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US Somali Community Seeks Balance Between Democracy and Tradition - 2003-11-17

In a recent foreign policy speech, President Bush once again called for democratic reforms in the Middle East, saying freedom can be the future of every nation. But espousing democratic principles and living by them can be two very different things… especially when democratic ideals conflict with traditional loyalties. One Somali community in Columbus, Ohio has been torn between the still-foreign American landscape and its clan-based tribal culture… as it tries to find balance between the two.

In one of the poorest neighborhoods in Columbus, refugees from a civil war half a world-away meet for camaraderie, a noonday meal, and lessons in English. Ohio's capital is one of several U.S. cities where large populations of Somalis have re-settled to escape fighting and famine in their homeland. The Somali community here has grown from a few families in the early 1990s to more than 20,000 people today... the equivalent of a medium-sized American city. A handful of social service and advocacy groups formed as the number of Somali immigrants grew. The largest is the Somali Community Association of Ohio. Its president, Hassan Omar, arrived in Columbus in 1997, so he's familiar with the challenges immigrants face.

"The difficults that are facing the new immigrants based on the language and the cultural barriers and the lack of an access to the public services," he said. "And then we decided, we said, 'How can we solve this problem?'

The solution to what Mr. Omar calls the "difficults" included an American-style election, to select a contact person to facilitate access to those public services. Since Columbus' Somali community reflected the competing tribal and clan ties of Somalia, county government and local funding agencies were confused about who to deal with. In 2001, with more than three-quarters of a million dollars at stake, city official Gail Grey helped representatives from rival clans and tribes prepare for the election.

"I know that government here is a lot different than it was in Somalia," she said. "What our plan was, was to help them to learn democracy. So we did help with the selection process as far as help to write guidelines and rules."

In all, 17 candidates filed the necessary paperwork to run for president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio. co-founder Yusuf Abucar, one of the candidates, says many Somalis welcomed the chance to vote.

"People were very happy about the fact that they were going to vote going for the first time in their life," he said. "Many people who were born after the 1960s never voted because, when the regime of Siad Barre took power they did not allow any elections. That was a military dictatorship. And it took power in 1969. Therefore, anybody who was born after 1960 never had the chance to vote in any matter."

The first opportunity to vote prompted a large turnout, with 200,690 Somalis lining up to cast ballots in the leadership election. But, the experiment in American-style democracy soon turned sour. The results were contested. Several losing candidates, including Mr. Abucar, said votes were lost or miscounted.

"What we were hoping people would understand and accept and be proud of was that they have achieved democracy and that they could vote for their own affairs themselves, without anybody telling them who to appoint as a leader," he said. "They had this opportunity and the opportunity went away. What was left was disappointment and cynicism, which is expressed in seeing the community as a collection of clans."

The winner of the election, Hassan Omar, and his supporters, acknowledge the split within Columbus' Somali population… …but it doesn't concern Ali Mire, one of the Somali elders who meet and socialize daily at the Community Association. He says despite the contested election, Mr. Omar enjoys credibility among the immigrants.

"Every leader, no matter where he comes from has got some people who will criticize that leader," he said. "So, in Hassan, they will have some people who will say... 'Oh no, no. No.' But, you see the majority are with him."

But, as a consequence of the Somali leadership dispute, some local grants and other funds have been delayed… even though the need for language, health and job services increases every day.

Hassan Omar says few of the new arrivals plan on returning to Somalia. Most want to eventually shed their refugee status and will learn English word-by-word, if necessary, so that in the future they can vote for president of the United States.

"We have classes in here right now that will serve as citizenship classes, English classes, and one of our main goals is to educate people through democracy and practice to vote," he said. "So we try to have a number of people maybe in coming years to vote and participate in local elections, state elections and federal elections too."

And there will be another leadership election next year. Mr. Omar plans to run for re-election as president of the Somali Community Association. Yusuf Abucar, who has helped form a competing organization to provide similar services to the new arrivals, plans to run, as well.