Abdirizak Haji Hussein Was a Moral Compass for Somali Community in Minnesota

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Abdirizak Haji Hussein, a key member of the Somali Youth League — a political group that played a leading role in Somalia’s road to independence during the 1950s — who served as the country’s prime minister from 1964 to 1967 and its ambassador to the United Nations from 1974 and 1979, died on Jan. 31 in a hospital in Minneapolis in the US State of Minnesota. He was 90.

Hussein’s presence among the Somali community in America was a great comfort to many of us. Now that he is gone, and the fact that he was buried in Mogadishu, creates a void that cannot be closed. He lived in America for close to 40 years, with 25 of those years lived in New York. He later moved to Minnesota, where he stayed for 15 years until his death in January.

I first met him in 2001. It was shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At the time, Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen, who later pleaded guilty to “conspiring to kill American citizens,” was arrested in Minnesota. Federal agents descended on mosques in Minnesota, sniffing around for information. As the home to thousands of Somalis, Minnesota was not spared. Federal agents interrogated community leaders, sometimes without court approvals. Money remittance company al-Barakat, which many Somalis used to send money back to family and friends in Somalia, had its assets frozen with an executive order signed by former U.S.  President George Bush. It was surely a confusing time for the Somali community in Minnesota. Fear and anxiety became the norm of the day among the community. There was no conversation, and worst, no one knew how to begin one.

With all this ongoing, Somali students in Minnesota organized a meeting.

We had a modest goal of bringing community members together and see if we could make sense of the mayhem. After all, mayhem was what Somalis knew something about it. We compiled a list of potential speakers.

Abdirizak Haji Hussein was one of them. I was skeptical about him accepting our invitation, asking myself: “Why would a former premier bother to come to a meeting organized by a group of undergraduate students?”

We expected no more than 100 people but reserved a room for 250 at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. More than 1,200 people showed up. We had to turn people away to be compliant with the fire prevention code. The atmosphere was intense and air in the room very thick. It was clear the community was looking for leadership with a moral compass.

In the meeting, Hussein spoke about the American system of government. He reminded everybody present that America was a constitutional government, that there was a bill of rights, which no government could take away from its citizens. He spoke at length about the three branches of government — the executive, the legislature and judiciary — and then compared them with the rule of law in countries run by dictators and authoritarian presidents. In those countries, he said, citizens are at the mercy of those in power and are subjected to their mood swings.

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Members of the Somali army carry the coffin of Abdirizak Haji Hussein in Mogadishu on Feb. 7. [Villa Somalia]

I moderated the question and answer session. One of the prominent stories traded amongst the Somali community was of Abdirizak ingesting piece(s) of paper to protect state secrets during the struggle with colonial powers. I wanted to ask him about it. He sat on the right side of the podium with his hearing aid on. Before I finished asking him the question, he looked at me, raised his hand and amusingly said: “There is some truth to the story.” I wanted to follow up for specifics, but by then, the room had burst into a standing ovation again that lasted a long time. It was a modest answer to an important story.

Even thought we lived in the same apartment complex in the Seward Neighborhood of Minneapolis, our relationship blossomed after that meeting. I visited him a number of times at his apartment. He read a lot and wrote infrequently about Somali affairs. He granted formal and informal interviews to almost anyone who asked. The New York Times was his favorite newspaper.

He also walked a lot in the summer. He walked from his apartment at 29th Avenue and Franklin Avenue South to the Cub Foods at Hiawatha Avenue South, about one mile distance. I offered to drive him but he used to emphatically refuse, making sure I did not interrupt his routine.

Hussein was also a moral compass for the Somali community, providing sound advice at times of critical change. One such example was in 2006, when Ethiopian forces captured Mogadishu with tacit support from the U.S. government — essentially arousing the deep-seated enmity between the two countries.

When he spoke about this issue, the theme of his talk was for Somalis to politically focus on America. He dissected the U.S. government’s power structure, and urged Somalis to write letters and flood key congressional delegation offices with phone calls to make their voices heard. He urged Somalis to depart the divisive politics of Somalia, and adapt to the new homeland. It was this way, he argued, that Somalis could influence American political process.

For all that it is worth, for me, it disappointing, but not surprising, to see his body shipped thousands of miles to be buried in Somalia. Some family members object to the arrangement. Sources familiar with the family deliberations in Minneapolis confirmed a strong desire to grant his first wish to be buried in Burnsville, Minnesota. But other family members are advocating otherwise.

Few hours after his death before mainstream Minnesota media started to cover the story, competing flags were being lowered across the federal states in Somalia. Independent expenditures were lining up to cover the logistic expenses. In his death, just as in his life, Hussein remains an important figure among the Somali people.

Death is inevitable, but Abdirizak Haji Hussein was an important figure who was there for the Somali people in Minnesota during tough times. He will be dearly missed.

Jamal Abdulahi is a state director with Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) and chairs the Somali Caucus of the DFL. He is currently a Policy Fellow at Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. He focuses on political development of New Americans. He can be reached at Abdu0037@umn.edu. He can also be followed @fuguni.

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