Somali-Americans in Minnesota mourn death of 'inspirational' Somali journalist

Somali-Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh
This photo provided by Mona Nalayeh shows Somali-Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh in the northern Somali city of Las Anod. On Friday, the journalist dedicated to telling positive stories from a country suffering through decades of civil war, extremist attacks and famine was killed along with her husband and at least 24 others after a bomb exploded outside the Asasey Hotel in the Somali city of Kismayo and gunmen stormed inside.
Mona Nalayeh via AP

One day, Hodan Nalayeh would be pounding the pavement in the Twin Cities, striking up conversations with Somali-Americans at their businesses — with her camera rolling and her face beaming.

The next day, she would be in remote Somali villages, laughing with nomads herding camels and goats — and inviting them to speak into her microphone for a chance to tell their stories.

Each place she visited, Nalayeh accentuated the positive narratives about Somalia and Somalis — accounts she shared with millions of people worldwide through her popular internet-based Integration TV, the first English-language show for English-speaking Somalis.

Last Friday, al-Shabaab gunmen stormed the Asasey Hotel in Kismayo, Somalia, where the 43-year-old Somali-Canadian journalist was killed, along with her husband and more than two dozen others.

Members of the Somali community in Minnesota and around the world are mourning her death. Nalayeh was a regular in the state, frequently visiting to keynote community events or to capture the inspiring stories of Somali-Americans.

"She was a role model to me and to millions of other Somalis across the world," said Siad Ali, Nalayeh's cousin and Minneapolis Public Schools board member. "She was an inspirational, positive-thinking person. She was very ambitious and very humble."

Abdirahman Kahin, who last saw Nalayeh two years ago when she featured his Afro Deli restaurant, heard the news of her death on Friday.

"I broke down," he said. "I couldn't focus on anything anymore. I have not done any work since then."

Kahin first met Nalayeh at an event in the Twin Cities four years ago, and they remained friends. Whether he spoke with her on the phone, in person or watched posts on social media, he said Nalayeh always exhibited positive energy.

"She always had a smile on her face," he added. "She was down-to-earth and loved everyone. We lost a giant."

On Monday evening, the Somali community is holding an event at Safari Restaurant in Minneapolis to commemorate the contributions of Nalayeh to Somalis in North America and to those in Somalia and across the world.

"Hodan Nalayeh was a unifier," said Saciido Shaie, a friend of the journalist and co-organizer of the event. "As a community, we shouldn't just mourn her death; we should come together and find a way to continue her legacy."

Over the past five years, Nalayeh traveled to cities and towns across Africa and in North America, documenting and sharing the stories of Somali entrepreneurs, professionals, authors, artists, activists and others.

In 2015, she covered the second anniversary of the Somali Museum of Minnesota. In a 16-minute YouTube video about the event, Nalayeh is seen interacting and inviting her young Somali-American admirers from Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to come before her the rolling camera.

In 2017, Nalayeh visited Minneapolis again for the story about Afro Deli, a successful Somali-owned restaurant, where she reconnected with Abdirahman Kahin. She wanted to check out the restaurant because, as she said in one video, she enjoyed discovering "food places that are practical, simple, delicious but still Somali." And she shared that discovery with millions of people through her social media platform.

In 2018, Nalayeh left North America for good. She moved with her two sons to Kismayo, where she continued to share the positive accounts of her people and intensified her effort to empower women through her journalism.

A week ago, Nalayeh published her last video about three Somali women entrepreneurs and how they're "thriving" in the banana export trade and in other businesses.

"She was in her best time in life," her cousin Siad Ali said. "She was pregnant. She was happy. She loved her husband."

Besides Integration TV, Nalayeh was also involved in education and humanitarian efforts in Somalia. Ali said that she was working on an ambitious project with her family to build a library in Las Anod, her birthplace.

In recent years, a growing number of Somalis in the diaspora have returned to Somalia to serve in state or government posts, invest in development initiatives and establish private businesses.

"Many people have returned or plan on returning mainly because of her beautiful coverage of Somalia," Afro Deli owner Kahin said. "She focused on unique stories that no one else was telling about Somalia."

In the few years Nalayeh produced Integration TV, she left an enduring stamp on Somali-Americans and other Somalis throughout the world. Her media organization served as an alternative platform countering mainstream media's often-negative portrayal of Somalia and its citizens.

"Hodan Nalayeh is gone," Kahin said. "But her legacy will live on forever."