport, on a street that at one time was named after his mother's grandfather, who had pioneered a method of storing precious water in the city.

At three o'clock one morning near the end of December 1990, Mohamed and his siblings awoke to the sound of gunfire. The civil war to topple the 22-year dictatorship of Somali Pres. Mohamed Siad Barre had begun in earnest. When rebel soldiers sprayed their house with bullets, the family took cover under their beds. Mohamed's father, who, like Siad Barre, was a member of the Daroud clan, fled to the hospital that morning and then went into hiding; Mohamed wouldn't see him again for six years. The next day the boy was nearly killed by mortar fire when he went out to the faucet to wash before praying.

That was enough for his mother, who packed everyone up and left so quickly that Mohamed's brother didn't have time to find his shoes. The two boys traded Mohamed's pair back and forth on their 20-mile trek to a friend's home. A couple of weeks later, shortly before Siad Barre abdicated office on January 26, 1991, the family returned home. But as the clans that had united against Siad Barre battled for control of the government, thousands of nomadic warriors converged on Mogadishu, plunging it into a state of anarchy from which it has yet to emerge completely.

While Mohamed's father is Daroud, his mother, Faisa Ali, and her extended family are Benadiri, a people who identify themselves less by tribe affiliation than locality--specifically, the coastal urban areas in and around Mogadishu. Originally non-African, the Benadiri began coming to what is now Somalia as seafarers from the Arabian Peninsula during the Seventh Century. Because of their Arabic and Persian roots, they are lighter-skinned than most Somalis, and they still speak the country's common language with a slight accent. Where the vast majority of Somalis are nomadic, agriculture-oriented people, the Benadiri have traditionally been commercial traders, fishermen, and artisans. The antithesis of nomads, they have been concentrated in and around what is now Mogadishu since the 12th Century, living and worshiping in the same stone residences and mosques.

Wealthy landowners, unarmed and unaligned with any of the warring Somali subclans--in retrospect it's easy to see how vulnerable the Benadiri were when the warlords and freelance bandits overran Mogadishu. But as Abdullahi's family hiked home in early 1991, they had little idea of what they were getting into. Faisa's father, who arose at five every morning to get a head start on treating the wounded, came home one day naked and crying. A gunman had stopped him on the street and demanded money; when he had none to hand over, the man ordered him to strip and stole his clothes. A few weeks later Mohamed's aunt was raped at home by four men. Her 100-year-old grandmother was rousted from her bed by armed men who demanded money. His younger brother went outside one day to find three corpses lying in the yard. As the war dragged on into 1992, famine struck. At one point the family went five days without water, waiting for rain.

Belatedly responding to the carnage in Somalia, the United Nations sent in troops in 1992, including a substantial U.S. contingent of soldiers and armaments. In hindsight this initial post-Cold War attempt at "nation-building" is widely viewed as disastrous. U.N. forces eventually pulled out, having failed to restore order. Mohamed himself was nearly killed while studying at a religious center four blocks from his home when the place was caught in the middle of a skirmish between Somalis and American troops. "American helicopters were up there shooting everything that moved," he remembers. "I ran into this place that was bombed up and, like, broken down, and this dude pulled me in and threw me under a rock and said, 'Get under there and you'll be safe.'"

Early in 1993, after two years of anarchy, Faisa made the decision to head for a refugee camp in Kenya. Two more years would pass before the family arrived in the United States. When Mohamed Abdullahi came to Minneapolis in April 1995, he was 12 years old.  


It's generally acknowledged that the Twin Cities is home to more Somali immigrants than any other place in North America, and the local population is growing every day. An actual number is hard to pin down, though; statewide estimates range from 15,000 to 75,000, depending upon whom you ask. Government agencies favor the low range, while social-service organizations guess higher.

