For months, Hussein Samatar dragged himself to meetings of the Minneapolis school board, so wiped out that he couldn’t speak at times.
He kept his exhaustion and the reason for it hidden from even his fellow board members until Wednesday, when he announced that he’s fighting chronic lymphocytic leukemia and that the resulting chemotherapy has taken a toll on him.
Samatar, 45, who in 2010 became the first Somali immigrant to be elected to public office in Minnesota, announced the news on Facebook, his hand forced by the need for a bone-marrow transplant he expects to undergo by mid-May.
“I never even considered missing a meeting,” he said in an interview.
That streak is likely to be broken with an expected two months of recovery from the transplant. The operation also is keeping him from trying to further his groundbreaking political career by running for mayor. He was primed to announce his candidacy until doctors advised him that it’s not practical after the transplant, which is expected to improve his chances for survival.
He said doctors have estimated his chances of surviving his cancer of the blood at 70-75 percent. That’s consistent with the national five-year survival rate of 78.8 percent reported by the National Cancer Institute. Samatar said he was told that his age and good health improve his chances of beating it. He was diagnosed in early December at a much younger age than the median of 72; the probability of being diagnosed with the disease is one in 202 for those born today.
“Who knows? It’s really up in the air,” he said of his chances.
He’s been through three of four rounds of treatment. “It has been very hard. There were times I felt so lousy I couldn’t even get up,” he said. “There are days that I feel great and days that I feel terrible.”
A former banker who now runs an organization that helps African immigrants to launch businesses, Samatar began public life when Mayor R.T. Rybak appointed him to the city’s now-defunct Library Board.
After winning a school board seat, Samatar advocated in particular for the needs of students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants. About one in every five Minneapolis students qualifies for English Language Learner status. He’s also pushed the district to break out academic results for those students; results are now reported for students from homes speaking three languages beyond English.
Board Chairman Alberto Monserrate and other board members learned the news early Wednesday. “I’m very saddened obviously and concerned,” Monserrate said. “I did reach out to him right away and assured him my prayers were for his complete recovery.”
Samatar and his wife, Ubah Jama, have four children and live in the Phillips neighborhood. He had planned to run for mayor on a platform citing his education and his background in economic development, particularly creating businesses and jobs through his 10-year-old African Development Center. Now that hope is on hold.
“I felt the race I have is the race of survival,” he said. “We all of us have a few days on this earth. I don’t like it, but I’m dealing with what I have.”
Running for re-election to the school board next year will hinge on his health and whether he feels he’s having an impact.
But he’s kept a sense of humor. Asked if his school board colleagues noticed his lethargy, he joked: “They actually want me to be quiet.”