Minnesotan Hamid Masheye returns to Somalia to help guide new governmentby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — As war and famine continue to ravage Somalia, a Columbia Heights man is heading there to serve in his country's embattled government.
Minneapolis schoolteacher Hamid Masheye is one of four Minnesotans selected by the new prime minister to serve as an official for Somalia's executive branch.
The new state minister in foreign affairs departed for Mogadishu this week.
For the past nine years, Masheye, 57, has lived the quiet life of a math teacher at Wellstone International High School. He's a chemist by trade, with two master's degrees from universities in England and Canada. He's also lived in Cuba.
The last time he set foot in Somalia's capital city was in 1984.
"Since then, the crisis has been going on all that time. And all the time, we were wishing that it would go away, but now it's reached a point where you can't ignore it," Masheye said. "If we don't do anything about it, who will do something about it? It's the responsibility of all of us to take part and put an end to that nightmare."
In that nightmare, a modern-day famine is spreading to new regions of the country. Starving families are walking for weeks to find safety at refugee camps in Mogadishu and neighboring countries.
Efforts to deliver humanitarian aid have been complicated by the fact that the extremist group al-Shabab has a grip on much of the drought-stricken areas.
Al-Shabab is also at war with Somalia's weak transitional government, which only controls parts of Mogadishu. The group has been known to kill and kidnap government officials.
Late last year, a Minneapolis businessman who was asked to serve in the government was mysteriously killed in what many suspect was a political assassination.
Masheye said he understands what he's getting into.
"It's not a peaceful country," he said. "It's dangerous, but sometimes you have to face reality and take risks to save lives."
Masheye said he'll live in a more protected area of Mogadishu reserved for government officials.
He joins three other Somali Minnesotans who have recently returned to the war zone to serve in their homeland, including a Minneapolis man who has been sworn in as the new minister of health. The other Minnesotans include the new deputy minister of the interior and national security and the minister of defense.
All 18 cabinet members are from the diaspora. The new prime minister is a Harvard-educated technocrat from upstate New York. Some of the new ministers were among the first to flee Somalia as instability began to take hold in the 1980s and early '90s, creating a national brain drain.
With Western degrees and an understanding of how the world works, they're going back to Somalia and helping fuel what some are calling a "brain gain."
"In Somalia, the biggest need for this country is human resources," said government spokesman Abdifatah Abdinur, who lived in Rochester before moving to Somalia this spring for the job.
Yet critics are skeptical that these Westerners have the know-how or experience to stabilize a country that has been fighting with itself for more than 20 years.
As state minister for foreign affairs, one of Masheye's roles will be to raise awareness of the disaster unfolding in his homeland. He said the global community has been slow to respond to the drought. Masheye remembers the crush of media and donation boxes that followed the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti.
"If you go to Walmart, you'd see there were small boxes everywhere. I don't see that now here," he said. "I think that's what we have to start now, what the Somali diaspora has to start."
Masheye said this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of the solution. He plans to return to Minnesota after his one-year term is up.