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Samatar’s legacy lives on

The first Somali elected official in Minnesota died Aug. 25.

Salma Bile was interested in pursuing a career in medicine, but didn’t think she could become a doctor.

“In my culture, girls get married pretty young, normally,” she said.

Then, in high school, with plans to become a nurse, she met Hussein Samatar, Minnesota’s first Somali elected official and the director of the African Development Center. He encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a physician.

Now, the University of Minnesota sophomore and Somali Student Association member is majoring in biology and plans to become a doctor.

Samatar died Aug. 25 at 45 due to complications from leukemia, but his friends and colleagues are confident his work as a member of the Minneapolis School Board and leader in the local Somali community will live on.

 “We are focused on still continuing toward his vision and his mission,” said Matthew Holm, communications and fund development manager at ADC.

Samatar came to Minnesota in 1994 after fleeing his native country and living in a Kenyan refugee camp.

Minneapolis is home to the nation’s largest population of Somali immigrants, many of whom live in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood near the University’s West Bank.

Samatar founded ADC, located in Cedar-Riverside, in 2003. The center offers a variety of resources for African immigrants, including classes on financial literacy and help with managing small businesses.

“He epitomized the idea of being a bridge between the new immigrant cultures coming in and the mainstream cultures that were here,” Holm said.

Samatar was appointed to the Minneapolis Library Board of Trustees in 2006 by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. In 2010, Samatar was elected to the Minneapolis School Board.

Richard Mammen, another board member, said Samatar brought energy and passion to his work.

“He recognized that Minneapolis was a city of many, many people and that our work was to represent all those people,” Mammen said.

Political science sophomore Abyan Gurase said Samatar was a pioneer for Somalis in Minneapolis.

“I think … seeing him being elected inspired a lot of people to know that they could do the same,” she said.

Samatar was diagnosed with leukemia in December, causing him to abandon his plans to run for Minneapolis mayor this year.

Holm said Samatar will be remembered for his ability to work across cultures for minority groups’ best interests.

The center hasn’t yet determined how Samatar’s vacant position will be filled, Holm said. Mammen said the school board hasn’t yet taken any action to replace him.

 “I am heartsick about losing him,” Rybak said in a press release, “but I will look for solace in knowing how many people he helped.”


-The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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