Spokesmen for the latter offer two explanations for why Somalis are grossly undercounted. First, in accord with tradition, extended Somali families tend to live together under one roof. Fearing eviction, they underreport their numbers when census takers and social workers come calling. This also helps to obscure the phenomenon known as "secondary migration": Even by conservative estimates, roughly three out of every four Somalis in Minnesota relocated here after having been placed in one of 23 other U.S. states from the camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Why would so many people who were reared near the Equator voluntarily flock to the frozen prairie? Local Somalis are apt to answer with a smile and one of two pithy phrases: "To be near family," or, "More opportunities here" (or both).

"The services were here long before the Somalis came," notes Abdi Husen, a mental-health staffer at the Community University Health Care Center, which is located in the middle of a Somali enclave at the corner of Bloomington and Franklin avenues in Minneapolis. "In San Diego, where I was before, the [government] programs have been cut back, and there is less help from the nonprofits. People would go to a single doctor's office in a corner of the neighborhood for a ten-minute visit. In Minnesota it is much more comprehensive. We have a clinic that also contains mental-health and dental services. When doctors make a referral, it's a one-stop shop. It is so much better, especially for the poor."

In the mental-health area alone, the center has an active client base of more than 100 Somalis, many of whom are being treated for depression and/or posttraumatic stress. The diagnosis and treatment of such disorders often conflicts with cultural and religious resistance: Nearly all the Somalis here are Muslims, and many of them believe that God's will must be accepted. There's also a general belief that a person is either crazy or normal, with no gradations of sanity. To counter this, Husen says, the center's staff has worked through elders in the community, whose endorsement--be it explicit or tacit--of mental-health therapy carries significant weight.

That kind of cultural astuteness is not uncommon among Minnesota's social-service providers. It's largely a product of their dealings with the influx of Hmong immigrants during the 1980s and is especially evident within the Minneapolis Public Schools, whose English Language Learners program allows students to learn English while doing coursework in their native language and also provides liaisons to families to bridge cultural differences. By the end of last year, ELL served nearly 2,000 Somalis--as well as more than 3,500 Hmong, 2,500 native Spanish speakers, and six other groups of at least 40 students who spoke something other than English.

"The bilingual program in Minneapolis is the best of any city throughout the United States. I can tell you that many Somalis come here from other states just to get this kind of educational support," says Mohamed Osman, a teacher at Roosevelt High. Somalis make up one-third of Roosevelt's student body. Announcements are printed and read over the PA system in Somali and English, and administrators have set aside an area to accommodate Muslim prayer. Osman proudly notes that during the past five years, more Somali students have gone on to college from Roosevelt than from any other school in the world. (Still, fewer than half of the Somali seniors who were enrolled in the ELL program last year graduated.) "The students are very lucky to be here. I was a Somali teacher and I was in the civil war, and remembering back home and seeing what it is like here, I don't need to say anything bad about this country," Osman asserts. "America and the people of Minnesota have been very kind, and I say that wholeheartedly."

Still, says Abdi Husen, "We're just touching the corners of this. I'm not sure most of the real needs are being addressed. We serve a number of Somalis, but if there are 50,000 of them here, how much service is enough?" Adds Husen's supervisor, David Schuchman: "We got our first Somali staff member three years ago, a second one a year ago, and two more about a month ago. And all of them are already too busy. There is still more out there than we can deal with, and one of the biggest gaps is for Somali children."  

Most Somalis don't expect social services to address their problems; when they refer to "opportunity," they generally mean employment. And after what they have endured at home, almost any job looks like a good one. "The first Somalis who came to Minnesota from the camps came to Willmar to work in the turkey-processing factory," says Mohamed Hassan, the crime-prevention coordinator for the Minneapolis-based Somali Community of Minnesota. "After that, the word spread out that there was a place called Minnesota where there were jobs that could bring better conditions of life. And people said, 'That's where we will move.'"

