His American way

For recent mayoral candidate, fitting in means taking the lead

Mahamoud Wardere got his U.S. citizenship in November 2000 and less than a year later was running in

the primary for the mayor of Minneapolis, the first Somali-American to run for public office here.

"I thought we were making a step forward, assimilating," said Wardere, 34, a Lyndale resident, reflecting on Election Day. "I was on the ballot.

"Suddenly, the bad news started coming in."He only got 160 votes, but that is not the bad news he was talking about. The primary was Sept. 11, the same day as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In the following days, fear spread through the Somali community as people were viewed with suspicion, he said. The U.S. government shut down Somali money-wiring services, believing they were used to fund terrorist activities.

The situation has improved, Wardere said. He feels accepted in the larger community, though he still worries that the fear of terrorism will lead officials to deport Somali immigrants over relatively minor offenses.

Wardere's activism did not start nor stop with the election. In fact, the run for office elevated his standing as a community leader. "My job has not been reduced," he said. "I have more responsibility than I had before."

He is an HIV/AIDS volunteer instructor for the American Red Cross. He is a new board member of YouthCARE, which runs a summer camp program and youth mentoring and leadership programs.

He is also organizing a Somali Education Night, March 29, at Washburn High, a school with 300 Somali students. He and student volunteers are bringing in representatives from Augsburg, St. Thomas University, the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Community and Technical College to encourage Somali youth to pursue higher education.

"We know that 20 years from now, our children's lives will depend on the education they get now," he said.

A sleepy town Wardere grew up in a small village in southern Somalia, he said, sitting in his apartment living room, adorned with rich, red, floor-to-ceiling drapes.

"I think you call it a sleepy town," he said with a laugh. It was "an open zoo" and "a good place for growing up."

He moved to the capital, Mogadishu, to continue his education, Wardere said. He attended aviation school and became an air traffic controller, a job that required English proficiency. The job paid poorly, so he left and ran a restaurant with some friends. It did well until the civil war shut it down, he said.

He spent two years in a Kenyan refugee camp. A cousin living in the United States sponsored him, and he spent two years in Washington D.C. and New York. The cost of living was high, he said. Friends in Minneapolis told him jobs were easy here.

He came in 1995. "I never have regretted it," he said. He met his future wife Fowsiya. He got a B.A. in human services from Metro State University in 1999.

He and his wife have two children, Maryam and Abdulahi. The family speaks Somali at home.

"I am proud she speaks Somali good," he said of Maryam, 4. "I am not worried about her. She will speak English good. She is still young."

His daughter climbed on her dad during the interview, and he patiently pried her off while trying to continue the conversation.

"I think we have a problem here," he said at one point, as her energetic efforts temporarily stopped the interview. He set her in front of the TV and, American-style, she was temporarily quieted watching "The Simpsons."

Abdulahi, 20 months, was born with a heart defect, the "transposition of great vessels," Wardere said. He is waiting for surgery at Fairview Hospital.

Wardere taught last year at Washburn on a provisional license, teaching social studies to English Language Learners. He lost the position in budget cuts.

"He was the least senior person. It was sad," said Principal Steve Couture, noting the students liked to tease Wardere by calling him "mayor." "He was going to help teach our aviation program."

Wardere now works full-time as a bilingual aid at Pillsbury school in northeast Minneapolis and 16 hours a week on weekends as a concierge at Marquette Place.

"It's normal for Somalis here," he said. "We work hard."

HIV/AIDS training Wardere said he does not know anyone affected by AIDS or HIV, but he knows it is a dangerous situation. "There are lots of parts of Africa where people are dying," he said.

He received Red Cross training in 2000 and has done roughly a half-dozen presentations -- making modifications to fit Muslim and Somali sensibilities, he said.

"I have to be careful, I don't talk about private parts sometimes," he said.

It is taboo for him to talk about condoms, he said, "You can't encourage people to use a condom. You can say 'abstinence.' That is what they like to hear."

Wardere taught a class in Somali language through Washburn Community Education last year. One of his students, Michelle Miller, was also a board member for YouthCARE. In an effort to reach out to the growing population of Somali youth, she recruited Wardere to join the board.

"We have seen an increase in Somali youth," Miller said. "He (Wardere) seemed energetic and interesting. He had some of his Somali-speaking students come in and help us. He had a nice rapport with the students."

Civics 101 Wardere got a lesson of his own -- in the American political system -- when he ran for mayor.

"There are groups that have blocks of votes, like unions," he said, laughing. "I had never paid attention to that."

He registered under the "New Voices Party," an idea of some of his friends. He did not consider himself a Democrat, Republican, Green nor Independence Party member.

"If I decide to run again, it will be much better," he said.

One of the issues Wardere said he wanted addressed was CODEFOR, the police department's practice of concentrating patrols in high-crime areas.

He believes the Somali community has helped revitalize parts of Minneapolis, he said, yet police often stop them because they live in targeted areas.

"The police are caught in the middle," he said. "We are caught in the middle, too."