A safer Mogadishu beckons Somali-Americans

Beach in Somalia
This Jan. 13, 2012, photo of Mustafa Mohamed of Minneapolis at Liido Beach in Mogadishu went viral within Minnesota's Somali-American community after he posted it on Facebook. Many assumed he was vacationing in Hawaii. Somalia's war-battered capital city has become safer for visitors ever since the terror group al-Shabab retreated from the city last summer, but suicide bombings are still a threat.
Photo courtesy of Mustafa Mohamed

When Mustafa Mohamed swam in Somalia's legendary Lido Beach for the first time in two decades, he made sure to have someone take his picture. Lots of them.

The photos capture a brawny and shirtless Mohamed in his swim trunks, with a smile on his face the size of Minnesota. In another photo, the 36-year-old bodybuilder is doing push-ups on the sand.

The turquoise waters are straight out of a postcard.

"When people saw some of those pictures, people thought I was in Hawaii or Jamaica, on vacation," he said.

Once regarded as one of the world's most dangerous cities, the Somali capital of Mogadishu is seeing a bit of a revival.

The terror group al-Shabab retreated last year, making the city safer. New hotels and restaurants are springing to life, and people are rebuilding their homes.

The increased security has helped lure some young Somali-Americans to the city of their birth for the first time since civil war erupted 21 years ago. But the peace is fragile.

Helping refugees in Somalia
Mustafa Mohamed gives away items to refugee women in an "internally displaced persons" camp in Mogadishu on Feb. 2, 2012. The women were forced to flee their homes due to the famine, considered East Africa's worst in 60 years.
Photo courtesy of Mustafa Mohamed

In Minnesota, friends in their 20s and 30s keeping up with Mohamed on Facebook couldn't believe the scenes were from Mogadishu, a place many young Somali-Americans have associated only with war. For two decades, the bloody conflict has kept most Somalis in the diaspora at bay.

"When I got the hits on Facebook and people commenting, I realize, boom, people need new information," Mohamed recalled. "People need to hear positive, good news. It's often bad, bad, negative information in the media about Somalia and the Somali people. One of the victims of the war was hope. I wanted to bring hope back."

Mohamed was in Mogadishu for three months this year volunteering as a medical social worker for a Minneapolis-based aid group, the American Refugee Committee. It was a lifelong wish for him to return to the place he fled, and help in the rebuilding. The crippling famine last year convinced him he had to go.

Mohamed said he left Mogadishu feeling even more optimistic. By the end of the trip, he was training young local men how to lift weights, and showing them there was life beyond war.

"If I came back after 21 years, there's hope for people in Somalia," he said. "There are a lot of young people like me who are either going back or already went back to Somalia to make a difference and change its future."

Older Somalis from Western countries are also heading back to Mogadishu, to buy land or start businesses.

But Mogadishu can be a dangerous place. Although African Union troops drove out al-Shabab from the city last year, the terrorist group still kills indiscriminately.

Pushup challenge on Somali beach
1) Mustafa Mohamed accepts a push-up challenge from a young man at Liido Beach in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Jan. 20, 2012. Mohamed, of Minneapolis, went to Somalia for the first time in 21 years as a volunteer with the American Refugee Committee.
Photo courtesy of Mustafa Mohamed

After singers took the stage at the newly re-opened Somali National Theater for the first time in two decades in March, news stories gushed about the city's turnaround. Two weeks later, a suicide bomber killed 10 people at the theater, including the president of Somalia's Olympic committee.

University of Minnesota geography professor Abdi Samatar, who has been back to Mogadishu four times this year, cautions that it's too early to proclaim a new era of peace.

"The city is more peaceful than it was a year ago, significantly more so," Samatar said. "But securing that for everyday life is a different story altogether."

Samatar said the country still lacks permanent institutions that will guarantee lasting safety. He notes that corruption is rampant.

As Somalia prepares to transition to a new government next month, Samatar has doubts about the future. But he acknowledges every day Somalis are feeling more than a tinge of hope these days.

"I think Somalis, whether they're diasporic or in the country, just had enough," he said. "Twenty years is long for anybody. This is by far the longest civil war in contemporary history. The slightest degree of positive change, such as this one, creates the kind of hope people have been waiting for — for more than two decades."

That sense of hope is fueling a small wave of younger Somali-Americans to retrace their origins.

Mustafa Mohamed
Mustafa Mohamed, 36, poses with his 8-year-old son, Salmaan Ali, on July 18, 2012, in south Minneapolis. Mohamed visited his hometown of Mogadishu, Somalia, over three months this year to volunteer as a medical social worker through the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

University of Minnesota graduate student Saida Hassan grew up in Minnesota and had no memory of her birthplace. When she heard Mogadishu was safer, she persuaded her mother to take her back to visit her ailing grandmother.

Reached by phone in Mogadishu, the 23-year-old said despite all her successes in the United States, there was always a missing part of her.

"I was born in Somalia. That's what they told me," Hassan said. "But I've never seen it, so this is so exciting for me. That's where my roots are. That's where my mom's heart is. Wherever your parents' hearts are, that's where your heart is going to be."

During her month in Mogadishu, Hassan has visited makeshift camps for displaced people. She spoke with Somalis while riding the bus. She also met up with Somali friends from London and Minnesota while there.

Hassan said she wants to one day return to Mogadishu and use her education to help rebuild schools.

"Minnesota is my home, but I also have another home now," she said.

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