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Suburban dad leaves Burnsville to govern in Somalia

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Mohamed Aden and son
Mohamed Aden watches his son, Abdikadir Abdullahi, 9, check email. Aden left his family, and a life of suburban comfort, in 2008 to help rebuild a corner of Somalia. He returned recently to be with his wife for the birth of their sixth child.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Somali-Americans in Minnesota have long been told they have a duty to help their homeland. But few took that calling to heart like Mohamed Aden.

The Burnsville man left his life of suburban comfort two years ago for an especially violent corner of Somalia. Now Aden is that region's leader. He's brought local governance -- and relative peace and order -- to a part of the world where problems of famine and fighting seemed unsolvable.

Aden, who is back in Minnesota this month visiting his wife and children, speaks to his fellow Somali-Americans Saturday at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, urging them to answer the call of service -- even though he knows that like him, they would miss their adopted home.

When driving to Aden's tidy little townhouse in Burnsville, you need to pass the SuperTarget and the Barnes and Noble, and turn left when you see the Red Lobster.

These were the comforts Aden craved after moving to Somalia.

"The first year, it was the worst in my life, really. I got homesick every day," he said. I missed Olive Garden, Subway, the movie theater, SportsCenter, all those things, even the snow."

Aden said Minnesota is where he belongs. His wife, Shamso, and six children are here. Little Ayan, his first daughter, was born just a few weeks ago, and Aden made it to the states in time for her birth.

But he is also bound by a sense of duty to his homeland. Sitting at his dining table while his five young boys watch cartoons, Aden said before he left for Somalia, he spent many days -- maybe too many days -- on the couch, while a civil war and clan fighting destroyed his home country.

Ayan Abdullahi
Ayan Abdullahi, held by her 14-year-old brother Abdirahman Abdullahi in their Burnsville home, was born about three weeks ago. Her father, Mohamed Aden, came back from Somalia to the Twin Cities to witness her birth and spend time with his family. Aden has spent the past couple of years establishing a local government in Adado, Somalia.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"I figured out in my living room, things will not get better," he said. "I have to go there, and I have to sacrifice. Someone has to sacrifice, and it might as well be me."

These days, Minnesotans hear more about the young Twin Cities men who authorities say left for Somalia to join the terrorist group al-Shabaab. But while they were intent on adding to Somalia's chaos, Aden arrived at around the same time offering a path to stability.

Even before he left, Aden, became known as the ultimate "doer" among many Somalis in Minnesota. He was in charge of organizing big cultural events while attending Minnesota State University in Mankato, where he received a master's degree in public administration.

In some ways, Aden is a logical choice to fix a piece of Somalia. He was part of the country's brain drain -- a young generation of people who fled to the West for safety and education following the start of the civil war in 1991. He said his master's degree prepared him well -- even though he at times collects taxes in the form of goats rather than cash.

What amazes many Somalis in the diaspora, and even U.S. government officials, is that Aden, 37, almost singlehandedly established order in a region spanning about 5,000 square miles. In a country where the central government only controls a few blocks in the capital city of Mogadishu, some say Aden's "bottom-up" style of administration is the answer.

"I can't say the State Department 'recommends,' in those words, the actions of Mr. Aden, but they are certainly commendable," said Pamela Fierst, senior Somalia desk officer for the State Deparment's Bureau of African Affairs.

"I can't say the State Department 'recommends,' in those words, the actions of Mr. Aden, but they are certainly commendable."

Fierst has never met Aden but read about him last fall in the New York Times. The reporter described Aden as an "accidental warlord, and a shard of hope," for essentially building a state within a state.

Fierst said it was one of the most positive news stories she's read about Somalia, and she's been trying to find a way to connect with him. While the State Department stands behind Somalia's president, she said, it's also supportive of someone like Aden, who can foster peace in at least one pocket of the country.

"We just want to know, 'What does he need? How can we take efforts like that -- the sustainable things that he's doing -- and try to replicate, or at least encourage him?' He's definitely a guy we'd love to have on our Rolodex."

Still, even Aden didn't know what he was getting into when he arrived in the town of Adado.

"It was a scary situation over there, when I went there," he said.

When he arrived, there were two or three shooting deaths a day in the region, known as Himan and Heeb. His clansmen were killing each other over scarce pastures and drinking water.

Aden, with his iPhone, and American English mixed in with his Somali, tried to learn the ways of the nomads. But even though he lived in Somalia for the first 22 years of his life, he hailed from the big city, Mogadishu, and the rural locals in Adado viewed him wuth skepticism, he said.

"It was like a man who goes to the moon and tries to walk," Aden said. "But what we did was focus on humanitarian aspects, instead of political differences of the people."

The people were hungry for help, Aden said. His fellow clan members from all over the world donated about $150,000 to his cause. He set up the equivalent of soup kitchens, as well as schools and a small police station. He assembled a security force and threatened corporal punishment.

"If you kill one person, you will be killed -- just like Texas," he said.

Slowly, he earned the trust of the locals. And then what started as a humanitarian mission evolved. Elders asked him to become the top administrator for the region. He turned them down twice before finally agreeing. The crime rate has dropped dramatically, although piracy remains a problem.

Aden's homesickness faded when he thought of the road he fixed or the well he built. He's getting ready to recruit other Somalis in North America and in Europe to take part in a program he's developing. It's sort of like a specialized Peace Corps, where Somalis can spend three months in his region and share their expertise in agriculture or medicine.

But he knows not everyone is ready to go to one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

"If an individual feels he doesn't have the guts to go to Somalia, they can help here. They can donate money. They can educate people. They can even help the young generation who lost their identity, and has an identity crisis," he said. "There is a lot of things. It's endless. Somalia is like ground zero right now. Any help -- everybody can do it -- it will make the Somali life better."

But there is a tradeoff to this sacrifice. Aden's 8-year-old-son, Abdirahim Abdullahi, misses his dad.

"You've been gone for a pretty long time," Abdirahim told his father.

Mohamed Aden says he'll give himself one more year in Somalia, and then let the people of Adado and the surrounding region govern themselves.

Aden plans to take his children to Wisconsin Dells next week for spring break. It's just a short trip, he says, but it's a small thank you for their sacrifice.