Somalis rejoice over president with African roots

Talking politics
Hassanow Mohamed, 64, a retired engineer, talks politics with Mahamed Cali, a 32-year-old graduate student of public affairs at the University of Minnesota, in the lobby of the Karmel Plaza. Because he was not born in the U.S., Cali realizes he can't become president, but he thinks Obama's election will pave the way so refugees like him can hold other elected positions. Cali says he voted for President Bush in 2000.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

As the door opens to the Karmel Plaza shopping mall in south Minneapolis, the Somali greetings are everywhere, "Assalamu alaikum," or peace be upon you.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone here who didn't support Barack Obama. The shopping center is a weekend magnet where local Somalis not only shop, but sit at small tables to talk politics.

Mohamed Aden says Obama's unique journey to prominence resonates with refugees like him.

Making a living
An elderly female shopkeeper who did not want her face photographed sells perfumes, beauty products and clothing at the Karmel Plaza shopping mall. She is not a U.S. citizen, but she hopes the new president will improve the lives left behind in her home country of Somalia.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"When I see him speaking, sometimes it makes me cry," Aden said. "Even when he was elected, my eyes were watering tears. I was not expecting this to happen."

The 31-year-old St. Paul factory worker says for the first time ever, he tuned into politics this year and even knocked on doors encouraging other residents to vote for Obama.

That kind of enthusiasm explains why one of the liveliest public celebrations on election night took place in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis, home to a huge Somali population.

A video by the Minnesota Independent news site shows immigrants joining college students and bar-hoppers as they beat on drums and exchange high-fives.

No matter who Somalis in Minnesota voted for last Tuesday, one thing was clear: They voted, period.

Community activist Mohamed Hassan says he was shocked and delighted to see a group of Somali women holding a banner on a Minneapolis sidewalk last Tuesday, encourging drivers to honk for Obama.

Mohamed Hassan
Community activist Mohamed Hassan fliered mosques and shopping malls encouraging Somalis to vote in the weeks leading up to Election Day. He says the Somali turnout last Tuesday was unprecedented in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"This year, it was completely different," he said of the turnout. "This time it was enormous."

Hassan says the Somali turnout will show that political candidates should not take them for granted.

Community leaders estimate at least 60,000 Somalis live in Minnesota, and they say most of the adults are U.S. citizens.

Obama hardly knew his Kenyan father. But many Somalis say they feel an affinity to the president-elect because of those Kenyan roots.

"We love that country," says Ilham Hussein of Burnsville, who became a U.S. citizen last year.

Hussein cast her first vote of her life last Tuesday -- and it went to the son of a Kenyan man.

Future voters?
Azma Abdi, 6, and her 3-year-old brother, Abdi Abdi, roamed around the racks of dresses at Karmel Plaza, a shopping mall and gathering hub for the Somali community in south Minneapolis. Older brother Yhya Abdi, 7, stands behind them.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"That's the No. 1 country that saved the Somalis when we had the civil war and the refugees," she said. "That's like our second home."

In fact, most of the Somalis here in Minnesota fled to Kenyan refugee camps before arriving in the United States.

Many, like Hussein Samatar, were thrilled two years ago when they saw news footage of Obama visiting his father's birthplace.

"Oh my goodness, it was extremely powerful for him to go to his homeland," Samatar said. "The beauty of it -- he went to Wajir, which is close to the Somali border. The people he met with were the Somali community in Kenya. The dress that became famous during the primary was a Somali dress. Those who were here, Somali Minnesotans were extremely excited."

Samatar is unabashed DFLer who was a delegate at the Democratic National Convention. He's also the executive director of the African Development Center in Minneapolis.

He says while Obama's African ancestry may make him more sympathetic to, say, Somalia's civil war, Samatar says he also realizes that the president-elect can only do so much as one man across an ocean.

"The people in Somalia and Somalia itself can only be helped when they are willing to help themselves," he said.

Violence and anarchy rule in Somalia. Human rights groups have accused Ethiopian troops that invaded the country two years ago of raping and killing civilians.

While the issue is complex, some Somali activists in Minnesota have been lobbying members of Congress to support legislation requiring Ethiopian troops to withdraw.

But Dahira Jama and her 23-year-old daughter say they voted for Obama because of matters closer to home. And by "home," Jama means America.

She recently lost her job cleaning an elementary school. She believes Obama when he says he will bring jobs back and lower college tuition.

Her daughter, Deeqo Qanyare, a university graduate student, offers a translation.

"I want to have a good family, better life, good-paying jobs, things like that," Jama said.

In that regard, Jama isn't much different from other Americans who supported Obama. And she'll be watching for her fortunes in this country to change under the direction of a new president.

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