Over the past five years, Somali immigrants have eagerly taken jobs as taxi drivers, parking attendants, and hotel housekeepers. Entrepreneurs have established Somali restaurants and coffee shops, as well as grocery stores and other retailers. And both here and outstate, they have provided a steady source of factory labor. "People talk about the services they use, but you don't hear as much about what they contribute, like the 300 Somalis working in the meat factory in Faribault," notes Abdi Husen. "They want the work. They obviously aren't moving from San Diego because of the climate or the culture."

One positive aspect of the booming employment situation has been a relative lack of tension between transplanted clan members. Although a transitional government was finally established in Somalia last August, it has yet to impose order or effectively quell the bloodshed. In its latest (1999) annual report on Somalia, Amnesty International left little doubt that violence continued to grip the nation: "Human-rights abuses by faction militias were committed with impunity. There were hundreds of killings of unarmed civilians."

Within the past decade, the civil war and a manmade famine have killed nearly half a million people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others. To some degree, every Somali immigrant has had his life shattered and his memories permanently stained by the actions of his countrymen. Yet in Minnesota, and elsewhere in America, Somalis have done an admirable job of reducing interclan conflict. Police blotters across the nation contain almost no reports of clan-based violence.

"There's not much clan friction because the American way of life doesn't allow that," Husen says. "People have to go to work, and the time they have is very little. Many are pressured by the desire to send money and help out family members who are still in the camps or living with the results of the war back home. A lot of the clan things happen because the economy is tough. When you have no money, you have to depend on your clan. But here you can support yourself. Here you go to work with people from other clans."

Last month the Star Tribune published a front-page story about an ongoing federal probe into whether a portion of the money local Somalis are sending back home is funding warlords rather than feeding families. Not surprisingly, the story struck a nerve. Many Twin Cities Somalis felt the piece sensationalized the situation, and that at most a minuscule fraction of the many millions that are being sent back might be used to fund continued warfare. But the harsh reaction was an indirect acknowledgment that dormant hard feelings within the community cannot be taken for granted.

Efforts to reconcile Somali clans in Minnesota were begun as far back as 1994, when the first wave of immigrants arrived. A group of people from some of the more established professions--teachers, doctors, lawyers--discussed forming an umbrella organization that would comprise a cross-section of clan members. In consultation with clan elders, they founded the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. Funded by a variety of nonprofit and government entities, the organization, based at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis's Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, has created a variety of advocacy programs for housing, employment, mental health, and youth mentorship.

But what really distinguishes the confederation is its effectiveness in promoting a spirit of interclan cooperation. "The civil war is fresh in the minds of people here. Clan differences were declared, and it takes time for that to go away," sums up the group's executive director, Saeed Fahia. To heal these wounds, Somali immigrants must negotiate a perilous course between denial and bitterness.

Ahmed Warsame is the confederation's elder liaison. He notes that centuries of European colonization, along with territorial disputes with neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya, long ago divided the Somalis' land and loyalty and set them against one another despite their common culture and language. A prominent businessman in Mogadishu, Warsame lost his home and his properties in the civil war, as well as his son and two brothers, who were gunned down at one of his warehouses by neighbors he knew personally. "Of course I was angry at the time; it is human to be emotional," he says in Somali, as Fahia translates. "But what I knew then and now was they didn't hate me as a group or a person. They made a political calculation. They thought they would have more stability if just one group in the area was in power. Even now I hear from people connected with them who say 'I am sorry' about what happened. Very few people were meaning to perpetrate this conflict--just the warlords and their agitators, looking for power. Most of the Somalis living here now were themselves victims who feared for their lives."  

Adds Fahia: "Once the civil war started, for protection you had to choose a side. And even if you had no side, the warlords would choose a side for you."


