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Columbus Somali community celebrates their home country's independence

Patrick Cooley
Thursday July 1, 2021

Muad Issa, 6, center left, and Farah Issa, 4, center right, pose for a portrait along with their brother Munir Issa, 8, left, mother Layla Ahmed, center background, and sister Muna Issa, 10, right, during a Somali Independence Day celebration on Thursday, July 1, 2021 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus has the second-largest population of Somali immigrants in the country, and this celebration was the first at the Statehouse. The date commemorates the 1960 unification of Italian Somalia and British Somaliland into the Somali Republic. Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch

Several dozen members of Columbus' Somali community sang the Somalian national anthem as they raised the nation's flag in front of the Ohio Statehouse on Thursday. They hoisted the blue banner marked with a white star to commemorate the African country's independence from European rule.

It was the first such celebration in nearly a dozen years for one of Columbus' most prolific immigrant populations, and it served as a reminder that the city is home to a thriving community hailing from the mid-sized nation in the Horn of Africa.

The two-day celebration also included a lighting ceremony at Columbus City Hall on Wednesday evening that saw the city hall and several downtown bridges bathed in blue light.

The city's Somali community hasn't held an Independence Day celebration since 2009, and the lighting ceremony was the first of its kind. Organizers said they want to connect the younger members of their community, some of whom were born in the United States or left Somalia at such a young age that they don't remember the country, with the nation's history and culture.

"We want to mentor them and let them know what our independence day is all about," said Faud Ali, who helped organize Thursday's flag raising.

Several students who attended Thursday's festivities said they study very little about Somalia in their formal education.

"This proves that we're going in the right direction, raising awareness for our people," said Fareowsa Hersi, a recently high school graduate who lives in Columbus and attended Thursday's ceremony. She'll attend Ohio State University in the fall.

"We learn about American history in school, and it's only right to learn about your own culture," she added.

Hersi attended the flag raising with her family.

They celebrated the 61st anniversary their home country's freedom from colonial powers. European nations controlled much of Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries following an era of colonialist expansion on the continent.

By the 1950s, England and Italy ruled much of the territory that makes up modern-day Somalia. Following a brief civil war, the British and Italian territories merged and formed a united independent Somalia in 1960.

The relatively young nation has a turbulent history, including a 15-year civil war and resulting famine that sent Somalis fleeing to other countries in the 1990s. Tens of thousands of them eventually settled in and around Columbus. The city has an estimated Somali population of 60,000, making it the second-largest Somali population in the United States behind the Minneapolis area.

"One of the reasons was the affordability of housing," said Abukar Osman, the Somali representative to the United Nations, who came from New York City to join in Thursday's festivities. "And the Columbus people were more welcoming than other cities."

Word spread among Somali refugee communities around the nation that Columbus had reasonably priced places to live, abundant jobs and a tolerant culture, which brought more Somalis here over time, he said.

Help from the city with the lighting ceremony on Wednesday was crucial, said Burhan Ahmed, who worked with the Columbus-based Center for Somali Engagement to organize the event.

"It makes the young Somalis feel like they are a part of this city," he said.

Several politicians also partnered with the organization on the Independence Day celebrations, including State Rep. Dontavius Jarrells, D-Columbus, and Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, who represents Ohio's third district, which includes Columbus.


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