Ten-year-old Mohamed Fofana was the first member of his family born in the United States after they emigrated from Liberia and Guinea.
He lived with his grandmother, parents, and twin 3-year-old brothers in a small house on a hill in north Minneapolis. On Thursday, family and friends crowded its rooms and lined the short hallways. In a small sitting area next to the kitchen, a group of women surrounded Fofana's mother as she rocked back and forth.
She didn't feel like talking, but she pointed to a homemade Mother's Day card pinned to the refrigerator. It read "Dear Mom, you are a wonderful cook. I love it when you make chicken with noodles. You are helpful. Thanks for cleaning and washing my clothes. You're funny and tell great jokes."
It was signed, "Mohamed Fofana."
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Mohamed and a schoolmate, Haysem Sani, 9, were both killed Wednesday in a landslide at St. Paul's Lilydale Regional Park.
Mohamed was doted on by his two older brothers, Varfee and Gmoh Kanneh, who came to the U.S. after Mohamed was born. They have their own apartment but they would come by Mohamed's house nearly every day, often to take him to soccer practice. The eldest brother, Varfee, said when he didn't visit enough, Mohamed would call and make up a reason for Varfee to come by.
Varfee said young Mohamed knew what he wanted to do with his life.
"He basically said I want to be a medical doctor. I said 'why do you want to be a medical doctor?' He said he liked to help people," Varfee said.
Mohamed's other older brother, Gmoh, 21, was playing soccer Wednesday when someone ran across the field yelling his name. Once he learned Mohamed was missing, Gmoh said he was frantic to help in the search. Officials at Lilydale Regional Park would not allow the family near the collapsed bluff; they said it was too dangerous. Crews rescued two injured children and recovered the body of Sani on Wednesday.
Search efforts continued the next morning and Mohamed was found dead, buried in gravel and mud.
Hours later, Gmoh said he was still in disbelief.
"I haven't cried a lot because I still think it's all a dream to me," he said.
Gmoh sat on the cement steps in front of the house, staring vacantly, while a toddler cousin squirmed in his arms. He said he doesn't really understand the circumstances that led to his brother's death.
"He was the best kid I've ever been around. I'm sure everybody thinks the same way about their kids," Gmoh said. "And it was tragic but as a believer in God I believe it was the will of God, and there's no one who can stop it. It happens. So you just got to stay strong and believe."
Mohamed spent six hours every weekend studying Islam with his mother's uncle, Imam Mohammed Dukuly. Dukuly said Mohamed's parents also have a new faith in the U.S.; they were surprised and grateful for the resources officials marshaled in the attempt to rescue Mohamed.
"I have seen these things on TV, but to be there, to see how these individuals perform, risking their own lives in order to rescue someone, this is amazing," Dukuly said.
Dukuly said the kindness of officials who came to the house to console the family has made an impression on the small, tight-knit Guinean community. Delphine Asemota is from the same city in Guinea as Mohamed's parents. She stood on their porch quietly. She said it was her responsibility to be there.
"We are like a family. Like just one family. When you say Guinea, it's just a family. And we all come together for one person. We are all one family," Asemota said.
Asemota says Mohamed Fofana's family has not had a death in the short time they've been in the U.S. His funeral will be their first.
Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to attend a memorial at Peter Hobart Elementary School on Friday for the victims. A fund has been set up at a St. Louis Park bank for the families.
Donations can be sent to:
Peter Hobart Student Fund
c/o Citizen's Independent Bank
5000 West 36th Street
St. Louis Park, MN 55416
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