In Minneapolis, Somali president asks for help

Somalia President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed
Somalia President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, center, speaks at a rally as Deputy Prime Minister of Finance Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, left, and Foreign Minister Abdul Rahman Jangeli, right, look on in Minneapolis, Sunday.
AP Photo / Craig Lassig

The president of Somalia is calling on the nation's largest community of Somali-Americans to help him fight extremism and rally behind his fragile government.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed spoke to a large crowd Sunday in Minneapolis to convey the urgency of the crisis in Somalia.

Even before Ahmed took the stage at Northrop Auditorium, the crowd was raring to go. An entire row of women wearing hijabs in light blue -- the color of Somalia's national flag -- sang along to the familiar tunes of their home country.

But as before-and-after pictures of Somalia's civil war flashed onto a projection screen, Asli Hassan Abade began to cry.

"Our country was so good, so peaceful and beautiful," Abade said. "I can't believe our country turned out this way."

Abade, who was Somalia's first female pilot, came all the way from Dallas to show her support for President Ahmed. She sees him as a youthful leader with the weight of the world on his shoulders, who is doing his best to return order to Somalia.

Abade and the rest of the crowded auditorium gave the newly elected president received a hero's welcome.

Asli Hassan Abade
Asli Hassan Abade, of Dallas, and former pilot in the Somali Air Force, waits for Somalia President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed to speak during a rally in Minneapolis, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009. "Our country was so good, so peaceful and beautiful," she said.
Craig Lassig/Associated Press

Ahmed briefed a captive audience on his administration's efforts to push back insurgent groups. He noted that hard-line Islamists are still fighting his government, even after every member of the Somali parliament agreed to install some version of sharia, or Islamic, law.

Some Somalis, who have grown weary of nearly two decades of civil war and clan divisions, see Islam as their last hope to unify the warring factions and end the bloodshed.

Ahmed also condemned the extremist ideology that lured up to 20 Minnesotan men to fight in their homeland.

"I'm really sorry that some Somali boys whose families fled from the lack of peace in Somalia, that were here in America, were sent back to the county and became not only part of the problem, but are victims themselves while victimizing others," he said.

The president gave his condolences to the families of the American fighters -- in the speech, as well as in a private meeting with the families earlier in the day. He urged the parents of the fighters who are still alive in Somalia to contact his government so it can try to return the young men to safety.

But Ahmed, who is an Islamic scholar, also enlisted the help of his audience at Northrop Auditorium to stop such extremists from doing their work in the United States. He said the first people who need to catch them are the community members themselves. Ahmed also urged parents to keep a close eye on their children.

"If you take them to the mosques, and you wanted good things for them, that is a good idea. But [the recruiters] have infiltrated the mosques, too. We must be aware when our kids go to the mosque, what they do there, and how they think," Ahmed said.

All dressed up
Sakaria Nur, 3, wore his finest suit for a special opportunity to see Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. He waited in line outside of Northrop Auditorium with his mother, Lul Yassin, smiling in black dress behind him.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio News, Ahmed said Islamic spiritual leaders in the United States have a tremendous role to play in preventing more American fighters from entering the pipeline. He said imams should unequivocally condemn radical beliefs. Over the weekend, Ahmed met with about a dozen Minnesota imams who wanted to know how they could put a stop to the recruitment.

"The imams can explain to these young men how wrong it is to leave this country that has welcomed them from the difficulties that they ran away from in their homeland," Ahmed said. "For them to go back and to create instability in the country they left, and to kill themselves and to kill others, is wrong and is not part of our religion. And the imams can clarify that."

During the interview, Ahmed maintained the peaceful presence of a schoolteacher, his former occupation. Wearing a dark suit and an African kofi hat, he smiled often and passed his fingers through a chain of prayer beads.

Ahmed says the younger generation of Somali-Americans, even those with just faint memories of their homeland, are crucial to rebuilding his country. He says the issue of global terrorism is something everyone must help solve.

"If there is no resolution to the extremist or terrorist groups in Somalia, the problems will be duplicated everywhere, and these problems will come to wherever they are," he said.

Back at Northrop Auditorium, one Minneapolis man heard Ahmed's call. Bashir Qanyare says he's ready to help the president -- politically, or financially, or even as a humanitarian volunteer once it's safe to return. Somalia is facing one of its worst humanitarian crises in recent decades.

"He makes me cry," Qanyare said of Ahmed's speech. "He tells us what's going on, and what he needs from us, and that we need to support him, no matter what."

As much as Somali-Americans like Qanyare need a leader like Ahmed to feel hopeful about the prospect of peace in Somalia, it seems that the new president needs them just as much.