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Said Sheik-Abdi, with ARC, engages Minneapolis' Somalis in helping Somalia's internal refugees

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In a yearlong series, MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

A child at Rajo Camp collects water provided by donors in Minnesota
Courtesy of American Refuge Committee
A child at Rajo Camp collects water provided by donors in Minnesota.

One child died in front of Said Sheik-Abdi in late August, and the small body was carried away for burial. Hundreds of others struggled for their lives in hospitals so crowded that tables doubled as beds. Hundreds more squatted in the shadow of Mogadishu's airport, praying for food and water.

"This is shocking to see and so terribly sad," Sheik-Abdi said by phone from Somalia's wreck of a capital city.

By returning to his famine-stricken homeland, Sheik-Abdi was reawakening a nightmare he had lived 20 years earlier when war and famine shattered the secure life he had known in Somalia.

He did so deliberately. During every one of those 20 years, Sheik-Abdi had wanted to help relieve Somalia's suffering — even while he lived 8,000 miles away in Minnesota.

"I knew deep down in my heart that Somalia is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world because of 20 years of war, 20 years of lacking a stable government, 20 years of lacking development, 20 years being left alone because the international community was tired of what was happening in Somalia," he said.

Engaging Minnesota in the cause
And now he is leading a drive to engage Minnesota in the cause that had haunted him all that time: helping Somalia finally wake up from its national nightmare.

The chance didn't come until May 18, 2009. And then it came by serendipity.

Sheik-Abdi turned on his car radio that day and heard MPR's Tom Crann ask the new head of the American Refugee Committee (ARC) where the organization should direct its next efforts.

Somali refugees, answered Daniel Wordsworth, the committee's president and CEO.

"They are like a forgotten group of people," Wordsworth said.

While Sheik-Abdi steered his car, thoughts sparked across synapses.

Minnesota was home to the Refugee Committee, with its proven record of delivering aid in some of the planet's toughest trouble spots. The state also was home to America's largest Somali community, a group that had sent millions of dollars back home but remained frustrated in the face of Somalia's immense needs.

Said Sheik-Abdi
Courtesy of ARC
Said Sheik-Abdi

This was a case where one plus one could equal three, Sheik-Abdi thought. Bring the two groups together and you could leverage the benevolent power they could wield acting independently.

Sheik-Abdi called the Refugee Committee's headquarters in Minneapolis.

"I need to talk to this guy," he said on the phone.

Engaging the diaspora
That call launched the Neighbors Initiative. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently cited it as a global model for engaging the Somali diaspora in organized efforts to meet East Africa's urgent needs.

"We are working with the White House to mobilize churches, mosques and synagogues to support this effort," she said.

Sheik-Abdi, backed by other Somali leaders and the Refugee Committee, already has enlisted thousands of Minnesota Somalis in the cause. You can see the eruption of enthusiasm on the Neighbors Facebook page. 

Minnesota Somalis have organized a frenzy of fundraisers: concerts, a sambusa cook-off, bake sales and charity walks. Kids have peddled lemonade from street stands. Teens have washed cars and bagged groceries. Adults have volunteered for on-the-ground work in Somalia. And the Somali community has launched a "1,000 giving $1,000" campaign to raise $1 million for the cause.

Sadia Mohamoud, a 24-year-old social worker who lives in Bloomington, was one of some 200 people who turned out on Saturday, Aug. 27, to walk from Minneapolis to the Minnesota Capitol in a bid to raise money and awareness of the needs in Somalia.

The partnership between the Somali community and the American Refugee Committee is "awesome," she said.

Preparing to walk on behalf of Somalia were, left to right, Deega Hussein, Fadumo Mire, Zahra Farah and Sadia Mohamoud.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Preparing to walk on behalf of Somalia were, left to right, Deega Hussein, Fadumo Mire, Zahra Farah and Sadia Mohamoud.

"It is connecting people and helping us come together," she said.

