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Somali-Canadian helps to rebuild besieged nation
Geoffrey York
From Monday's Globe and Mail
Monday, May 23, 2011

“We hear the shooting, but we just decide to keep on working,” says Mr. Hashi, a Somali-Canadian who returned to Mogadishu in 2009 after two decades in Canada.

“We accept the risks that are inherent in this struggle,” he says. “We are a battered nation, a collapsed state, and nobody can solve it except Somalis. It is worth the risk.”

Mr. Hashi, who studied politics at the University of Toronto and became a journalist and book publisher in Canada for more than 20 years, now holds one of the toughest jobs in war-torn Somalia. He is the Minister of Public Works and Reconstruction – making him responsible for rebuilding one of the most devastated cities in the world with little money or resources.

Somalia’s new slimmed-down cabinet, just 18 members compared with the previously bloated 39-member cabinet, is a fresh attempt to solve its massive problems by luring home a technocratic elite of educated exiles from the Somali diaspora. The new Prime Minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, is a former New York state bureaucrat who lived in Buffalo for most of the past two decades.

Many of his cabinet ministers have lived outside Somalia for decades. The Minister of Women’s Development, Maryan Qasim, lived abroad for 20 years, including eight years as a school teacher in the British city of Birmingham. The education minister is a longtime employee of the Ohio education department in the United States. The planning minister is an economics professor from Niagara University in New York state.

The theory is that these exiles are not beholden to extended networks of friends and family in Somalia, so they are less prone to corruption and less likely to be loyal to the Somali clan leaders and warlords who have controlled most of the country since the civil war began in 1991. But some analysts worry that the exiles will be weaker in influence, lacking local support and knowledge of the country.

“None of us requested this job,” says Mr. Hashi, who was appointed to cabinet in November after a year as a presidential spokesman. “We were drafted. The prime minister asked us to serve. We’re not doing it for the glamour of the job.”

Mr. Hashi is trying to rebuild Mogadishu on a shoestring budget. His ministry was recently given $4.2-million from the government of Spain – a relatively tiny amount, yet bigger than the budget of most other Somali departments. (The health department, for example, has only about $600,000 in its annual budget.)

He plans to seek bids from contractors to rebuild seven hospitals, three schools and a court complex. This month he spent $100,000 on heavy equipment from Dubai to help repair one of Mogadishu’s main streets.

But his first and most urgent task was to build more than 80 small offices and residences for ministers and officials, especially the former exiles from overseas who had no place to live or work. Most of the new quarters are just a single room and bathroom.

“It’s not a luxury, but a basic necessity for establishing national institutions,” he said. “Only when they have places to work can they get on with their duties. And hotels are not safe. Four cabinet ministers and more than 10 members of parliament have been horrifically assassinated in the past.”

Mr. Hashi says his job is to instill hope by starting the rebuilding, even though it’s a gargantuan task. “We’ve had 20 years of destruction and disrepair, and our resources are not even 0.0000001 per cent of the total required rehabilitation and reconstruction funding.”

A decade ago, Mr. Hashi returned briefly to Somalia as deputy chief of staff to the prime minister of the time. He said he was caught up in the “hype” of rumoured support from the international community. But the foreign support never materialized, the government was “dysfunctional,” and soon it was discredited and abandoned, he said.

This time he believes it is different. And he is hoping for Canadian help. “Canada is our adopted home,” he said. “Canada is the best country anyone can live in. And our homeland is the worst that anyone can live in.”

Last summer, his four children travelled from Toronto to visit him in Somalia. He remembers how they travelled to Puntland, a relatively stable region in the north, where they were shocked to see people begging for water in the streets. “My children said to me, ‘Please, fix this country.’”

Source: Globe and Mail