Saado Ali Warsame’s songs and poems urged unity in a country known for its tumult and division. Between the lines, they also reflected a political activism for change that propelled her to become one of the first women in Somalia’s parliament.
Warsame, who for decades was one of the top singing stars in Somalia, bridged the communities of her home country and her adopted home in Minnesota. She lived in Minneapolis and St. Cloud from 2007 to 2012. Somali-Americans here often found it remarkable that they could mingle and chat so easily in local coffee shops and stores with a celebrity of such status.
She had just returned to Somalia for the end of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan when she and her driver were killed Wednesday in a drive-by shooting in the capital, Mogadishu.
The militant group Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s shooting outside the Ambassador Hotel. Warsame, who according to a family member was born in 1950, was the fourth member of the Somali parliament killed by Al-Shabab this year and the latest of seven members of parliament to be assassinated.
For Somali-Americans in Minnesota, home to the largest Somali population in the United States, the news of Warsame’s death struck hard, raising concerns about the stability of the fledgling government in the restive east African nation. But it was also a time for reflection on Warsame’s contributions to the idea of unity, both in Somalia and the Somali community here. She was elected to the Somali parliament in 2012. Warsame, who held dual citizenship, was most recently back in Minnesota a week or so ago.
“Saado was a passionate advocate for Somali nationalism, for human rights, and she was a symbol that we can have one Somalia that is at peace with itself,” local political activist Sadik Warfa said.
Warfa said he was with her son and daughter in Elk River on Wednesday as the family struggled with the news. Warsame’s body apparently already has been buried in Mogadishu in a prominent national memorial.
Minneapolis turns out
A memorial service Thursday night in Minneapolis drew a large crowd honoring Warsame. The room inside the Brian Coyle Community Center in the largely Somali-American Cedar-Riverside area hit maximum capacity soon after the event began around 6 p.m., so the crowd was asked to move outside. More than 100 people sat in chairs outside the center just in front of the Riverside Plaza apartments as community members, friends and co-workers spoke in Somali in an hourlong tribute to Warsame. Fans of her music also filled the crowd. Mahdi Elmi of Minneapolis likened her to Tupac or Michael Jackson.
Abdiaziz Yusuf, a member of the Somali parliament who worked with Warsame, called her a “brilliant member.”
Salma Barkad was Warsame’s niece. The 26-year-old, who lives in Minneapolis, sat in the audience wearing a shirt with Warsame’s photo on it. The shirt read, “In loving memory of legend Saado A. Warsame, phenomenal woman.”
“She was never afraid to say what’s on her mind,” Barkad said with tears in her eyes. “She was a brave woman.”
“She was a role model to me, and I plan to follow her footsteps.”
‘It really sets things back’
Warfa urged the U.S. government to insist that Somalia conduct a full investigation into Warsame’s death, particularly since she was an American citizen.
“The pattern is not good,” he said. “They [the U.S. government] send condolences to the family. They condemn, and that’s it. The killing of these parliamentarian members, it really sets things back for all of us.”
Warsame’s status as a celebrity was huge, and she was often described as Somalia’s Aretha Franklin. As a boy growing up in Mogadishu in the 1980s, Ahmed Ali Said would listen to Warsame’s songs, which often had undertones urging political change. At the time, she was as big a pop star in Somalia as Michael Jackson was in the United States, he said.
Said met Warsame several times for coffee in St. Cloud, where he moved in 2001. He said her story in part inspired his current campaign for a seat on the St. Cloud City Council.
“She had two flags. She felt that if Somalis could come together and unite they could rebuild Somalia with the help of the United States,” he said.
Local Somali community activist Abdirizak Bihi said Warsame was well aware of the dangers of her political involvement, at one point early in the process even acknowledging that becoming a member of parliament could be a death sentence for her. Bihi said he recalled watching a video of when she arrived back in Somalia.
“Right at the airport she said she was there to help rebuild at any cost, even until she dies,” Bihi said. “She died for that.”