Jibril Afyare, a Twin Cities software engineer, was heading to meet an uncle, aunt and cousin in the heart of Mogadishu when a massive blast resounded through Somalia’s capital Saturday.
Afyare had traveled there at the Somali government’s invitation, part of a growing influx of Minnesotans drawn back to pitch in with rebuilding the civil war-ravaged country. The Saturday terror attack brought home the fragility of Somalia’s recovery in a most painful way: His uncle, aunt and cousin, a “brilliant” young staffer at the Somali finance ministry, were killed.
The Minnesota Somali community was profoundly shaken by this weekend’s attack, which claimed more than 300 lives and devastated a bustling intersection that had come to symbolize a return to relative normalcy. Some community members said most locally at least know someone who lost a relative, friend or neighbor in the blast. It claimed the life of a Bloomington father of three who had arrived that day to look for jobs that would let him help with rebuilding.
But Afyare and others said the attack would not chill a growing hunger among Minnesota Somalis to help the country of their roots. Here in North America’s largest Somali refugee settlement, imams and other community leaders were making plans Monday to raise funds, ship medical supplies and otherwise respond to the attack.
“Somalis are really resilient people,” said Abdulwahid Osman, a Minneapolis attorney. “While this may cause a short-term pause, I believe in the end more people will be willing and ready to go back to Somalia.”
Nearly 70 people remained missing in the blast, authorities said Monday, as the Horn of Africa nation reeled from one of the world’s worst attacks in years. As funerals continued, the government said the death toll was expected to rise. Somalia’s government blamed the Al-Qaida-linked Al-Shabab, though the Islamic extremist group has not claimed responsibility for the attack.
Osman returned to Mogadishu in 2013, advising the country’s government on rebuilding its legal system. He passed through the intersection where the blast happened every day on his way to work. It’s a place largely devoid of military or government targets, where someone intent on slaughtering innocents would strike.
Ahmed AbdiKarin Eyow, the Somali-American father and welder killed in the blast, was a friend from Osman’s mosque, who spoke with him often about his wish to return and contribute.
“His desire to help was much stronger than any fear,” he said.
Saciido Shaie, a local community leader, traveled to Mogadishu earlier this year with a Richfield City Council member and a videographer, part of an effort to drum up support for victims of the country’s recent drought. During her four-day stay in the city, she got to know an Ohio-raised Somali-American who worked in humanitarian affairs for the government and shepherded the group through the city.
She was shocked to learn he died in the Saturday attack, one of three friends she lost.
“He left his wife and kids to support people who are dying every day,” she said. “Now he is dead.”
Some local Somali Americans described a sense of helplessness as they watched the aftermath of the attack unfold from afar. Ibrahim Noor, a manager at the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, called his uncle, a businessman with an office near the blast site, as soon as he heard of the attack. But his office building had collapsed, and the uncle had been rushed to a hospital with heavy bleeding from his nose, mouth and ears. Noor waited several suspenseful hours before he got an update from another relative.
The uncle, who has remained in a coma, was airlifted to Ankara, the Turkish capital, for surgery Monday.
“Here you are in Minnesota with your family, having clean water and good schools,” Noor said. “Sometimes you get this guilty feeling.”
Afyare was one of about 150 Somali diaspora members invited by the country’s government to offer feedback on a new constitution at a conference that has been put on hold. He was blocks from the site of the attack when it happened.
“I have never seen or heard anything like this,” he said. “This was like World War III.”
At the hospital where his uncle’s wife died, he donated blood and put out a call through social media to encourage more donations.
Other local Somali-Americans are rallying to help as well. At a Monday news conference hosted by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, local Somali imams and other leaders said they are working on a plan to raise money and secure other help for those affected by the blast. Many in the local community are still trying to confirm whether loved ones in the city are safe, with some poring over graphic media images for familiar faces.
“What happened on Saturday is the 9/11 of the Somali people,” said Imam Hassan Mohamud.
Mohamud urged the U.S. government to suspend President Trump’s latest restrictions on travel and immigration by Somali nationals as well as deportations to Somalia, which have picked up in recent years. Leaders said at the conference they worried that the restrictions might discourage even U.S. citizens and permanent residents of Somali descent from traveling back to help now, even though the travel ban doesn’t apply to them.
Jaylani Hussein, CAIR-MN’s executive director, decried the silence on the attack so far from Trump, who often takes to social media on the heels of terrorist acts.
A growing number of Somalis in Minnesota have returned to the East African country in recent years to start businesses, work for nonprofits or take on roles in government. In 2014, a civil engineer from the Twin Cities was gunned down by militants.
Afyare said he hopes the chilling effect from this latest terror attack on would-be returnees will be short-lived. On a recent visit to Mogadishu, he had been heartened by a new vitality in the city and the tranquillity he discovered at its famed Lido Beach.
“We are mourning; we are hurting,” he said. “But I think the trend of returns will continue.”
Staff writer Faiza Mahamud contributed to this report.