For the Benadiri the reconciliation process is particularly complex. Unlike most of their countrymen, they were largely left alone during Siad Barre's brutal reign. While other clans had a clear-cut interest in either seizing or retaining political power, the war offered the Benadiri almost nothing to gain and everything to lose. And they lost everything. Mogadishu, which had been their home for more than a thousand years, became a killing field, and they were caught in the middle. Literally: The infamous "Green Line" separating the capital into twin territories controlled by the two most powerful warlords ran right between the city's two oldest Benadiri settlement districts.

The Benadiri remain wary of integrating with their fellow Somali refugees. When countrymen who had earlier looted, raped, and killed members of their clan became refugees themselves and arrived at the camps in Kenya, the Benadiri were permitted to create their own segregated refugee camp. Locally, rather than lend their full support to the broader-based efforts of the Confederation of Somali Community, they established their own group, the Somali Benadiri Community of Minnesota.

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."

Ali says he received a call from Mogadishu earlier this year from his brother, who said he'd been accused of murder and needed $3,000. According to the Benadiri, it's a common but macabre moneymaking scheme: A body is dragged to your door and a relative of the deceased accuses you of murder. An elder or tribal council determines that you must make restitution or face execution. Although he knew it was extortion, Ali says, he took up a collection, depleted his savings, and raised the money for his brother. Amnesty International's 1999 report mentions specifically that "[m]embers of vulnerable minority communities, such as Bantu agriculturalists and artisan 'castes,' and of the wealthier Benadiri business community, continued to be at risk of arbitrary killing, looting and rape." Explains Ali: "They try it more often when they know there is a relative with access to money living outside the country. We didn't really have a lot of choice. I believe they would have killed him if we didn't pay."

When negotiations where being made about a transitional government in Somalia, Ali says, "the Benadiri people were referred to as 'others.' We came from Somalia almost 1,500 years ago, before everybody. And now, because we did not participate in the civil war, we are called 'others.' What that means is, 'You guys are a minority.'"

Across the room, Mohamed Husein nods his head. "Yes, we are a minority," he says. "It is very difficult."


When his family first came to America, Mohamed Abdullahi had nightmares about the war. His mother set up an appointment with a psychologist, but after two visits Mohamed quit going. "The guy didn't have anything to help me with. He wasn't in my mind," he explains with a shrug. "He said, 'Talk to me.' I could talk all day, but it wasn't going to help me. What would help me is if what happened didn't happen, you know?  

"Now I'm stronger because I forget about the past more," he goes on. "I mean, I'll always be caring about it, but thinking back to that stuff will just pull me down, and I'm not going to let it."

According to Abdi Husen, such a reaction is typical. "A lot of people of all ages think it's better just to forget about it, not talk about it," the Community University Health Care Center staffer asserts. "The people we see generally have waited until they can't eat and sleep, when it really starts to get physical."

"He says it's best to forget," Faisa Ali says of her eldest son. "But still sometimes now he'll talk about what happened."

A year after the family arrived in America, Mohamed's father joined them, but the reunion was short-lived; the war had changed the former doctor, causing turbulence. Now Faisa is raising her four kids as a single mother. (Besides Mohamed, there's his 10-year-old sister Kadija and brothers Abdirahman, who's 16, and Feysal, who is 4.) Twice since their arrival in the Twin Cities they've been evicted. Another time Faisa moved them away from a drug-infested neighborhood because she was afraid to let the kids go outside. Having bounced from Minneapolis to Eagan to Hopkins, they now rent a modest house in north Minneapolis. Blankets and sheets cover the windows instead of curtains. Thrift-store paintings dot the walls of the living room, in which a tiny television set perches on a table opposite a pair of couches. Faisa works 16 hours a day as a home health-care aide and sends what money she can to her brother and his four children in Mogadishu, and to her sister at the refugee camp in Kenya. What's left is enough to live on.

Though Mohamed is at first reluctant to discuss his American education--"I think all the schools I've been to are good," he says--with a little prompting from his mother, details emerge about life at Washburn High in south Minneapolis. "I guess with all the changes, it has been hard for me to get settled. I didn't use to talk to anybody, and they basically didn't talk to me. I just go to class. I am learning things, but at the same time I'm not because I'm just going from classes to classes."