Indeed, the organizers have gathered support far beyond the Somali community. The city of Minneapolis, Greater Twin Cities United Way and the health plan UCare were initial sponsors. And many non-Somalis joined the walk on Saturday.  

'A place in my heart'
The true impetus for the initiative came from memories of the suffering people Sheik-Abdi had left behind in Somalia.

"These people have had a place in my heart for a long time," he said. "They planted the seed."

That seed has traveled a long distance since Sheik-Abdi, now 40, was a boy in Mogadishu. His father, an engineer, worked for an Italian company. The family lived in what Sheik-Abdi described as an "average middle-class Somali home — not poor, not rich, like average Somali families."

His passion as a teen was soccer. His parents had other priorities, insisting that he attend not only high school but also religious school and a private night school, where he studied English.

But all of their priorities were shattered when civil war erupted in 1991.

Imagine waking up one morning expecting a normal day. Instead, you see buildings on fire and banks looted. Electrical service crashes. No one dares to go to work or to school. Fighting disrupts work on already drought-stricken farms. Hunger spreads like floodwater.

The horror seemed inexplicable to Sheik-Abdi. He had no idea at the time how long it would last and how far it would fling the people in his life.

'Everyone was dispersed'
"My friends, my neighbors, everyone was dispersed," he said. "Today, I don't know where they are. I don't know whether they are alive."

In 1992, the world took note of the crisis as the United Nations set wheels in motion for an international effort to restore order and provide humanitarian relief.

Western journalists and aid groups already had arrived, and Sheik-Abdi capitalized on his English language skills to a land a job as a translator for Time Magazine. He did the same work for Agence France-Presse and shot photos, too.

"I traveled with them to the most affected areas of the famine at that time," he said. "I saw people suffering in the south central area, which is the same area where the drought is today. It touched my heart. ... Every time, I would ask myself, "What do you have to do to stop this?"

Sadly, there was no ready answer.

Somalia, India, Minnesota
Meanwhile, Sheik-Abdi also served as a translator for a Swedish humanitarian worker. She helped him win a scholarship to study in India.

He chose to study agriculture at CCS Haryana Agricultural University, hoping to return to Somalia and help fight hunger.

Instead of pulling itself together, though, Somalia had plunged deeper into anarchy by the time he earned his bachelor's degree.

Going back was out of the question. So was staying in India, because he was there on a student visa.

Said Sheik-Abdi made his first factfinding mission to Somalia in June 2010.
Courtesy of the American Refugee Committee
Said Sheik-Abdi made his first factfinding mission to Somalia in June 2010.

Graduate studies at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute bought him some time. Eventually, though, he appealed to the embassies of Australia, Canada and the United States. Canada and the United States welcomed him. He chose the United States.

"I came here and landed in Virginia," he said. "But I didn't stay long because I heard all of the good news coming from Minnesota — that Minnesota was very friendly and that there was a large Somali community there."

He arrived in Minneapolis in May 2000.

The hub of immigrant life
While it would be nine years before Sheik-Abdi could resume his plan to help Somalia, that was not lost time.
He quickly landed a job as a security guard, and also found part-time work as a translator and as a stringer for Voice of America Somali Service.

On the side, he wrote articles for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and other publications, often making waves on behalf of immigrants. In one column, for example, he questioned the practice of placing previously unschooled immigrant students in classrooms with their age groups regardless of their abilities. Sheik-Abdi challenged officials to consider whether those students were getting the educations they needed to take a role in Minnesota's economy.

Two years later, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority hired Sheik-Abdi and he quickly rose to a position where he managed high-rise buildings in neighborhoods that were popular with Somalis and other immigrants.    

His official role was to enforce leases, making sure tenants obeyed rules and felt safe in their homes. That job description is simple to say but complicated to fulfill. Sheik-Abdi found himself mediating differences between groups of tenants, supervising staff, helping the elderly overcome isolation and coordinating the delivery of social services.

Tenant issues
Some of his frightened tenants had never before slept alone in a bedroom. Some wanted to die back home in Somalia. Some harbored old tribal rivalries.

