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UB grad is named prime minister of Somalia

Grand Island resident tapped by president


Published:October 15, 2010, 3:32 PM

Updated: October 15, 2010, 11:36 PM

A few days ago, Mohamed A. Mohamed was just a guy from Grand Island with a wife and four kids working for the state Department of Transportation in Buffalo.

Now, he's been named prime minister of Somalia.

Mohamed, a Somali native who resettled in Western New York in 1990, was named prime minister of his troubled homeland Thursday by the Somali president.

The news out of the country's capital reportedly came as a surprise to many in Somalia, who doubted whether Mohamed was up to the task of bringing stability to the country.

It certainly surprised those in Western New York, who know the 48-year-old University at Buffalo graduate as a refugee advocate and soft-spoken leader in the local Somali community.

"I heard a couple of things over the past few days and said, 'Well, maybe they're thinking of a different Mohamed Mohamed,'" said West Side activist Harvey Garrett.

Just Monday, Mohamed stopped in at the YWCA of Western New York on Grant Street to chat with chief executive officer Deborah Lynn Williams.

"Hey what's new? I haven't seen you," Williams asked him.

"Well, I'm hoping I might be the prime minister," Mohamed told her.

It's not clear how Mohamed landed the appointment, and he was not available to comment Friday.

But friends said Mohamed had worked for the Somali Embassy in Washington D.C., and was still plugged into politics back home.

When the previous prime minister resigned last month after a long-running dispute with the president, Mohamed apparently made it known he was interested in the job.

Despite their surprise, friends understand why he was picked.

"He's soft-spoken, but articulate. He's also fair, but he's got opinions, and I think people step back and listen to him," said Denise Beehag, director of refugee services at the International Institute on Delaware Avenue. "It's very obvious to see he has these leadership qualities and the ability to rally people and pull them together."

When West Side leaders organized a local refugee coalition, it was Mohamed who stepped forward as a leader and was elected as the organization's first president.

"He's very calm, he speaks softly, he listens and he tries to pull people together," Garrett said. "I never saw him being devisive and never saw him seek power. So what they're seeking in Somalia, he'd certainly by a good candidate. He's a peacemaker, and Somalia needs a peacemaker."

The country of 9 million people on the East African coast has been without an effective government since the president was overthrown in 1991. Divided by clans, the country for years has been immersed in fighting by rival warlords.

An Islamic insurgent movement, which controls much of central and southern Somalia, is trying to overthrow the U.N.-backed Somali government, which is generally seen as weak, corrupt and ineffective.

When Mohamed told Williams he was interested in being Somalia's prime minister, she feared for his safety.

"We had a long talk," Williams said. "He was pretty clear he really feels a calling to serve his country and help it get on its feet, to help it be a less violent place and be a functioning country."

Born in Somalia, Mohamed worked in the Somali Embassy in Washington, D.C., from 1985 to 1989, according to his resume.

The political upheaval in Somalia prevented him from returning to his country, forcing him to seek asylum in the United States, friends said.

He resettled in Buffalo, where he was a student at UB from 1989 to 1993, earning a bachelor's degree in history. He also earned U.S. citizenship.

After college, Mohamed served as an at-large commissioner for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority from 1994 to 1997; a case manager for a lead abatement program in Buffalo from 1995 to 1999; and a minority business coordinator for the Erie County Division of Equal Employment Opportunity from 2000 to 2002.

Since 2002, Mohamed has worked as a civil rights manager with the DOT in Buffalo.

Mohamed and his wife, Zeinab Moallim, have two sons and two daughters, ages 7 to 19, said Suad Obsiye, a friend and caseworker for Catholic Charities. The family first settled on Buffalo's West Side, she said, before moving to Amherst and most recently, Grand Island.

He's a leader in the local Somali community.

"He's well respected, well known," she said.

In 2009, Mohamed earned his master's degree in American Studies from UB. His thesis was titled: "U.S. Strategic Interest in Somalia: From the Cold War Era to the War on Terror."

"He's a very personable guy, a very likable guy," said UB professor Donald A. Grinde Jr., chairman of the department of American studies and Mohamed's thesis adviser. "He's also very bright. I learned a lot about Somalia. He understands what's going on."

Grinde and Mohamed became friends, and the student and professor often spoke about ways to restructure Somalia peacefully, with the warlords serving as territorial governors under a national government overseeing defense and education.

"We had some interesting conversations about structures of government and the dilemma Somalia had in terms of structure and divisions," Grinde said.

Remarkably, Mohamed now has a chance to act.

"He obviously understood the chaos and had a strong interest in finding ways to overcome that," Grinde said. "He spent a great deal of time thinking about it."