'I didn't want him to feel alone': A daughter's complicated goodbye to her father

Mohamed Omer, 74, of Minneapolis died April 29.

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Mohamed Omer died of COVID-19 on April 29.
Mohamed Omer was active in Minneapolis' Somali community. He worked as a middle school hall monitor and mentored students. He died of COVID-19 on April 29.
Courtesy of Haweya Farah

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Haweya Farah spent more than two weeks alone in her mother’s tidy, one-bedroom apartment this month — quarantining since the day her father died.

Farah’s mother and three teenage children were isolating back at her house. She’d decided it would be too risky to see them on anything but video calls.

Farah wasn’t sure if she had been infected with COVID-19, the disease that took her father. She had body aches, which can sometimes be a symptom of the virus, but they could have been from stress, or confinement.

Then again, she did slip her gloves off so she could hold her father’s hand at the end.

“I just sat next to him and talked,” she said. “I read him the Quran. I didn’t want him to feel alone.”

Farah’s father — Mohamed Omer, 74 — died April 29. Alone there in her mother’s apartment, Farah spent a lot of time thinking about her dad — a man she only recently got to know.

Four people stand for a picture outside.
Mohamed Omer's daughter, Haweya Farah, spent weeks in quarantine after her father died. She’s pictured here before the COVID-19 pandemic, with her three children, Abdirahman, Abdullahi and Amina.
Courtesy of Haweya Farah


Farah’s family fled Somalia during the country’s civil war. She was a young girl then — too young to remember. It was a violent, unstable time.

Omer decided to leave his wife and children to find work in Saudi Arabia. He got a job as a mechanic, thinking he would establish himself in Saudi Arabia and then send for his family.

“Refugees do these things out of love for their children,” she said. “They put their children’s life before anything else.”

Farah said she understands why he left, but she’s still untangling what it’s meant for her life.

The family survived on money Omer sent from his job in Saudi Arabia, and by selling clothing. They eventually moved to Minnesota as refugees when Farah was 12.

It took another 18 years to gather the money and paperwork for her father to join them. Farah said she doesn’t know a lot about her dad’s life before he got to Minnesota; he wasn’t much for stories.

It took them years to rebuild their relationship.

“He asked us for forgiveness,” she said. “He wished he’d stayed with us. I told him I forgave him.”

When Omer got sick in early April, he didn’t make a big deal of it. He had a fever and a dry cough — he thought it was a cold. He wasn’t a complainer. But when he finally went in to the hospital, he was quickly put on a ventilator. Farah was the only family member allowed in his room. She monitored his machine — she worked for years as a respiratory therapist.

He died about two weeks later, and Farah went right into quarantine. Most of her family did the same. This week, she tested negative for COVID-19, and left quarantine just in time for her oldest son’s 16th birthday.

A civil war scattered Mohamed Omer’s family more than 30 years ago. He spent his life trying to unscatter them. But in his death, his daughter said, the separation was even worse: The family couldn’t even gather for a traditional Muslim funeral.

“The elders would have washed the body,” she said. “Covered the body in a certain way. They would have brought the body in front of the whole community and prayed. We would have gathered in our homes and eaten together and cried together.”

Two hands hold each other.
Mohamed Omer's daughter, Haweya Farah, was the only one allowed to be with her father as he died. She took off her gloves so she could hold his hand, and turn the pages of the Quran as she read to him.
Courtesy of Haweya Farah

Instead, he was buried quickly, without much ceremony and with only a minute or two of prayer.

It didn’t seem right, Farah said. He would have had a big service. He was active in the community. He worked as a middle school hall monitor. He mentored students. He was admired. He was beloved. What he got didn’t give his daughter closure.

In the weeks after, she said, she paced her mother’s apartment.

“I go back to being that child who didn’t have a father all those years,” she said. “Part of me never let that go. Seeing him in bed, dying, was hard — because I wasn’t true to everything I told him. Part of me was still angry, and it was too late to tell him how I felt.”

Farah said she’s still working through her relationship with her father. They only really knew each other for eight years. That wasn’t enough to build a complete relationship — to make up for all the years he missed, or the things she’d had to survive, alone.

She wishes they’d gotten more time.

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