As the crowd gathered at the mosque for the Friday afternoon prayer, Mohamed Daoud handed a St. Paul Fire Department sticker to a curly-haired boy and showed his father a flier about checking hydration levels.
Seeing Daoud in a uniform, the father was confused. Was somebody hurt?
There was no emergency at the Minnesota Da’wah Institute that day. But Daoud and his friend Abdi Warsame, who was handing out fliers nearby on checking blood pressure, have grown accustomed to questions in recent days: They just became the first Somali-American firefighters in St. Paul. Before they started their shifts at the fire station, they wanted to greet worshipers at the mosque and tell them about what the fire department does.
“As-salaam alaikum,” Warsame told a stream of men at the door. Peace be upon you.
Daoud, 24, escaped the war in Somalia and resettled in Nairobi, Kenya, as a boy. He recalled the slow response of emergency personnel to the fires in his neighborhood. After arriving in St. Paul as a refugee in 2014, he was struck by the efficiency of the fire department and wanted to join. He went to work as an emergency medical technician, sometimes translating while patients were transported to the hospital, before applying to be a firefighter.
Warsame, 28, took a course in medical office support but realized that he didn’t want to work an office job. His uncle, a paramedic, inspired him to follow suit. He rode along with fire crews and saw how firefighters worked, ate and cleaned together and wanted to be part of their team. Warsame was also drawn to the career after seeing paramedics treat his brother’s asthma.
He applied to many fire departments and thought he’d hit the lottery when he was accepted in St. Paul, where he grew up. He believes that having Somali-American firefighters respond to calls in the Somali-American community can build trust for first responders. Some elderly Somali-Americans do not know how to read the labels on their medications, and being able to translate makes a fire crew’s job easier in emergencies, he said.
“Seeing somebody who can look like you, who can speak the same language as you, who can understand you on another level — it just brings the tension down,” Warsame said.
The pair persisted in fire training — including running up stairs with a bundle of fire hose — even through Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that requires fasting during daylight. The men were among 23 who graduated into the 435-member fire department.
The language skills of the force have not kept pace with the increasingly multilingual character of the city. While both Warsame and Daoud speak Somali, Daoud also knows Swahili and Oromo, a language spoken among the region’s growing Ethiopian community.
“The ability to communicate with a growing portion of our population that does not speak English, particularly the older members or immigrants that are new to the country … it’s huge in regard to the level of service and care that we can provide,” said St. Paul Deputy Fire Chief Roy Mokosso.
He noted that it’s better than when they have to call for an interpreter, or rely on English-speaking family members, even children.
“Abdi and Mohamed will be an example to young members of the Somali community. … People will be more open to the idea of being a public servant or a firefighter based on their stories,” Mokosso said.
On his first day at the fire station on Saturday, Daoud said his wife excitedly called before he had even arrived, asking if he was at work yet. He went out on an array of routine calls: an elevator rescue at a nursing home, a car crash, a rescue in the Mississippi River.
But the job is more than doing shifts at the fire station — it is also being at community gathering places to talk about the job. At the mosque, Imam Mohamed Hersi noted that Warsame and Daoud have deep connections in the community.
“We are excited,” Hersi said. “People trust them.”
The men handed out an array of stickers, talked about cooking fires and let the elderly know they could have their blood pressure checked at the fire department.
“Good job, keeping going,” said Mohamud Mohamud, clapping Warsame on the shoulder. “My son is 6 years old. He’d like to be a firefighter.”