First Somali-American elected to public office in Minn.

Hussein Samatar
A WCCO-TV news camera captures Hussein Samatar after his victory party at the Safari Restaurant in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Minneapolis voters have elected the first Somali-American to hold public office in Minnesota, and likely the nation.

Hussein Samatar fled the civil war of his East African homeland nearly two decades ago, with basic survival as his only concern. Last night, the nonprofit leader won a seat on the Minneapolis school board.

At his victory party last night, he reached out to any African-Americans who don't consider him one of their own, saying his election wouldn't be possible without the civil-rights struggle.

"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the people who came before us," Samatar said. "We are part of the new African-American community in the state of Minnesota."

Samatar's victory was a sure thing -- he ran unopposed in his district.

He didn't realize it at the time that two African-American school board candidates from the city's north side lost the election in unofficial returns, although there may be a recount in one of the races.

Celebrating crowd
A crowd of supporters, including Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, fifth from right, celebrate DFL-endorsed Hussein Samatar, who was elected to the Minneapolis school board Tuesday night. Samatar thinks he may be the first Somali immigrant elected to public office in the nation.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Samatar says he prefers to be known as an African-American rather than as a Somali-American, which he finds too limiting.

"Last time I checked, Somalia is still in Africa," he said an in interview. "And I am an American. Therefore, I am more African-American than anyone else."

While his personal experiences may be different, Samatar said he understands some of the pressing challenges in the black community.

His supporters are counting on him to help close an academic achievement gap between white students and students of color. And they say he may bring an even stronger sensibility when it comes to helping kids whose first language isn't English.

Samatar says he's troubled that the parents of many of those students, especially East African immigrants, feel the need to send their kids to charter schools, which they believe can better meet the students' needs.

"I have no problem with charter schools per se, but I do have a problem with segregation," he said. "I really think we'll be in trouble if we believe we can educate children separately."

Somalis have heard about Samatar's election in places as far as San Diego and Columbus, Ohio. And some view his win as deeply personal and symbolic.

"It responds to the hope and aspiration and wishes of the Somali-American community," said Mumin Barre, a Democratic Party activist near Washington D.C.

Samatar's election will open the door for other Somali-American office-seekers across the country, Barre said.

Samatar, Ruuhi
Hussein Samatar and Twin Cities singer Rahma Ruuhi sing and dance to a Somali song in celebration of Samatar's election to the Minneapolis school board at his victory party Tuesday night.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"And where we have good number of Somali-American voters, we need to have a member of our community representing that area -- not just on the school board, but the city council, county council, and the state level," Barre said.

Samatar's win follows unsuccessful bids by Somali-Americans for Minneapolis mayor and city council, and the St. Cloud school board, among other seats.

Mayor R.T. Rybak says he's proud to be from the first Minnesota city to elect a Somali-American, and even tweeted about it last night.

"People around the world are watching what's happening in Minneapolis," Rybak said. "We know there are deep challenges here, but we also know that unlike most of the rest of the world, Somalis are able to come here, be a part of the community, start businesses, be on school boards."

How Hussein Samatar got to this point is remarkable in itself, and yet familiar to so many refugees.

The youngest of five children, he graduated from Somalia's National University in 1991 with plans to be an economist for his country. Samatar believes he belongs to the only generation of Somalis to have continuous education in their country, from elementary school to college, following the country's independence in 1960.

His father was a police commissioner, and at one pointed headed the country's criminal investigation department, Somalia's equivalent of the FBI, Samatar said.

But four days after the young Samatar's college graduation, the country erupted into civil war.

"It makes you who you are, if you go through that humbling experience," Samatar said. "One day, you are on top of the world, and the other day, you are fleeing from shelling, killing and mayhem."

Samatar quickly went from bright star to just another refugee in a crowded camp in Kenya. The bloodshed in his home country would eventually claim the lives of friends, former classmates and his own sister.

Two years later, he settled in Minnesota as part of the first wave of Somali refugees. He studied English with the help of a Minneapolis librarian. He eventually earned his Master's in business administration from the University of St. Thomas, where he devoured the driest of economics textbooks -- of course, all in English.

"Believe me, I would rather read books that I don't understand half of it, than avoiding a bullet," he said.

Samatar founded the African Development Center, which helps refugees start their own businesses and build wealth in this country.

But as he worked on economic development, he also grew concerned about a crisis among a small number of young Somalis who have given up on school and have joined gangs. One of his own relatives, 17-year-old Burhan Hassan, a bookish teen-ager from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, traveled to Somalia to fight alongside a terrorist group.

"There are youth who have been left behind. And when you are left behind, no matter what color or gender you are, you feel you don't belong," Samatar said. "When you don't get the support or you don't understand what's happening in the class, when you don't have a counselor, and when your parents who grew up in a different country, you can see the different cultural dynamics that can happen."

But by and large, Samatar said the success of young Somali-Americans, many of whom are attending college, is phenomenal.

He and his wife, Ubah Jama, a teacher aide with St. Paul public schools, have three children, ages 6 to 15. Two attend the private Blake school, and another goes to Seward Montessori, a public school in Minneapolis.

At his victory party in Minneapolis last night, a Somali singer in a sparkly dress took the stage. Samatar clasped hands with her, and together they danced as she belted out a popular up-tempo song from the old country.

The woman's serenade, sung in Somali, was a fitting choice for Samatar. It roughly translates into: If you are chosen by the community to serve, remember you have a responsibility to deliver.

"She was very nice, but she was reminding me of what I needed to do," Samatar later said.

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