Developments in Somalia bring about new government, new hope

Said Sheik Abdi, Daniel Wordsworth
Said Sheik Abdi with the American Refugee Committee and Daniel Wordsworth, ARC president speak on developments in Somalia, where the parliament has approved a new cabinet to be sworn in next week.
MPR photo/Sam Choo

Aid workers in Somalia say conditions in the war-torn country are improving after years of violence and famine.

With a new constitution, a new parliament, a new president, and a new cabinet, Somalia is attempting to rebuild itself, with the assistance of Somalis living outside the country and relief groups like the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee.

Daniel Wordsworth, president of the American Refugee Committee, said safer conditions have allowed aid workers to travel more extensively in the capitol city of Mogadishu and bring health care and other assistance to more people.

"Our aid workers can actually move around the city quite freely, and we're actually going back out into areas that nobody has visited for years," Wordsworth said. "And we're able to send our mobile health teams in there, our water engineers in there. It's like the city has opened up for us."

The committee partners with Somali-Americans in Minnesota, including Said Sheik-Abdi, a Somali-American who left his home county in 1993 and has returned to Somalia several times since then as part of relief efforts.

Before he left in 1993, Sheik-Abdi said, he "witnessed some of the worst situations in Somalia, particularly people who didn't have anything to eat. So this has been haunting me for years and years and years."

MPR's Tom Crann spoke with Wordsworth and Sheik-Abdi on Tuesday about the changing conditions in Somalia. An edited transcript of the interview is below.

Tom Crann: Said, you are just back from Somalia, and I understand that you have been there quite a bit in the last couple of years. Give us an idea of how the situation has changed. We've heard, for example, the capital Mogadishu, that the security situation is a lot better. What were you seeing the last time you were there?

Sheik-Abdi: : In terms of the security, this is the first time that the Somalis in Mogadishu are traveling in the day time, but also in the night time, there are lights on in the streets of Mogadishu. This is first time. There is no al-Shabab in Mogadishu right now. But also the local Somalis on a Friday afternoon are going to the Mogadishu beach, where they play soccer. So a lot of things have changed. So the hope of Somalia is getting back, whether it's from the Somali diaspora or even the Somalis in Somalia who have been under gunfire for a very long time.

Daniel Wordsworth: : You can actually move around in the city. Security's improved dramatically. The business community is coming back and there's a real boom happening in construction across the city. This is Mogadishu we're talking about.

But actually what I've noticed is that you're seeing actually a real sea change happening in the attitudes of the Somali community there and here. I think for the first time for a long time, from what I understand, people are really thinking like that this may be the corner that they're turning around, that actually something special has happened over the last 12 months and that Somalia is really on the road to recovery. There's a strong sense of that, and I think that's critical when it comes to delivering services.

You really have to start with the belief that the work that you do can make a lasting and measurable difference. And so now you have the community on the ground in Mogadishu; you have the community here in the Twin Cities, and you have other people that aren't Somalis who are beginning to believe more strongly that actually things can be done there, that we can really turn that situation around.

And I think we're seeing the result of that. People actually are working amazingly hard, seven days a week in hospitals, in camps, delivering clean water. And what I'd also add to that is just even practically from our point of view, when our team got there in July, there was a front line of a war going straight down the middle of Mogadishu. Our aid workers were there in a war zone. That front line has collapsed.

Now you have a much more peaceful city. Our aid workers can actually move around the city quite freely, and we're actually going back out into areas that nobody has visited for years, and we're able to send our mobile health teams in there, our water engineers in there. It's like the city has opened up for us.

Crann: I want to hesitate here and not paint too rosy a picture. There's still a need. There's still a crisis. What obstacles are there?

Wordsworth: You have to have a strategy for peace as much as you have to have a strategy to end the war. Often you see a very strong military strategy about freeing up the country, but alongside of that and coming in right behind that has to be a strong and solid strategy for peace.

So, what does that look like? At the very minimum it means you have to have a government that can provide health services, education services, a ministry of agriculture that can get back out into this land and provide seeds so people can rebuild. And we're really talking ground zero here when we talk about Somalia.

Crann: In terms of total rebuild from the ground up?

Wordsworth: Rebuild from the ground up. When we went to respond to the famine and we visited the disaster management authority, which is the government group responsible for managing the famine, they had no computers. We bought them the first five laptops they had. Now our team is calling us from Mogadishu saying, 'Can you find 250 computers because the new government doesn't have them?' You have some real resource constraints, some real capacity constraints, and this really is a long process of rebuilding.

Crann: So it sounds like there's the will there. There's political will right now at this point. And it sounds like in the Somali community here in Minneapolis and elsewhere, the diaspora elsewhere, there's obviously the will to see this happen. Do you think this time there's the resources and the capacity for it to take hold?

Sheik-Abdi: Yes. Many (members of the) Somali diaspora are actually going back and trying to open business and trying to create jobs for the local community, but also they want to see the international community step up more and deliver more until the government becomes stable ... So (members of) the Somali diaspora are actually an asset for Somalia.

Crann: How important is it for the work of ARC to have such a prominent Somali community here in Minneapolis, and how have they assisted?

Wordsworth: ARC is only half the story, actually. The other half of the story is the Somali community here in the Twin Cities. And we actually truly do view what we are doing in Somalia as a shared program. They're the heart and soul of what we do, but they're also the brains of the operation in many respects.

Crann: And are they the reason you are working in the country?

Wordsworth: They're absolutely the reason we're there.

Crann: Give us an example of the size and the scope of the work on the ground that's being done on a daily basis?

Wordsworth: We are every day touching thousands of people, whether it's food, clean water, sanitation, health care. We have four mobile health teams that go out every day in ambulances. Each health team has eight staff, doctors and nurses, and we actually roam the city of Mogadishu finding pockets of people that have seen no health care, and our team pulls up in front of an old bombed-out building, and we have a clinic on the spot. Those mobile teams see hundreds of people every day.

Sheik-Abdi: Also, we send Somali-American volunteers, medical doctor volunteers. They volunteered, all of them, their time to go there and work there for one month, helping, treating the patients, but also seeing ... what's going on on the ground ... Many (members of the) Somali diaspora are actually looking for ways and platforms to help back home and make a difference.

Crann: What has this meant for you and your family and your fellow Somalis here in Minnesota to see this work being done, to be able to go there and come back, and, with all the work that still needs to be done, report some progress?

Sheik-Abdi: Well, this has a lot of meaning because I left Somalia in 1993. I was one of the very fortunate people to get a scholarship, and I left. I was there 1991, 1992. I witnessed some of the worst situations in Somalia, particularly people who didn't have anything to eat.

So this has been haunting me for years and years and years, but also to my family, it's really a blessing for us to make a difference and to contribute whatever we can, but for also the community.

A lot of us ask ourselves, 'Shall we see in Somalia in the future a peaceful country?' There was doubt, but now we see the forces coming out. This is the best shot we have in Somalia. The permanent government is there. Now ARC is working there. Many (members of the) Somali diaspora actually volunteered with me. They volunteered and contributed.

So this is really kind of the way that we have been thinking as a community for a very long time. We can be a good ambassador for both our country here but also in Somalia. So this is a great thing. When I go there and I see the difference we're making and what we can do more. And always I come back with more hope, more thinking about it, and I share with my fellow Somali Americans every time.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)

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