On a rainy day in a coffee shop in Minneapolis’ Cedar Riverside neighborhood, Council Member Abdi Warsame sat across from a young man, quizzing him about his quest to become a community service officer with the Metro Transit Police.
Warsame has been a mentor to Mubashir Jeilani for years, and now the 19-year-old is a finalist for a coveted spot in the CSO program, on his way to becoming the first kid to grow up in Cedar Riverside and join the force. For Warsame, the city’s first Somali-American council member, Jeilani’s success would be key to a bigger goal: one by one, proving that young Somalis can and will do good things in the Twin Cities.
Nearly a year and a half into his first term, Warsame is balancing two big jobs out of his small City Hall office. There is the usual business of a ward that winds through the neighborhoods just south and east of downtown, where people want permits for new shops and restaurants, brighter lighting on the streets, new equipment in the parks.
And there is the work of being one of the most prominent Somali-Americans in the country, at a time when the Somali community is making inroads in politics, business and education — but also pushing back against a wave of news about young Somalis trying to link up with terrorist groups overseas. In between council meetings and city business, Warsame’s calendar is filled with visits from East African dignitaries, trips to other Somali communities in the United States and casual conversations with people who need help with problems large and small.
Warsame’s words travel further than those of most people in local government. So on a high-profile issue like the recent arrests of a half-dozen young Somali-Americans accused of trying to leave the Twin Cities to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, Warsame chooses his words carefully.
“I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I know how you should raise your children,” he said. “But I know I have a platform where I can say the truth as relative to me, as I see it. And the truth is … there’s something wrong here, and what’s wrong is these young men don’t understand where they came from.”
Grew up in England
Warsame, 37, came from Somalia, via England, where his family moved when he was young. There, he had what he calls a “middle-class” life, but he was often told about the much harder life left behind in Somalia. He was told to stay out of the decades-long civil war there, that it was a “stupid” conflict that pitted families against each other. Warsame says he knew that no matter how hard it was being poor and foreign and black and Muslim, he was in a place that would give him a better future than in his birthplace.
When he moved to Minneapolis in 2006 with his wife, Warsame said he felt more at home than ever. He worked for a bank, then as a community organizer in Cedar Riverside and in 2013, he decided to make a run for office.
Warsame saw his victory — the first for any Somali-American in a major U.S. city — as a rallying point for a community that needed a win. Other Somalis seem to see it that way, too. When he won, Warsame’s phone rang and rang. His few dozen Facebook friends turned into a few thousand Facebook fans. His page was soon full of photos from a parade of visitors to his office: kings, prime ministers, elders from every region of Somalia. The Kenyan foreign minister wants to visit next.
Somalis with less political influence vie for his time, too. Walking home from work, Warsame is nearly always stopped by people looking for the kind of help council members usually aren’t asked to provide. There’s an apartment with bedbugs, a sick son, an uncle dying in Somalia, a wife having trouble with her immigration papers.
“With the East African community, they want to see you first,” he said. “They want to know what you’re doing. They want to see what you’re doing. They want to bless what you’re doing.”
Warsame also seeks out interaction beyond Minnesota’s Somali community. He has traveled to other cities with East African populations, including Seattle and San Diego.
Council Member Blong Yang, the city’s first Hmong-American elected official, said there is not an easy way to manage the demands and interest from a broader community when there’s so much work to do on basic council business. “I feel like from his perspective, he seems to be managing it pretty well,” Yang said. “In some ways you get the sense that he relishes in it.”
Typically brief comments
In public meetings, Warsame is often one of the quietest people on the council dais. He lets other council members debate before he weighs in. His comments are typically brief, if he makes public comments at all. Occasionally, however, such as when the council approved the country’s first-ever Somalian sister city, Warsame speaks passionately.
“I think he’s a real powerful voice when he does speak,” Council President Barb Johnson said. “I remember him in the budget — he had the audience in his hand and it quieted people who had been screaming and hollering. You could have heard a pin drop when he was speaking.”
In conversations with the Somali community, Warsame is much more outspoken. And while he waited before saying anything publicly after the recent conspiracy arrests, he eventually spoke out with a statement to the media, an opinion piece in the newspaper and in conversations on the street and in coffee shops.
After the arrests, some family members of the young men in jail came to Warsame’s office looking for help. His staff members had to tell them there wasn’t much they could do. But Warsame thinks there is something to be done with all the other Somali kids searching, as he did, to make something out of their lives.
Families, he said, need to do more of what his mother did: teach their children about where they came from and why they are here.
“Let’s give our children both sides of the story,” he said. “Why are you in America? Where did we come from? Why did we flee? If we had a choice we wouldn’t be here, that’s reality. Most Somalis would want to be in Somalia. But the reality is you have to do hard work.”
The stakes are high, as are the expectations. Mohamud Noor, a Somali-American who is a former Minneapolis school board member and former legislative candidate, said both Somalis and the larger community are watching to see if Warsame can make a difference.
“People are expecting him to step up,” Noor said.
Warsame takes it upon himself to be a personal cheerleader and coach for any kid who expresses interest in a goal. He’s spent his Saturdays taking teenagers to job fairs, ensured others got applications filled out for jobs and college. With each success — like Jeilani’s, with his police department ambitions — Warsame believes he’s picking up the momentum it will take to transform his community.
“If he gets into the police force, then I have a prototype,” he said. “I can say: ‘You see this kid? Why is he different to you? Is he better than you? Is he cleverer than you? No. But he’s earning $20 per hour, he’s getting his tuition paid for, he’s going to the cops, and you’re standing around.’ ’’
Said Warsame: “That’s how you change people. You change people by showing an example of what they could be.”