Somali President continues tour of U.S. in Ohio

Adjusting to life in the United States is a work in progress for the country's second-largest population of Somali immigrants, who welcomed Somalia's president for a two-day visit beginning Tuesday.

President Sheik Sherif Sheik Ahmed met Ohio lawmakers including Gov. Ted Strickland and visited with Somali community members in the afternoon. He attended a large community forum in the evening.

Ahmed said in brief remarks at the afternoon reception that Somalis are peace-loving but their country is threatened by "the ideology of international terrorists."

Ahmed was elected by Somalia's parliament in January, but his government has little control. A group called al-Shabab, which the U.S. says has ties to al-Qaida, has taken over most of Somalia and boosted its numbers with foreign fighters.

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"Extremist ideas are contrary to the teachings of the Islamic religion and the culture of the Somali people," Ahmed said through an interpreter, "and we as a Somali people cannot allow for these extreme ideologies to take over our country."

He said the United States and Somalis living in the U.S. can help his country by delivering humanitarian aid to it and reconstructing it.

Columbus abounds with success stories of Somalis opening businesses, achieving in school and going to college. More than 220 Somalis now attend Ohio State University, including 26 who have declared themselves premed majors, and more than 150 are taking classes at Columbus State Community College.

But community leaders say hurdles remain, including a language barrier that's difficult to overcome and concerns that some teens are getting caught up in crime and gangs.

"We have hundreds of them who drop out of school, and those who drop out of school will be vulnerable to bad habits," said Mussa Farah, who moved to the United States 12 years ago from Somalia and has done social work with Somali residents in Columbus through the Horn of Africa Community Center.

Somalis started arriving in Columbus in the mid-1990s following the disintegration of their homeland at the hands of battling warlords. Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991.

Some Somalis moved directly to the city, which has about 750,000 residents, while others migrated from other areas, such as Atlanta and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. They were drawn by Columbus' low cost of living, plentiful jobs and the presence of other Somalis.

About 7,000 Somalis live in Columbus, according to Census data, though local Somali leaders estimate far higher numbers.

The city now boasts at least seven retail malls with vendors catering to Somalis, selling traditional clothing and food, almost two dozen restaurants, community centers that help Somalis and charter schools that serve mainly Somali children.

That's an impressive accomplishment for people who often arrived in the city a decade ago with no money and unable to speak English, said Mahdi Taakilo, who publishes Somalilink, an Ohio newspaper for the Somali community.

Abdulkadir Ali, a businessman who moved to Columbus in 1999, recently formed an outreach group of community leaders concerned about the problems facing young Somalis.

"Nobody is paying attention, even my own community; they just lost hope," Ali said. "They say, 'You can't do anything. These kids are already gone."'

Ahmed arrived after meetings in Minneapolis, from where authorities say as many as 20 Somali men, possibly intent on holy war, returned to the impoverished nation over the last two years. At least three of them have died in Somalia, including one believed to be the first American suicide bomber. Three others have pleaded guilty in the U.S. to terror-related charges.

Minneapolis has the country's largest population of Somalis.

At Ahmed's evening event, he hammered home the need for peace in his country, appealing to the audience for its support.

About 1,000 people waving Somali flags crammed into a banquet hall for the raucous event, and at least 100 more were stranded outside, unable to get in.

Afterward, 26-year-old Ahmed Adan, who fled Somalia as a child and grew up mostly in Kenya before moving to the U.S. in 2004, said the speech lacked what many had been waiting to hear. He said the president spoke at length about Somalia's problems but offered no ideas on how the government planned to end the bloodshed.

In Uganda on Tuesday, Somalia's defense minister was seized during a trip to the capital in what the Somali president said was likely a "mistake" by Ugandan security forces.