"There was depression and high blood pressure," he said.

But some tenants went on to become doctors and college professors. Some staffed a food shelf for hungry neighbors. Some built mosques, opened businesses and taught school.

In other words, Sheik-Abdi worked at the hub of Somali life in Minnesota.

And the essence of his work was helping hundreds of people packed together in just a few buildings live as good neighbors to one another amid the stress of adapting to their new land.

Think of it as training for the project he proposed to the American Refugee Committee in 2009.

Leading with persistence and vision
At the first meeting with the Refugee Committee, Wordsworth challenged Sheik-Abdi to demonstrate that the Minnesota-Somali community was ready to assume the role of full partner in the project. The focus would have to be purely humanitarian — none of the politics that had wracked Somalia and that some immigrants had carried to Minnesota. And the community would need to raise at least $250,000 for the project.

Families line up for water provided by Minnesota donors.
Courtesy of American Refuge Committee
Families line up for water provided by Minnesota donors.

The challenge called for all of the leadership skill Sheik-Abdi had developed over the years.

"He came to me and he came to other people," said Abdirahman Ahmed, a college professor and Minneapolis businessman who co-owns the Safari Restaurant and the Kilimanjaro Café.

"Said told me, 'I think this guy is sincere about trying to do something for Somalia,' " Ahmed said. "We made some calls. It's was like, OK let's get together."

But getting together was far more complicated than simply calling a meeting.

Different voices
Somali Minnesotans rarely speak with just one voice on issues involving their homeland. Somehow, Sheik-Abdi would need to coax those different voices together into one chorus.

"One thing people from outside the Somali community don't understand is that nobody can be the one leader for Somalis," Ahmed said. "They are extremely independent minded."

Persistence was one of Sheik-Abdi's tactics.

"He has the ability to come to you again and again and again until you follow him," Ahmed said.

Another tactic was to share the vision of hope where there had been so much despair.

"He has a vision, and for him there is nothing too big," Ahmed said.

'Meeting after meeting'
Some 20 respected professionals agreed to meet — and meet and meet.

"There were times when you felt you were going nowhere," Ahmed said. "We had meeting after meeting."

They debated structure and rules for their organization, how to set obtainable goals, what steps would get them to those goals.

Most Somali-Minnesota families already were sending money to help relatives back home. The group needed a vision for something different, something larger. And they needed to sell that vision to friends and neighbors.

"Whatever we were trying to do — deliberately, and sometimes undeliberately —  we had to design something that would have a tie in with the community, so that everyone could say, 'This is good,' " Ahmed said.

That process took nearly six months.

In Somalia for Somalia
Finally Sheik-Abdi was ready to go back to the ARC.

It was his turn to set out challenges: The project must be fully transparent and accountable so that Minnesota Somalis could see where their money was going. It must be nonreligious as well as nonpolitical — in other words, strictly humanitarian.

Above all, it must be based in Somalia, not neighboring Kenya, where most aid groups staged their relief for Somalis.

"There are almost no international organizations with offices in Somalia," Sheik-Abdi said. "We wanted the American Refugee Committee to provide services to the people who are in need day to day, to be there when they wake up in the morning and to help them face to face."

The Somali base was a key to the partnership, Ahmed said.

"Nairobi had become the capital of Somalia as far as nongovernmental organizations are concerned," he said. "If the United Nations sent $1 million to Somalia, 80 percent would stay in Kenya. It didn't make sense. ... We were going to have overhead expenses no matter what, so why not have them in Somalia?"

The routine answer from other aid groups is that Somalia is too dangerous for their staffs to operate.

Those groups are taking too narrow a view of the country, Ahmed insisted.

The semi-autonomous region called Puntland makes up one-third of Somalia, and it functions with relative peace and prosperity. So there were safe places to base operations.

