WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison flew into war-ravaged Somalia on Tuesday for an unannounced stay inside the fortified compound of the Mogadishu airport, the first visit by a member of Congress since the Obama administration recognized the new government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
The Minneapolis Democrat, whose district includes 32,000 people of Somali descent, described it as a humanitarian trip to discuss refugee problems and U.S. money transfers, many of them from relatives in Minnesota.
For Ellison, the trip continued a growing legacy of visits to global trouble spots, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Congo. In 2009, he and then-Sen. John Kerry were among the first U.S. government officials in more than three years to enter the Gaza Strip, where Ellison was filmed by Arab television stations carrying boxes of aid materials.
The next day, he went to Israeli towns that had suffered rocket attacks from Gaza.
Ellison said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he hoped his presence in Somalia would send a message to the world that Somalia is stabilizing, with the help of its global diaspora of citizens.
"It's something I think is important to do," said Ellison, speaking from Nairobi, Kenya, before heading back to Minnesota. "It's important to help emerging democracies maintain their course toward being free, democratic, prosperous nations."
Ellison's Africa journey coincides with that of U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a St. Paul Democrat who is on a five-day trip to South Sudan and Tanzania sponsored by the international relief organization CARE.
Ellison's office said his trip is being sponsored by the American Refugee Committee, an international nonprofit with a presence in Somalia. He met with the group's director in Somalia, as well as with Mohamud, the mayor of Mogadishu, the Somali Chamber of Commerce and Somali-Americans from Minneapolis.
Among them was Aynte Abdi, a Minnesota-trained journalist who has returned to Somalia to head a think tank called the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies. "I'm trying to contribute to the recovery phase of our country," Abdi said from Nairobi, where he and Ellison, the first Muslim in Congress, relaxed over evening tea.
Ellison said there was no advance notice of the trip for security reasons, which also restricted him to an airport compound guarded by African Union soldiers who have helped push Al-Shabab fighters out of the city.
Al-Shabab, a once-formidable Islamic group that succeeded in recruiting Somali-American youths from Minnesota, has been reduced to a "little guerrilla outfit," Ellison said. While the group can still mount attacks, he said, "what it can't do is contend with the government for power. They're getting weaker every day."
Ellison said that maintaining that stability will require the help of the international community and returning expatriates like Abdi, who studied at Metropolitan State University in the Twin Cities: "They have this awesome diasporic community — all these people who gained expertise all around the world."
Another focus of Ellison's trip is money, in particular the troubled remittance industry that war- and drought-stricken Somalis rely on to live. "This is the lifeblood of the country," he said.
For many Somalis and their U.S. relatives, money transfers have been restricted by expanding anti-terrorism laws aimed at blocking the flow of funds to militant anti-Western groups such as Al-Shabab.
Many Somali money-transfer companies, known as hawalas, have been forced to shut down because of the reluctance of U.S. banks to risk doing business with them. The effects, Ellison said, have been devastating for Somalis and Somali-Americans in Minnesota, home to one of the largest Somali refugee populations in the nation. "These are their parents, their children and their loved ones," Ellison said.
In December, Ellison and Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., introduced legislation that would address the problem by simplifying oversight for money services businesses and other nonbank financial institutions.
The importance of the Minnesota-Somali relationship was underscored by Mohamud, who visited the Twin Cities last month immediately after then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton formally recognized his government.