Will he graduate?

"Yes!" Faisa says firmly.

"That's a hard question," Mohamed counters. "I am trying my hardest. At the same time, I can't get enough credits. We'll see.

"I have friends here," he continues. "Mostly other Somali. We play basketball and soccer--just hang out at the gyms or each other's houses. It is easier to be friends here. The most important thing is, other Somalis know what we have gone through. That's what is keeping us together: what everybody went through."

When the conversation turns to how his friends are treated at school, Mohamed becomes more animated. "Like dirt," he says. "At the end of the year last year, they were throwing eggs at the Somali students, hitting them in the back. And every time the Somali students walk by through the hallway, they would hold their noses and say, 'Oh, the Somali students stink.'

"Last Thursday I almost got in a fight with this dude," he goes on. "At lunch there wasn't any place for me and my friend to sit except one table where four seats were around this one black student. When we sat down, he was like, 'Oh, the Somalis are this and that.' I said, 'Why you gotta talk like that, badmouthing me? And I stepped up to him. And the vice principal came up to me and said, 'He was sitting there first.' Okay. But his name wasn't on those other chairs, right?"

Adds Mohamed matter-of-factly: "Whites don't show racism the way black people show it. Black people come up to you and say everything on their mind. White people hide it and show it in other, little ways that will hurt you. But black people, they don't care--they will tell you."

His mother complains about gun-toting students, and Mohamed agrees. "That's stupid! They make big things out of little things, like with the gangs and stuff. That's nothing compared to what I have been through. 'Been there. Done that.'" He mutters the cliché disgustedly.

"I worry because where we live before, he's always getting into fights on the [basketball] court," Faisa puts in.

"Sometimes people will talk a lot of trash and I'll just go, 'Whatever, just play on,'" Mohamed explains. "It's just that when they touch me, I gotta fight back, because that's me. Just handle it once and get it finished.  

"I have no desire to join a gang or anything," he emphasizes. "But I am not scared when they come up to me and things have to go down. Everybody is going to die sometime, so let's just all get through it. I don't care, I'll step up to you if I have to. I'm not scared of anybody except God."

His Muslim faith is the core of Mohamed's existence. When his mother expresses skepticism about a God who would allow so many of her people to be killed, he is quick to rebuke her. "No, Mom, it did help--because we prayed a lot and that's why we're here right now, because it is a more peaceful place."

Mohamed has a dream. "I've told her before I'm not going to stay here," he says, gesturing across the couch to his mother. "America is a fast land, a fast life. Everything is about money. As soon as I get married, I'm going to save up money, like a couple of thousand, go to Africa, Egypt or something, and buy my own home. Because my mother sends, like, $200 to Africa and it can save them for a couple of months. I'm like, 'What are we doing here, then?' I want to go someplace where I'll be with my religious group, where you know it is time to pray because you can hear everybody praying, all over the country. I want to go someplace safer, someplace where life is simple."


Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year, is a time of fasting and worship. On this snowy late-November evening, the second day of Ramadan, the small concrete-block mosque across from the Coyle Community Center is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with worshipers, to the point where no one else will fit inside the open door. Dozens of pairs of shoes are jumbled on shelves along the back wall. Up front, on a crude dais of unfinished wood, a man reads from the Koran in a hypnotic cadence occasionally answered by the crowd, who alternate between standing and kneeling. Mohamed Abdullahi is somewhere inside.

As the service continues, more people arrive. Some stand outside, waiting fruitlessly for people to leave. Several return to their cars to fetch small Persian-style rugs. They lay their rugs on the snow-covered ground and slowly sink to their knees, palms apart and facing upward.

The gentle snowfall, mixed with the reading of the Koran, is ethereal. The survivors of Somalia are praying: May the will of God be more merciful in the days and years ahead.

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