President of Somalia making rare visit to Twin Citiesby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota's Somali community, the largest in the U.S., is rolling out the red carpet for Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. The newly-elected president arrives in the Twin Cities on Friday night as part of a stateside tour of cities with large Somali-American populations.
Ahmed's visit marks the first time a Somali president has come to Minnesota.
President Ahmed's visit will culminate with a public speech Sunday at Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus. Doors open at 3 p.m.
Then he's off to DePaul University in Chicago and then Columbus, Ohio, before returning to Mogadishu.
Many Somalis, and even the U.S. government, think Ahmed is Somalia's best hope for restoring peace after nearly two decades of civil war. But some of those high hopes have dimmed in recent months as insurgent groups have escalated their attacks against President Ahmed's weak government.
Minneapolis poet Osman Dahir will speak for many Somali-Americans when he recites a poem at before Ahmed's speech at Northrop.
"I don't know why they are killing the children, why they are killing the women. I don't understand," said Dahir, intoning a few lines of the poem he'd written in his native Somali.
Many believe in President Ahmed because, unlike other Somali leaders, he isn't a warlord. Nor does he appear to be beholden to the clan divisions that have picked apart the country. He's an Islamic scholar who briefly brought peace to the nation in 2006 before his group was overthrown.
The significance of his visit to Minnesota is not lost on Ibrahim Abikar Noor, who took on the challenge of coordinating the president's visit.
"I think it's a very, very big deal," he said. "We may never see another sitting Somali president coming to Minnesota."
Noor thought it might be a prank when he got a voice message from Ahmed's chief of staff, briefing Noor on his unusual mission.
"Thirty minutes later, he called me," Noor said. "I said, 'Are you serious?' And he said, 'Yes, I'm calling from Somalia, I'm the chief of staff, and this is what I'm expecting you to do, if you accept it.' I said, 'Yes, it would be a great honor for me."
Noor has arranged for volunteers to greet the president at the airport, and for local groups to meet privately with Ahmed. Imams, elders, women and young people will all have the chance to ask the president questions -- and even dispense their advice.
Many expect President Ahmed to impress upon Somalis in Minnesota of their responsibility to rebuild their homeland, by either sending money to international aid agencies or simply supporting Ahmed's fragile government.
"They have a very important role they can play," Mohamed Keynan said.
Keynan, 40, whose father owns a clothing shop at Cedar and Riverside avenues in the heart of Minneapolis' Somali community, knows firsthand about answering the call of the homeland. After living in the United States for 17 years, the U.S. citizen and businessman left his wife and six children in Minnesota earlier this year to become a member of Somalia's transitional parliament.
"It wasn't easy," he said. "I discussed with my family, my wife, my children, and my friends. I know it was risky, but on the other hand, it's an opportunity to do something in my country, which I loved."
Keynan said he wants to put his Western education to use in his homeland.
Across the street, at a Somali mall that he once managed, Keynan said he hopes the Somali president will get a feel for Minnesota, and for the lives that his people have rebuilt here.
"We have businesses, we have houses; we're educated here," he said. "Our children go to schools here. Our children were born here. I'm sure he'll be happy to see our success in this country."
But President Ahmed is also expected to tackle some troubling issues during his short visit to Minnesota. Many hope he will speak out against the extreme ideology espoused by his prime enemy, al-Shabaab, the group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
Authorities say al-Shabaab lured about 20 young men from Minnesota to fight. Ahmed will meet with about a dozen Somali-American college students to talk about youth issues.
Some of those students gathered Sunday at a U of M classroom with volunteer organizer Nimco Ahmed to prepare for the visit.
"You guys should feel honored and privileged," she said to the group about their rare opportunity to meet with a sitting Somali president.
One of the students, senior Hanan Osman, said she's thought about what she'd like to say to President Ahmed.
"I want to be the new generation that helps Somalia," Osman said. "I want to be the one involved in the rebuilding, or somewhat assembling it together to become some sort of society that functions. I want to ask him, 'How, me being a graduate now, how can I be of help to you?'"
Osman, and many others, hope President Ahmed has an answer.
- Morning Edition, 10/01/2009, 6:20 a.m.