Somalis come together to help hurricane victims

More than 600 Somalis gathered Saturday in Cedar-Riverside for a fundraiser.

Bryce Haugen

In the early ’90s, Osman Ahmed practiced medicine at a Kenyan refugee camp.

At least he tried to.

Without supplies, the experienced Somali doctor watched helplessly while his sick compatriots died from treatable illnesses, he said.

“If you don’t have, what do you give?” asked Ahmed, who joined more than 600 Somali immigrants Saturday night at the Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood – the largest Somali community in the nation.

Somali community leaders, once refugees themselves, organized the benefit to raise money and food for refugees displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September.

Many people at the two-hour event, sponsored by several Somali community groups and Second Harvest Heartland, said they empathize with storm victims in a way few can.

Somalis know what it’s like to be refugees, said Lul Hussein, a member of Somali Women: Civil War Survivors.

“We are human, and we are Americans now here, too,” she said. “And we know the struggle they now go through.”

Other attendees said they came to see the seedlings of a new Somali government. Salim Ebrow, Somalia’s new deputy prime minister, attended the benefit. His presence offered hope that Somalia is improving after the anarchy of a lengthy civil war.

The community center gymnasium, decorated with traditional Somali clothing and pottery, erupted in applause when Ebrow entered. Before hearing from several speakers, the crowd sang the Somalia’s national anthem.

From the deputy prime minister to Somali community leaders, each speaker encouraged the audience – in their native language – to donate to the Gulf Coast region.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., sent a letter thanking the community for its efforts.

“I know that many of you share the experience of losing family and property during your own personal struggles,” he said in the letter, read by Mahamoud Wardere, a community leader and event organizer who works for Coleman.

Nimo Farah, a global and African studies junior, helped Wardere organize the event. She said she’s confident the economically disadvantaged Somali community will heed the call to give “even if it means not having lunch for their own family that day.”

Carrying a box of canned foods and macaroni and cheese, Nura Hashi said she felt obligated to donate.

“Today I’m better off than the people who lost their homes and family members,” she said. “If you don’t give when you have little, you won’t give when you have more.”

Mohamoud Hamad said Islam requires followers to help neighbors. And since the United States has offered so much to him, he must reciprocate when he can, he said.

“They gave the opportunity to seek the American dream,” he said.

“The opportunity to be a millionaire, the opportunity to be a doctor, this is the only place that can provide that kind of environment,” said Hamad, a doctor at Rochester’s Mayo Clinic.

Saturday’s benefit marks the beginning of the Somali community’s humanitarian outreach, said Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. In the near future, for instance, he said his group will partner with the American Red Cross for a blood drive.

“This is an early start for our grassroots organization to raise the awareness of the community,” Jamal said.

As of Sunday night, Wardere said, they drive had raised more than 10 barrels of water, nonperishable food, cleaning supplies and other items for the hurricane victims.

Second Harvest Heartland will come pick up the items today, he said.