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Heritage Moments: From a cubicle on Swan Street to the presidency of Somalia

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Three world leaders have called Western New York their home. The first two, the American presidents Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland, are well known to people living in the region. The third is less celebrated here.

But the story of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed — the Buffalonian better known as Farmaajo, elected president of Somalia in February 2017 — is every bit as incredible, and momentous, as that of practically any leader anywhere.

His ascent to the presidency touched off ecstatic celebrations, both in war-torn Somalia and in the Somali diaspora around the world. The first year of his presidency has been dangerous and difficult, as was always expected in a country riven by violence for so long – “There is a daunting task ahead of me, and I know that,” he said upon accepting the position – but his reputation for honesty and good governance has so far remained intact.

Farmaajo, the son of a civil servant, was born in Somalia in 1962. He earned his nickname for his childhood love of cheese (formaggio in Italian, the language of the country that colonized Somalia in the early 20th century). From 1985 to ’89, he worked at the Somali embassy in Washington, but like so many of his generation, he was forced into exile by the collapse of the central government at home and the rise of warlords and disintegration of civil society that followed.

In 1989, he moved to Buffalo and enrolled at UB. His long stay in Western New York had begun.

Farmaajo graduated with a degree in history in 1993 and over the next 16 years worked at the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, the Erie County Division of Equal Employment Opportunity and the New York State Department of Transportation — a hat trick of civil service jobs with the city, county and state. Throughout this period Farmaajo was known to his American friends and colleagues as, simply, Mohamed A. Mohamed, a smart, nice, soft-spoken guy who lived with his wife, two sons and two daughters in their homes, first on the West Side, then in Amherst and finally, on Grand Island.

But in Buffalo’s growing Somali community he was recognized as a man of prominence who might play a role in the future of his war-ravaged homeland in the Horn of Africa. He conferred with other notable Somalis living in Western New York, like Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas, an economics professor at Niagara University, and Gaas’s wife, Hodan Isse, a UB economics professor. He taught his job specialty, conflict resolution, at Erie Community College. And he earned a Master’s degree in American Studies at UB. His thesis: “U.S. Strategic Interest in Somalia: From the Cold War Era to the War on Terror.”

Suddenly, in October 2010, Farmaajo was appointed Somalia’s new prime minister, the second most powerful post in the government. It seemed like a bolt from the blue to his Buffalo friends, but the Somali community was not surprised at all; they knew he had met with the Somali president at the United Nations in New York.

Still, Farmaajo’s task seemed impossible — the Somali government controlled only parts of the capital, Mogadishu, and little else in the chaotic country.

“Every morning when I was brushing my teeth I heard bullets hitting the metal over my window,” he told The New York Times. “It was like, pop pop pop pop. The first day I was shocked. But after that I knew the bullets would not get through, so I continued brushing.”

Farmaajo quickly earned a reputation for honesty and transparency in government, winning international praise for creating stability in notoriously unstable Somalia. But infighting among factions of the government forced him to resign in June 2011. Protests broke out across Somalia and among Somalis living abroad, from Nairobi to London to Toronto. (He was succeeded as prime minister by his deputy, Gaas, the Niagara University professor, who lasted only four months in the job.)

So it was back to Buffalo for Farmaajo, back to his job at DOT, and back to his old cubicle, with its window facing Swan Street.

“It’s a different feeling when you’re heading a whole nation and you come back to your normal life,” he told The Buffalo News. “It’s a little awkward, to tell you the truth.”

And yet, five and a half years later Farmaajo was back in Somalia, this time to run for president.

The election was held in a secure zone at Mogadishu airport. The voters were the members of the Somali parliament; the majority of them, like Farmaajo, had lived in North America or Europe for many years and were familiar with the protocols of good government. The voting was monitored by international observers. Security was provided by troops of the African Union.

Farmaajo won on the second ballot, on Feb. 8, 2017. Eight days later he was sworn in. As president, he would put to use some of the skills he developed in Buffalo.

“Violence comes from conflicts, and I’ve learned how to resolve conflicts,” he once said in his old office, gazing out over Swan Street. “That’s exactly what I do here.”

