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Obama Campaign Sparks Local Somalis' Interest In Election
Abdifatah Abdinur of Rochester says he supports Obama because of his positions on health care, education and the economy, ''all those things that will make a difference for our families.''
Rahma Shakur, left, and Abdulkadir Hussein, both of Rochester, discuss their political opinions.
By Matthew Stolle
Rochester MN, March 18, 2008 – Rahma Shakur never considered herself very political.
But that was before this year's presidential race and the rise of Sen. Barack Obama as a Democratic presidential contender. Now, like hundreds of other Somali immigrants from the Rochester area, Shakur can't get enough of the presidential drama.
"Usually, I'm not political, but I like to support him," Shakur said, laughing.
At one level, it might not be difficult to imagine why the vast majority of Somalis in Rochester support the Illinois senator. Obama, after all, is the first African-American with a real shot at becoming president. His father was born in Kenya, which shares a border with Somalia. Kenya is also home to a large Somali population.
But Rochester residents like Shakur dispute the notion that their support for Obama rests solely or even primarily on his African family history and background.
The key, they say, is not only who he is, but what he stands for. And what Obama symbolizes, in their eyes, is hope -- the belief that their children can achieve like Obama and reach the highest political office in the land. If a man one generation removed from his African ancestry can become president, why can't their own children one day do the same?
"He shows that in America you can be whoever you want to be," said Abdulkadir Hussein, an anchorman for Rochester Somali TV.
Obama a role model for kids
That powerful lesson is not lost on Shakur, a 34-year-old mother who says she encourages her children to work hard and make something of their lives by citing Obama's uplifting life story.
"I encourage my kids. (I say), 'look at Obama. (He's) tried to get everything he wants.' And I encourage my kids. They can do it," Shakur said.
It's a sentiment that is echoed over and over in interviews with other Somali immigrants in Rochester.
"He's like my child. He reminds me of my children who are born here," said Mohamoud Hamud, a Mayo Clinic counselor.
There are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people of Somali descent who live in Rochester. And like people across the country, they are showing symptoms of a passionate political engagement like at no time in the recent past.
Somalis showed up at precinct presidential caucuses in record numbers last month. And they are talking politics and staying up late to watch the state-by-state delegate battle on television. Shakur said her favorite cable news outlet is CNN, because it gives her political news almost instantaneously.
"It's one of the most important elections in the history of America," said Abdi Fatah Abdinur, a Rochester resident and a union staff organizer. "Whether we elect a woman or an African American gentleman, they want to play a role."
Rochester man volunteered for Obama
Abdinur was 17 years old when he immigrated to the United States from his native Somalia. Abdinur, now a father of five and a union organizer living in Rochester, supports Obama for president. He recently returned from an eight-day trip to Ohio where he worked on behalf of the Obama campaign.
Yet when Abdinur discusses his reasons for supporting Obama, he doesn't list what some might consider the most obvious reason: The fact that Obama, who was born in Hawaii, is one generation removed from his African roots and that his father was born in Kenya.
"I would never support anyone because they come from the same city or the same continent," Abdinur said. "(What) matters is health care and education. The economy is the No. 1 issue for us right now -- all those things that will make a difference for our families."
In essence, Rochester Somalis say, they like Obama for the same reasons that have prompted others across the country to embrace his candidacy: His ability to inspire; his message of change; and his promise to transcend the nation's rancid partisan politics.
While Democrats appear evenly divided between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, there is no such division in the Somali community. Hussein says Somalis overwhelmingly support Obama.
Anti-Muslim campaign tactics irritating
Local Somalis also have had a unique cultural vantage point from which to observe the presidential race. And what they have witnessed hasn't always been edifying.
Many Somalis have in fact been affronted at the way their own heritage has been used to discredit Obama. Less than a week before the Texas and Ohio primaries, Clinton staffers circulated a photo showing Obama dressed in the traditional clothing of a Somali elder.
The picture was taken in 2006 when Obama stopped to visit Wajir, a rural area in northwestern Kenya. To the uninformed, the implication was that Obama was a Muslim and, even more insidiously, that he was some kind of terrorist Manchurian candidate.
Never mind that Obama says he is Christian. And never mind that the Illinois senator was observing a long-standing tradition that politicians, in visiting another country, often take on its dress as a sign of respect. Several noted that Clinton wore Palestinian dress when she visited the region.
Hamud said the tactic irritated him on a number of levels. First, it was a clear intent to confuse traditional Somali dress with Muslim dress. And the second was the unstated suggestion that somehow being a Muslim was wrong.
"I mean this thing about his (being) Muslim -- (I thought) religion was supposed to be a nonfactor in American politics," Hamud said.
Yet Hamud believes such tactics -- smearing candidates on the basis of their religious belief -- are destined for the political trash heap. People in the future won't care what a person's religion is. The younger generation, more multicultural in nature, won't care, he said. They will want to know about a candidate's policies.
It's one reason why Hamud said he is voting for Obama. He represents that new kind of politics.
"Most of the people who are here as immigrants -- recent immigrants -- they support Obama. Even my children support Obama," Hamud said.