Expatriates return to lead Somalia

Many brave risks to boost fragile government

For years, Abdulkareem Jama commuted from his home in Fairfax, Va., to a cushy office in Washington. Now, his desk is in Somalia’s war-torn capital. For years, Abdulkareem Jama commuted from his home in Fairfax, Va., to a cushy office in Washington. Now, his desk is in Somalia’s war-torn capital. (Sudarsan Raghavan/ Washington Post)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post / December 25, 2010

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MOGADISHU, Somalia — For years, Abdulkareem Jama commuted from his home in Fairfax, Va., 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 US 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. 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, Va., 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.

Recently, Parliament approved the new government after weeks of disputes over the inclusion of so many technocrats from outside Somalia.

It has been nearly 25 years since Mohamed last set foot in Somalia. After working four years in the Somali Embassy in Washington in the mid-1980s, he earned a history degree at the University of Buffalo. He later worked for the city of Buffalo’s municipal housing authority and taught conflict resolution at Erie Community College.

In August, when Somalia’s previous prime minister abruptly resigned, Mohamed submitted his resume to Ahmed, the president. Somalia’s complex, clan-based political system required that the next prime minister be a member of the Darod tribe. Mohamed fit the bill.

He met Ahmed in New York for a preliminary interview. Then Mohamed got a phone call from Ahmed’s staff asking him to fly to Mogadishu. “I was not aware I was the top candidate,’’ said Mohamed, a father of four.

His family didn’t understand why he was leaving.

When he landed at the airport, Mohamed said, he was informed that he was the new prime minister. It was his first time back in Mogadishu since 1987. Mohamed denied local speculation that he was appointed because of US pressure.

After a recent meeting in which he urged Mohamed to give more rights to minorities, Mahmoud Bare Hussein left the room shaking his head. A member of Parliament, he wondered aloud why the second-most powerful political position would be given to someone who left the country nearly 25 years ago.

“He knows nothing about the country. That’s why he will fail,’’ Hussein said.

One of Jama’s daughters recently sent him an e-mail informing him that she was taking karate classes and that he should be with her, not in Somalia.

“That’s not a good feeling,’’ he said. “But in the overall scheme of things, how people live and die here, that is a small price to pay.’’ top stories on Twitter

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