Focus on the internally displaced
The makings of a deal were in place. And the next job for the Somalis was to form an advisory council. Of the original 20 leaders Sheik-Abdi had assembled, 11 remained to serve on the council. They represented different regions of Somalia. The six men and five women included physicians, a dentist, a nurse, entrepreneurs and community leaders.

The council further refined the mission. It would focus on the tens of thousands of Somalis who had been displaced from their homes and villages but never made it to a border where they could get assistance.

These were, indeed, a "forgotten group of people," to borrow the phrase Wordsworth had used months earlier on MPR. Aid coming from around the world reached them last, if ever.

The advisory council and ARC staffers tested their vision at Somali town hall meetings held in mosques and community centers. Meanwhile, other Somali-led organizations partnered with ARC, including the Minneapolis-based American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa.

Ready for a trial run
By June of 2010, the Neighbors Initiative was ready for a trial run. Sheik-Abdi and Ahmed traveled to Somalia with two ARC staff members. They were to assess the situation on the ground and develop strategies.

Sheik-Abdi was shaken by what he saw: needs that had festered unmet since the time when he had been a young translator helping Western journalists report Somalia's initial crisis. From afar, he had known that Somalia's problems persisted. Still it was jolting to see the impact on real people.

"We saw children who were born after the war — now 20 years old — who have never been to school because no school existed, mothers who want to feed their children but have no food, fathers who want to be breadwinners for their families have no jobs," he said. "We are talking about 20 years after the war ... 20 years of doing nothing!"

They returned to Minneapolis with deepened resolve as well as with a plan.

In April this year, the Neighbors Initiative was formally launched in a ceremony at Minneapolis City Hall, attended by some 400 people.

And in May, the initiative was featured at the Global Diaspora Forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

In opening remarks, Secretary of State Clinton said, "You [members of the global diaspora] have the potential to be the most powerful people-to-people asset we can bring to the world's table. Because of your familiarity with cultural norms, your own motivations, your own special skills and leadership, you are, frankly, our Peace Corps, our USAID, our OPIC, our State Department all rolled into one."

Desperate need, crucial time
Sheik-Abdi's drive to tap that diaspora power came together at a crucial time. Somalia was sliding into another drought-driven, war-exacerbated famine.

Tens of thousands of people already have died there, and the United Nations estimates that 3.2 million are on the brink of starvation. They also urgently need medical care, clean water and safe housing.

"The future of an entire generation hangs in the balance," Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro told African leaders at a conference last week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

This year, Sheik-Abdi left his Housing Authority job and went to work full time for the American Refugee Committee.

As of last week, their team in Mogadishu had distributed food to 300 families and established a water system for a camp expected to house 50,000 people. They were building latrines, washing facilities and kitchens. And they were developing a registration system for refugees in another camp.

In his phone call from Mogadishu, Sheik-Abdi said ambulances speed up to the city's Benadir Hospital every 20 minutes carrying children with severe malnutrition and diarrhea. The hospital was so overwhelmed that it had run out of beds and so the tiny patients were lined up on floors and tables. The Refugee Committee has ordered 100 beds for the hospital as well as mosquito nets, kids' clothes and computers for the staff.

In Dhobley, an area near the Somalia/Kenya border, the team plans to rehabilitate another hospital and provide other assistance. Dhobley is on a corridor leading to large refugee camps in Kenya. But many starving Somalis never make it to the border.

A shared goal for human beings
Back in Minnesota, Abdisalam Adam, a teacher in the St. Paul Public Schools and board chairman of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Civic Center in Minneapolis, called the initiative "wonderful."

He is not officially connected with the Neighbors Initiative, and he has worked with other organizations raising money to help Somalia.

But the urgency of the need calls for new approaches, he said, and this initiative has given Somali Minnesotans a chance to reach beyond their longstanding efforts to help relatives back home.

"This crisis absolutely calls for extra effort," Adam said. "This is a totally different ball game."  

And the collaboration with the American Refugee Committee has demonstrated that saving Somali lives is not the work for Somalis alone.

"Saving human beings" should be a shared goal for people worldwide, he said.

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