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Hussein Samatar, ‘an extraordinary leader,’ dies at 45

“I am heartsick about losing him, but I will look for solace in knowing how many people he helped,” said Mayor R.T. Rybak, who appointed Samatar to the Library Board in 2006.

Hussein Samatar
Hussein Samatar

Hussein Samatar, founder of the African Development Center and a member of the Minneapolis School Board, died Sunday of complications arising from leukemia. He was 45.

The first person of Somali descent to be elected to public office in Minnesota, and possibly in the United States, Samatar will be missed by the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and East African communities, and by the city’s civic and business leaders.

“He has been an extraordinary leader and a real friend,” Mayor R.T. Rybak said in a statement Sunday night. “I am heartsick about losing him, but I will look for solace in knowing how many people he helped.”

He is survived by his wife, Ubah Jama, and four children. Funeral services will take place today, August 26, at 1 p.m. at Burnsville Masjid, 1351 Riverwood Dr., Burnsville. Minneapolis Public Schools and AchieveMpls are working together to establish a fund for the Samatar family.

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“Hussein was a loving husband and father. As the head of our family, he provided a caring presence and we were blessed to have him in our lives. We will miss him deeply,” said Ubah Jama. “Like all of you, we also knew Hussein as a vibrant, dynamic leader; as an advocate for the success of African communities in Minnesota; and as someone committed to providing every child with the education necessary for future success. We are grateful to our friends, neighbors and community members for their support throughout Hussein’s illness and at this time. If we could ask for one other thing at this time, it would be for privacy as we mourn and heal.”

Appointee to Library Board in ’06

Samatar first entered public office when Rybak appointed him to the Minneapolis Library Board in 2006. Two years later he co-chaired the campaign that won approval for a crucial $60 million MPS levy. In 2010, he ran unopposed for the school board.

“Minneapolis Public Schools is challenged to do well by our Somali students and our Somali population in the city of Minneapolis and the lack of his leadership will hurt us,” said fellow board member Carla Bates. “It will matter.”

“Hussein was passionate about all students and all families,” said board Chair Alberto Monserrate, who was elected with Samatar, becoming the first Latino to serve on the board. “I do believe representation matters. I do believe the fact that he spoke another language at home and had grown up in Somalia made a difference.”

As a result of Samatar’s insistence, for example, data about academic outcomes among different immigrant communities are now broken out by group and reported in the respective languages.

Business ties, financial acumen

At the same time, both Monserrate and Bates stressed, Samatar’s deep ties to the business sector and his financial acumen allowed him to make significant contributions.  

His creation, the nonprofit African Development Center, helps members of the immigrant community to start and build businesses, build wealth and reinvest in the community.

“He’s probably one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met,” Bates said. “He was just always so gracious and funny, but also direct. He really cut to the quick.”

“He would always look for compromises and yet held to his values so tightly that it was just amazing,” Bates added. “Hussein is someone you could have really dramatic differences with but who would reach out.”

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“He consistently challenged all of us, as elected officials, to serve in a manner that makes life better for every MPS stakeholder we represent, and this specifically centered the perspectives of brown and black English language learners and their families,” said board member Tracine Asberry, whose youngest child attended preschool with Samatar’s children. “I feel blessed to continue his legacy by simply asking, ‘What Would Hussein Do?’ This is how we can all honor our brother, our friend, and our ally to the end.”

Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin said of Hussein’s death, “This is not only a loss for his family, but a loss for the Somali community as a whole. The first Somali immigrant to be elected to public office in Minnesota, Hussein opened the door for others to walk through. The number of Somali-born, American citizens who took part in this year’s Minneapolis caucus and conventions shows the Somali community is interested in electing leaders to follow in Hussein’s footsteps. His spirit and dedication to the Somali community will continue.”

Fled civil war just after graduation

Education and opportunity were central to Samatar’s life, perhaps one reason he championed the transformative potential of education to every child. He graduated from Somalia’s National University in 1991 with the goal of becoming an economist, only to be forced literally days later to flee civil war.

Here, he enrolled at the University of St. Thomas ,where he earned an MBA. He was selected as a Humphrey Institute Policy Fellow in 2003-2004 and had been enrolled in the Achieving Excellence in Community Economic Development program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Although Samatar ran unopposed, the 2010 election was contentious for several reasons, including the fact that for the first time the board would have no native-born African-American presence.

Avoided hyphenated description

When he balked at being described as Somali-American in that atmosphere, some bristled, assuming he did not understand the potential significance of this demographic shift. Samatar’s explanation communicated volumes:

“There is really nothing wrong with the description of Somali-American, and I know there are a number of people who came either themselves from Somalia — either first generation or even second generation who were born and raised here — who are comfortable with Somali-American,” he told MinnPost. “But for me, I always felt that no matter where we came from, if we are to be serious to be part of Minnesota and of the United States and we took the allegiance to be naturalized or to be born to an immigrant family, we are Americans. So I always tell you if at all possible to avoid the hyphenate. I consider myself to be an American.

“But I also know that race does matter in the United States because of its history and its context, and if people want to put me in a small box, which I don’t like, the only box that I would accept, that I am comfortable with is African-American. Because I am from the mother continent and I am an American at the same time. So that would be a category I would be comfortable with but not that small, very specific place in Africa that I am from.”

His time in service, tragically short, underscored this. He continually sought the most universal of connections. He identified with displaced Africans everywhere. And he could be counted upon to choose a position that considered Minneapolis, in its many traditions.