St. Louis Park fourth-grader Mohamed Fofana recently was asked what he wanted to do when he became a man.
Mohamed, 10, who loved soccer, basketball, football, baseball and, most of all, his mother’s homemade chicken and noodles, smiled at his inquiring uncle but didn’t answer.
Now, his family can only wonder what might have been. On Thursday morning, they learned the boy who penned the heartwarming Mother’s Day letter on the refrigerator door was dead, the second victim of Wednesday’s mudslide on a Mississippi River bluff in St. Paul.
Mohamed, whose family lives in north Minneapolis, was buried under a fallen hillside. Authorities said that Haysem Sani, a 9-year-old from St. Louis Park, was the other boy who died during the field trip from Peter Hobart Elementary School to Lilydale Park.
Haysem was an intelligent, humble boy who always was quite eager to smile, say hello and shake hands, said Fuad Omar, director of the Tawfiq Islamic Center on Lyndale Avenue N. in Minneapolis.
Omar said he last saw Haysem when he came to the mosque for religious school last Saturday with his mother. Haysem had been born in the United States to Oromo parents who had emigrated from Ethiopia as part of the state’s growing population of Oromo Muslims.“He was very welcoming,” Omar said. “It’s very tragic for us to lose him.”
Services for Haysem will be on Friday at the Islamic Institute of Minnesota’s Burnsville Mosque on Riverwood Drive, with burial at the nearby Garden of Eden Cemetery.
At Mohamed’s house Thursday, relatives — most from Guinea, some from Liberia — prayed in Arabic in the living room. His father wiped tears from his eyes as he talked about the second of his four boys.
“I was there when they took him away to the medical center,” said Lancine Fofana. “All I could think of was that he is such a cool boy, a good friend, a good boy we’ve always been proud of.
“There is nothing sadder than seeing your kids leave you,” he said as some of the 60 friends and relatives wedged within two rooms tried to console him.
Mohamed’s mother, Madusu, sat with nearly two dozen other women in the kitchen. To her left was the refrigerator, with the handwritten Mother’s Day note, thanking her “for a being a great mom” and for being a great cook. She said she wanted to talk, but her words were swallowed in emotion.
For Gmoh Kanneh, 21, Mohamed’s big brother, there was shock and the sudden responsibility of taking care of his parents. A student at Dakota County Technical College, he’d had dinner with his family Tuesday and seen Mohamed before he left for school.
Kanneh, the only one of the children who was not born in the United States, said he had also gone to school in St. Louis Park because his parents loved the school district.
“It’s so strange to have dinner with him, to see him so happy, excited about this field trip. For me, it’s finals week, and I’m thinking about that. And then I get a call.”
An uncle, Mohammed Kanneh, 23, talked about how “respectful” and “outgoing” Mohamed was. Mohammed Kanneh said that, on Monday, he graduated from Minneapolis Community Technical College, and young Mohamed was the first to congratulate him.
An uncle, Iman Mohammed Dukuly, who conducted the Muslim prayer service, said he will remind others how this child’s brief life enriched their own. An aunt, Maimouna Fofana, stared at a photograph of Mohamed holding a trophy.
“There are no bad feelings,” she said. “The family preferred to send their children to school in St. Louis Park. This isn’t anybody’s fault.”
Outside, Mohamed’s 8-year-old twin brothers, Hassan and Al-Seny Fofana, sat on the winding concrete steps, surrounded by well-wishers. They are third-graders and did not appear to know what had happened to their brother. But they will follow the example Mohamed set, said Mohamed Bah, president of the Guinea Community of Minnesota.
“Whatever he wanted, he knew how to get — by being nice,” Bah said. “We’ll miss him. Sometimes you meet people who have lasting impact, people who really affect your life. Even if they are only 10 years old.”
Staff writer Joy Powell contributed to this story.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419