Diaspora

Somali Man charged the deaths of 4 in fatal I-55 accident

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STAUTON, IL – A Colorado truck driver has been charged following an investigation into a multi-vehicle accident that killed 4 people and injured 11 others. Mohamed Jama, 54, of Greeley, Colorado, turned himself in to the Madison County Jail Monday.

The accident happened on southbound I-55 in Madison County on November 21, 2017.

The fatal accident killed 2 sisters, Madisen and Hailey Bertels and a friend, Tori Carroll, and an out of state woman, Vivian Vu in another vehicle.

Authorities say the accident occurred when a tractor-trailer driven by Mohamed Jama failed to slow down and stop for cars in front of him in a construction zone.

By the time it was all over, 7 vehicles were damaged and the people inside them injured or killed.

The sisters attended high school in Staunton.

The deaths deeply touched Staunton where people knew the young women or knew people who were their friends. Many in town were still grieving the loss. Matthew Batson said, “I’ll hear stories about them all the time, even though it’s been five months? Yes, it’s a lasting effect.”

The Madison County State`s Attorney Tom Gibbon said if convicted of all the crimes Mohamed Jama could spend the rest of his life in prison. With summer coming on and more construction zone Gibbons says there`s a warning for all of us.

“Each of us out there in our cars we really need to pay attention, watch out, slow down you never want to see something like this to happen again it so terrible for all the victim I’m sure that no person would want to be the cause of something like this.”

Jama is charged with 4 counts of reckless homicide and 8 counts of reckless driving. He`s being held in the Madison County Jail without bond.

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Books

CANADA: Edmonton author aims to boost diversity in children’s book publishing

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EDMONTON—Two years ago Rahma Mohamed’s then four-year-old daughter saw an Elsa costume, complete with blond braids, and pleaded with her mother to buy it so she would look “beautiful.”

That’s when Mohamed decided her kids needed more cultural inspiration than the blond princess from Frozen.

After a year of work, the first-time author published Muhima’s Quest, a children’s book that tells the story of a young African-America Muslim girl who wakes up on her 10th birthday and goes on a journey.

Now, Mohamed’s at work on her second book, which is due out at the end of the month. She’s on a journey of her own, she said, to boost diversity in children’s publishing.

“I wanted to create a character who had African descent and is a Muslim in a children’s book because I just found out that there were none that were available in the mainstream,” she said.

Her books show kids it’s OK to be different, she said. Take her first book: some Muslims don’t celebrate birthdays, she explains, and the little girl in the book struggles with her faith and questions why she doesn’t celebrate like her classmates do.

“The overall message is that we do things differently, but that part is what makes us beautiful,” Mohamed said.

She said she felt it necessary for her kids to see themselves represented in the books they read in order to “enhance their self-confidence, as well as bolster their sense of pride.”

Mohamed, who writes under the pen name Rahma Rodaah, self-published her first book and since last summer, has sold 200 copies locally.

“It does take a lot of resources and you have to self-finance, but I believe in the end it’s worth it,” she said.

She hopes to go bigger with her second book, which focuses on the universal concept of sibling rivalry, and features a young girl who plans on selling her little brother because she believes he is getting all the attention.

“My overall goal is to portray Muslim Africans who are basically a normal family.”

Mohamed says her previous book was well-received by parents at readings she had done at public libraries and schools.

“Most of them who are Muslims really loved that the kids could identify with the characters,” she said.

The books also acted as a conversation starter for non-Muslim families, she said.

She said, for her, the most exciting part of the journey is knowing that she is making a difference in shaping the minds of young Black Muslims.

“We are underrepresented, misunderstood and mostly mischaracterized. It is time we paint a different picture.”

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Minnesota

When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway

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Mukhtar Ibrahim

In October 2013, two Somali teenage girls named Ayan and Leila shocked their parents by running away to join ISIS in Syria. Their radicalization story is unusual in that it happened in Norway.

Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.

Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.

“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”

His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.

When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”

It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.

“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.

“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”

Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.

When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.

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