He first set foot in the United States one August day in 1972 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Abdusalam Omer was 18, had $150 in his pocket and wasn't terribly well-versed in English.
He was armed with a phone number of a man he didn't know -- a fellow Somali who was to help the young student get settled in this country -- and had these instructions: Get a dime and make the call. And so, Omer's American experience began when he walked up to an airport police officer and said: "What's a dime?"
Looking back now, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams's new chief of staff shakes his head and smiles at how he became something of a poster child for The Kindness of Strangers. Omer fondly recalls the people who helped him as he traveled throughout the Middle East and Europe after high school in Borama, Somalia -- the nice American woman he befriended in Rome who wound up paying his air fare to New York; the helpful officer at JFK who gave him that dime; and the loose network of Somalis who provided him with food, housing and expense money as he pursued a career in, of all things, finance.
They are images that were fixed in Omer's mind as he rose through a series of government jobs to become the District's budget director and a trusted confidant of Williams (D). Now, whether he's pitching budget proposals or talking general policy in community meetings, Omer's message revolves around a common theme: A government, and its people, should help the less fortunate and the young.
"I think government is the vehicle to provide opportunities for people in need," Omer said. "All African American kids need is an opportunity. To me, an opportunity is clean streets, clean schools, certified teachers, textbooks [that arrive] on time, health services . . . conditions that are conducive to learning."
In the short term, part of Omer's new job will be stabilizing a mayor's office that has been marked by disorganization and political infighting, as Williams has pushed an aggressive effort to improve city services and struggled to fill several key posts. It's a situation that led to Reba Pittman Evans's resignation as chief of staff this month.
But perhaps Omer's most important role, observers within D.C. government say, will be putting a face of compassion on a bottom-line administration that some residents complain has lacked just that.
Williams has contributed to that image, often talking in terms of budgets, cost analyses and community cleanups when asked to articulate his passion for the city. Omer, when asked the same question, typically dives into a forceful lecture on government's responsibility to future generations.
Testifying before a D.C. Council subcommittee recently about the mayor's various initiatives aimed at youths, Omer told the council that "two out of five [D.C.] children live in poverty" and "one in 10 children in the District dies before the age of 3."
"Clearly," he added, "we have let our children down."
Later, Omer said in an interview: "I think I can help the mayor help the District and help poor black children. It's good to help all children, but the children who are in need are black children."
"His passion is for the children of the District, not about spreadsheets or bureaucracy," said Laura Triggs, a finance manager for the City of Alexandria who has worked with Omer.
Omer's sentiments may be the product of his own experience, but for Williams's administration, having a vocal advocate for black children also has political benefits in this majority-black city.
Williams on occasion has been accused of being insensitive to the needs of the black community, most recently when he suggested relocating the predominantly black University of the District of Columbia -- a symbol of home rule -- from Northwest Washington to a site east of the Anacostia River. Williams dropped the idea under harsh criticism from UDC administrators and students, but some black residents saw the episode as confirmation that the mayor doesn't understand them.
Enter Omer, who during his tenure as a financial manager in D.C. government has shown a knack for making friends, even with those who oppose his ideas.
"I understand the politics in the city; I understand the racial politics and the politics in the African American community," he said. "I have a pretty good idea what needs to be done in the District, to take small steps, but accomplish some things."
"One of the reasons I wanted Omer is because he is a dedicated and committed person, and he complements me," Williams said. "That's a good thing."
Omer drew scowls from the D.C. Board of Education three years ago when, as the school system's chief financial officer, he told the D.C. financial control board that the city's schools faced imminent "financial collapse." Some school board members considered hiring an outside adviser to help them respond to Omer's criticisms and possibly discredit him, but they eventually backed off.
Today, perhaps in part because of his increased power, Omer appears to have few critics.
"I think very highly of him," said D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3). "One of his biggest qualifications is that he has the complete trust and confidence of the mayor. He also has the respect of my [council] colleagues."
Mary Levy, who has provided research and analysis for Parents United for 20 years, said she met Omer five years ago when he was the District's budget analyst for education.
"He was a joy to work with," Levy said. "He was forthcoming with information. He listened to people."
Omer's predecessor as chief of staff, Evans, never quite fit into the mayor's inner circle, and according to some inside the administration, Williams never gave her the support she needed to succeed.
The new chief of staff says he will not have a problem getting along with the mayor's staff because some of them -- press secretary Peggy Armstong, legal counsel Max Brown and Deputy Chief of Staff Norman Dong -- worked with Omer when Williams was the District's chief financial officer. Associates in D.C. government said that of those in Williams's inner circle, Omer is perhaps the least shy about questioning Williams's opinions.
Omer also will try to soothe relations between Williams and some Democratic groups that have complained the mayor has ignored them since he was elected last fall.
Part of the problem has been disorganization in the mayor's scheduling office -- the three-month-old administration now is looking for its fourth scheduler -- which has been criticized by some political and community groups for not making the mayor available.
Even the local Democratic Party had to try for weeks to get Williams to come to a breakfast meeting he had promised to attend. Paula E. Nickens, chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, said working through the mayor's schedulers was a nightmare.
But as Omer goes about trying to repair Williams's political missteps and help the mayor improve a city bureaucracy that he believes let its people down through several years of mismanagement, he vows to stay focused on the big ideas that led him to work in government.
"Inside me is a passion for doing things," he said. "My goal is not to get rich, but to work in public service. When I pass away . . . that will probably be all I will have."
CAPTION: Abdusalam Omer immigrated to the United States in 1972 from Somalia.
CAPTION: Abdusalam Omer is expected by some to put a face of compassion on a D.C. administration that focuses on efficiency.