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State's first Somali elected official – a member of the Minneapolis school board – loses leukemia fight

Monday, August 26, 2013

Hussein Samatar, who made history in Minnesota when he was elected to the Minneapolis school board and attracted attention internationally for his work with small businesses, died Sunday after a battle with leukemia.

He was 45 and was credited with helping dozens of African immigrants carve out new lives as entrepreneurs.

“I believe he is one of the people in the city whom I have admired the most,” Mayor R.T. Rybak said Sunday night. “I am just completely crushed.”

Samatar considered running for mayor this year before learning he had to undergo a bone-marrow transplant.

Three years earlier, he had become the first Somali immigrant to be elected to public office in Minnesota and went on to cultivate a reputation as an advocate for students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

During his board tenure, the district began collecting academic data in four languages, including Somali.

“His genuine commitment to all the children and families of Minneapolis, especially those in new American communities, was visible in all that he did,” said board Chairman Alberto Monserrate. “He truly led by example and embodied the values he held dear.”

In March, Samatar announced that he was fighting chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and that if it were not for the transplant, he would not consider missing a school board meeting.

He had surgery in May and wrote in a Facebook update that the transplant went well, but that the pain was “unimaginable.” His most recent posting, on Aug. 4, noted that he was back home from the hospital after being sick for two weeks.

“He was fighting hard,” said Rybak, who visited him a couple of nights ago. “But it was clear it was a very difficult battle.”

Rybak first brought Samatar to the public’s attention by appointing him to the city’s now-defunct Library Board. The mayor was fascinated by his personal story and impressed with his business acumen. Through his position at the 10-year-old African Development Center, Samatar worked with the city to find a way to structure loans that would not violate tenets of the Islamic faith, in turn helping to launch at least 50 businesses, Rybak said.

“He was extremely well-known in small business circles, not only here, but in Sweden,” which has a large Somali population, Rybak said. People from around the world would come to Minneapolis to learn about the loan strategies, he said.

Samatar lived in the Phillips neighborhood with his wife, Ubah Jama, and four children. Recently, at the hospital, Jama, a teacher, told the mayor about how the couple had met in a refugee camp, and how Samatar had said to her: “I have almost no money, but I’d like you to marry me.”

“She said she did and it was a very good decision,” Rybak said.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at Burnsville Masjid, 1351 Riverwood Dr., Burnsville. The public is welcome.

Staff writer Steve Brandt contributed to this report. Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036


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