Somalis in Seattle unite, salute their top cop and politician

Crosscut archive image.

Abdishukri Fayoke (in cap), Ubah Warsame (in blue hijab) and friends show the flag at their Independence Day iftar.

Iftar is breakfast in the most literal sense: the evening meal that breaks the day-long fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Because it follows the Muslim lunar calendar, Ramadan migrates across the solar calendar. When it falls on the longest days of the year, as it did this June and July, fasting becomes a more serious business, especially at high latitudes, and iftar is especially welcome.

This year, two of Seattle’s diverse East African Muslim communities celebrated with communal dinners and invited the city officials who, tellingly, figure first in their concerns: Seattle Police Department brass plus, at the Somali community iftar, a favored city council member and one other council candidate. I tagged along, there and at the iftar dinner at the Oromo mosque in Rainier Beach, at the invitation of Habtamu Abdi, SPD’s newly hired East African community liaison, and watched as two worlds met, mingled and tried to forge alliances over samosas, dates and sweet spiced tea.

Or at least that was one agenda. The Somali iftar, celebrated July 3 at the New Holly Community Center in Southeast Seattle, was also billed as a Somali Independence Day celebration, since that anniversary happens to come one day before the U.S. Independence Day. Somali flags gleamed everywhere: a white star in a bright blue field.

Those happen to be the colors of the Finnish flag. Before you scoff at any other comparison between that Nordic paragon of democracy, stability and good governance and the original "failed state," consider: Less than a century ago, Finland was a fractious fledgling nation caught up in a bloody civil war.

The Independence Day iftar was sponsored by the new Seattle chapter of a reform movement called the Forum for Unity and Democracy (FUD), which seeks to bring the local community’s voices and votes to bear on Somalia’s long-awaited elections next year. The program’s cover showed, above the white-starred flag, a man with a politician’s crisp suit and confident mien: former Somali prime minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed, who was elected FUD’s chair at its inauguration in Mogadishu in February. “They didn’t tell me this former prime minister was supposed to come,” one featured speaker, Somali Community Services' longtime director Sahra Farah, told me afterward. “I don’t support any politicians!”

As it happened, the ex-PM was here only in spirit. He had, however, attended another local gathering the month before, where the Seattle FUD’s formation was announced and young Somalis endorsed a declaration of interdependence, pledging to help unify their war-wracked homeland.

Resplendent in a flag-blue hijab and silver-embroidered black robe, Ubah Warsame, the chairwoman of the Seattle FUD’s Youth Wing, kicked the evening off with a speech in English. “We prepare ourselves to contribute to peacebuilding in our home country, Somalia,” she declared, then explained pointedly that this means building peace at home: to “work towards our unity, go beyond hate and grievances, tribal leanings and all the negative thinking that got us into this state of social fragmentation and misunderstanding. Somalia is one, and everyone one way or another faced some problem related to the conflict!” The applause rose so high, she had to pause. “Today it is the time for all of us to forgive one another.”

Warsame didn’t mention Finland, but she cited the examples of other countries, in particular Rwanda, that had moved on after conflicts behind them. “So the question is, why can’t our people who embrace the Islamic faith go past these harrowing problems? Why can’t we see our suffering? We need no more conflict.”

That was nearly the last speech I, or for that matter Habtamu Abdi (who is from Ethiopia), could follow. After the applause died down, the evening’s emcee, a young guy with a bodybuilder’s frame, a nonstop grin, and a topi prayer cap named Abdishukri Fayoke took the mike and apologized to the handful of us who didn’t speak Somali: On the occasion of the national holiday, the rest of the speeches would be in the national language. I followed the sonorous vowels but all I could pick out was “Djibouti” — the former French Somaliland, now independent, one of the “five Somali lands” that were expected to unite at independence but, thanks to political mischance and rival claims, stayed severed. (The other four: the former Italian colony of Somalia, which is now the nation bearing that same name; British Somaliland, in the north, now self-sufficient and unofficially independent; the Ogaden region of Ethiopia; and northeastern Kenya.)

I asked two women in hijabs sitting at our otherwise non-Somaliphonic table what the speeches were about, but we soon drifted to another subject: peaceful, beautiful Somaliland, where they came from. One pulled out her phone and showed me photos of lushly forested mountains and spectacular waterfalls, with nary a tourist trap in sight. I decided I wanted my next vacation to be in Somaliland.

Fayoke took the mike again and called out two honored guests: Seattle Police Assistant Chief Bob Merner, who “has so many Somali friends he can probably understand a little of this,” and “the Iron Lady, Kshama Sawant, who is always here for all the minority groups. Whenever we have an event, she always comes.” Sawant was the only city council member to attend, even though New Holly is well outside her council district. (Citywide council candidate Bill Bradburd also did.) She seemed to wince at receiving a sobriquet originally bestowed on Maggie Thatcher, but she delivered a rousing pep talk about the $15 minimum wage and fighting to make Seattle affordable for ordinary working people, to big applause. Seattle politics, Bradburd whispered to me, is shaping into a contest “between Sawant and Murray.” If that contest ever becomes an electoral one, she’s got a head start down here.

Sawant and her partner and campaign manager, Calvin Priest, left quickly as the evening wound down. But Chief Merner stuck around to schmooze and pose for photos. It felt like old home week, he told me when he got a break.

Crosscut archive image.
Forum chairwoman Umah Warsame, SPD's Bob Merner, and Habtamu Abdi (with flag) share a unified smile.

Merner, a ruddy-faced, shaven-headed fireplug of a guy, looks and sounds like Hollywood’s idea of an Irish cop from Boston. He worked his way up to chief of detectives there and then followed his old boss, ex-Boston police commissioner Katherine O’Toole, out here after she became Seattle’s chief. Merner grew up, however, not in Irish South Boston but in nearly all-black Roxbury. “Four years ago, four members of the Somali community came to my office and said, ‘We’re concerned about our youth,’ ” he recounted. “Some of them were getting drawn into gangs and crime, just like the Irish and Italians after they arrived.” Not to mention an even scarier gang culture, Islamist al-Shabaab, beckoning from Somalia.

“I worked very closely with the Somali youth,” Merner continued. Basketball and soccer games were good icebreakers. Friends at the Boston FBI office took young Somalis on as interns. “When I left, the biggest party I had was thrown by the Somali community. I hope we can do some of the same things here.”

And then Merner got pulled away for more photos with his new Seattle friends, and I couldn’t help thinking: It looks like SPD already has a liaison to this community.

Coming up: Seattle’s Oromo community doesn’t worry about saving their homeland. They want help saving their kids and building a swimming pool.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.