The returnees face many hurdles: a shortage of amenities, a sometimes tense relationship with compatriots who stayed during the civil war and security concerns heightened by the assassination of Ibrahim’s husband, Abdullahi Ali Anshoor. But advocates of this return migration say expatriates from places like Minnesota will be crucial to Somalia’s fragile recovery, with potential benefits to their host communities, as well.
“My response always is, ‘If we all go back to our host countries, who will rebuild Somalia?’ ” said Ibrahim. “If I re-establish Somalia, I will also help Minnesota.”
In spring of 2013, Zainab Hassan attended a conference in Mogadishu; she was struck by changes since her last visit. Two years earlier on a trip from Minnesota, she had seen war-gutted buildings and heard the thud of heavy weapons from parts of the city still contested by Al-Shabab.
By 2013, the militants had retreated. Construction cranes rose across Mogadishu. New businesses were cropping up with bids by expats to recreate pieces of their host communities, from a dollar store to a pizza restaurant that delivers. Inspired by this new energy and improved security, Hassan jumped at a chance to stay. A former Minneapolis Foundation program officer, she was tapped to restore the National Library of Somalia, reduced to a boarded-up shelter for displaced people, its entire collection vanished.
“Everybody says, ‘I thought Mogadishu was terrible, and I would be killed if I came back,’ ” Hassan said in an interview Wednesday from Mogadishu. “But things have changed dramatically.”
The arrival of a permanent government in late 2012 triggered a burst of optimism in the 1.5-million-strong Somali diaspora worldwide — and more trips back home. In the fall of 2013, researchers at the U’s Humphrey School joined forces with colleagues in Oslo and Mogadishu to study the phenomenon, paid for by a Norwegian foreign affairs ministry grant.
In dozens of interviews with returnees, patterns emerged: Most expats returned for stints of less than a year or for a series of shorter trips, still wary of long-term commitments to Somalia. The majority of nearly 30 Minnesota interviewees were highly educated and active in the Twin Cities. One-third were women.
Local Somalis voice frustration that a focus on Somali-American youths who traveled to Africa to join terrorist groups has overshadowed the other homingcoming stories. “Those of us in the community know there is a far greater number of people returning to Somalia with good intentions,” said Ahmed Muhumud, a study research fellow.
The trend is hard to quantify in the absence of government statistics or even direct flights from the United States to Somalia, says the study’s lead researcher, Ryan Allen. But there are signs that returns are on the upswing.
In recent years, a U.N. Development Programme initiative has lined up short-term expert positions in Somalia for more than 150 highly skilled expats, including Minnesotans. Sadik Warfa of the Global Somali Diaspora, a nonprofit that assists returnees, says traffic has picked up in his Minneapolis office.
He knows of more than 100 local Somalis who have returned to lend their skills and education to rebuilding. His nonprofit just started an effort to find internships in Somalia for recent Minnesota college graduates. Warfa says these Somalis feel a “calling.”
“This year and next year, more Somalis will return to Somalia,” he said. “The trick is how we make sure those who return stay longer.”
Abdulwahid Qalinle, a former U adjunct professor of Islamic law, says the decision to become senior policy adviser to the government in Mogadishu in 2013 was difficult. He’d be separated from his family for most of a year. In light of lingering security concerns, he says, bringing them along would have been “reckless, if not criminal.” Al-Shabab leaders have been vocal in urging their supporters to target returning expats.
Qalinle spearheaded a conference on rebuilding the country’s legal system that brought together Somali experts and politicians — and none of the sometimes out-of-touch foreign pundits who tend to dominate such events.
“I felt a great sense of accomplishment, of purpose, of fulfillment because I was making a difference,” he said.
He also doesn’t hold back on the challenges. The bulk of the conference recommendations have not yet been put into place, a disappointment. There are intractable disagreements about the role Islamic law should play, government infighting and tribal divisions. Somalia remains “a skeleton of a country”: ministers without any civil servants and crumbling health care and other infrastructure. Still, a hopeful Qalinle plans to go back.
The U heard complaints about corruption and the work ethic of government workers, with one interviewee saying he was shocked to find the parliament open for business only two hours a day. One interviewee said a local man once told her every time he saw a plane landing in Mogadishu, he wondered if on it was the expat coming to take his job.
Abdisalam Adam, a Twin Cities Somali community leader, says early enthusiasm about returning has been tempered by “a reality check.”
“Things are not always as professional and transparent as people thought they would be,” Adam said. Yet he is optimistic. Warfa says too many Somalis are returning from Mogadishu sooner than they planned, discouraged. He says the antidote his organization offers is an unvarnished picture to those planning a trip: “Don’t expect you’ll land a job right away and everybody will welcome you with open arms.”
Still, Allen said that on balance, most interviewees were glad they had the experience. Some, like a young nurse who helped at a Mogadishu orphanage for blind children, said they have committed to return annually, saving up for the trips throughout the year.
Continuing his dreams
Ibrahim, whose husband’s car was sprayed with bullets by unknown assailants, says she is undeterred. She has spent much of her time in recent years in Mogadishu, working for an advocacy organization she co-founded that pushes for more women in leadership posts. She says she will be more cautious venturing out into the city but won’t change her lifestyle much.
“My husband was working hard to make change,” she said. “I will continue his dreams.”
Some, like Ibrahim, believe the trend of returnees will help the United States and Minnesota. Yes, the state could lose some of the most productive members of its Somali community. But the rebuilding of the country is a prime counterterrorism strategy and a deterrent for disaffected youths willing to travel there and take up arms, said Ibrahim.
U researchers presented their preliminary findings at the State Department and National Security Council, along with recommendations that the U.S. government support this return migration. If a resurgent Somalia becomes less dependent on money sent back, in the long run, that could give a boost to the Twin Cities economy, Ryan said.
For now, experts expect short-term returns to persist and perhaps pick up momentum. “The image of Somalia in the news is piracy and terrorism,” said Warfa. “It’s up to us to change that image.”