The Somali elected official was an inspirational leader and community-builder.
Cancer has deprived Minneapolis of one of its best and brightest. School board member Hussein Samatar died Sunday at age 45 after battling chronic leukemia. Earlier this year, before learning that he needed a bone-marrow transplant, he had considered running for mayor.
Samatar’s life story is nothing short of remarkable. He came to the United States in the early 1990s as a civil war refugee from his native Somalia. He taught himself English, earned an MBA from the University of St. Thomas, became a banker, then founded the now 10-year-old African Development Center. There he devised a way to structure loans that would not violate tenets of the Islamic faith, an innovation that helped launch at least 50 businesses.
Samatar entered public service in 2006, when Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak appointed him to the Minneapolis Library Board. In 2010, he ran unopposed for Minneapolis school board and put his expertise to work for education. Because education had been so important to his success, he championed important reforms to improve learning for Minneapolis students. And during his brief time on the board, the district began collecting academic data in four languages, including Somali.
After his election, he was the only one of five incoming board members who refused to sign a letter that chastised the outgoing board. The letter, on Minneapolis Federation of Teachers union letterhead, took the board to task for difficult contract negotiations. Although Samatar had been endorsed by the union, he wisely understood that it was inappropriate for incoming board members to take sides.
Political activism within the Somali community expanded in part because of Samatar’s leadership. He was the first of his immigrant community to become an elected official, but likely won’t be the last. His success encouraged others.
Samatar helped open doors of opportunity for many. He was an example of the power of hard work and persistence. His life and accomplishments are inspirational — not only for immigrants, but for the entire community.
One can only imagine what Samatar might have accomplished with another 25 years. Though his life was cut short, his legacy will live on in the many lives he touched and in his many contributions to the city of Minneapolis.
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