Somali Americans return to help motherland

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 8:58 PM

IN MOGADISHU, SOMALIA For years, Abdulkareem Jama commuted from his home in Fairfax to a cushy office in Washington. He commanded a six-figure salary. Now, his desk is in Somalia's war-torn capital, next to a window with a golf ball-size bullet hole. He is fortunate if he gets paid his much-shrunken salary on time.

"I was standing there when the bullet came through," Jama said, pointing to a spot a foot from the window. "Three bullets also entered my residence."

In recent months, a considerable number of Americans have joined or tried to join Somalia's radical al-Shabab militia, raising concerns among U.S. officials that they could one day pose a threat to the United States.

But Americans of Somali descent have also returned to their motherland to help prevent al-Shabab from gaining power. They are part of a large community of Somali expatriates who have arrived here from all over the world to join Somalia's fragile transitional government despite immense risks.

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a Somali American from New York, was appointed prime minister in October. His cabinet includes several members of the Somali diaspora.

"Life is short and I want to put it to good use," said Jama, the chief of staff for President Sharif Ahmed but soon to be the minister of information.

Somalia's experience is similar to that of other violence-torn nations, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Liberia, where returning immigrants have entered politics and built businesses, providing linchpins amid war and instability. Unlike those in previous generations, these immigrants remained intimately connected to their homelands via the Internet and satellite television.

Abdi Rashid Sheik Farah, 45, fled Somalia in 1991, following the collapse of the Siad Barre regime. He ended up in McLean and attended Catholic University. Farah, a lawyer and father of four, became a leader in Washington's Somali community.

When Ethiopia invaded Somalia in December 2006, he felt compelled to return home. "I wanted to stand up to the Ethiopians who invaded our lands," said Farah, who joined the transitional government and is now a member of parliament.

Faisal Hayal worked at a Best Buy distribution center in Minnesota. He, too, fled Somalia in 1991. Today, he is back in Mogadishu hoping to become a member of parliament. "My ambition is to be leader of this country," said Hayal, 38, who has a 10-year-old son.

Last Saturday, parliament approved the new government after weeks of disputes over the inclusion of so many technocrats from outside Somalia.


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