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Wednesday, March 21, 2007 | San Diego Police Officer Abdiweli Heibeh’s story is an epic tale — part-tragedy, part rags-to-riches adventure. He has survived bombings and house arrest in Mogadishu, served as a major in the Somali army, trained at a top U.S. Army base and worked an ice cream truck while waiting for asylum.
These days, when not out in the streets of mid-city San Diego, he can be found drinking huge cups of coffee behind his desk at the Multi-Cultural Community Relations Office on University Avenue, a few blocks from where he once idled away time in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.
Police Chief Bill Lansdowne calls Heibeh “our poster boy of community relations.” Heibeh’s colleagues and acquaintances say the 46-year-old has played an invaluable role in bridging the gap between San Diego’s Somali community of roughly 15,000 people and the police department. But Heibeh simply shrugs and modestly waves off any suggestion that he’s led an incredible life and has accomplished a great deal since arriving in San Diego in 1987.
Outside the 7-Eleven where Heibeh once sat and drank coffee with friends, the air is thick with the rasping hum of conversations in Somali and Amharic. On a low wall next to the store, old men with hennaed beards, kofia hats and wooden staffs chat softly, ignoring the trucks whizzing past and the thump-thump of a car stereo nearby.
Heibeh remembers sitting outside the store when he first arrived in San Diego. These days, most of the men who stand sipping coffee at the de facto nucleus of San Diego’s Somali community know of Heibeh, quite a few know him personally.
“He gives everyone his cell phone number so they can call him 24 hours a day,” said 27-year-old Shakur Elmi, a Somali refugee who has lived in San Diego for six years. “They can call him if they need help 24/7.”
Heibeh was effectively exiled from his native country in 1986. He was then serving as a major in the Somali military, specializing in air defense, and was sent by his country to train at the Air Defense Artillery School in Fort Bliss, Texas. The day he graduated from his course, Heibeh received a telegram from his brother. Their father had been executed in Mogadishu. Fearing retribution on his return to Somalia, Heibeh flew instead to San Diego and holed up with a friend while he pondered his future.
“I was kind of like a fish out of water, breathing for air,” Heibeh said of his first days in Southern California.
Heibeh secured a work permit and worked a few odd jobs, including selling ice cream, before landing a more permanent job as a security guard. He worked nights and studied at the San Diego Urban League during the day, hoping one day to become an electrician. After his initial application for citizenship was denied, Heibeh contacted a lawyer and worked even harder to secure a foothold in his new community.
Heibeh was then living in City Heights, a few blocks from where he now works. At night he would hear gunshots. He remembers watching patrol cars cruise up and down his neighborhood. But after the mortar shells and chaos of Mogadishu, Heibeh said anywhere in San Diego would have seemed peaceful.
When he graduated from the San Diego Urban League, Heibeh received his citizenship and enrolled at San Diego State University to study accounting. In 1991, as the Somali civil war worsened, one of Heibeh’s brothers was killed in an air raid while fleeing to a refugee camp. Shortly afterward, the U.S. government sponsored a settlement to bring Somali refugees to this country. In all, some 75 members of Heibeh’s immediate family were granted refugee status in San Diego and the local Somali community swelled.
The fledgling community faced many economic and social struggles. Heibeh recalled that the local police, already stretched by the high levels of crime in the area where the immigrants chose to settle, struggled to communicate and interact with the newcomers. Young, tough, Somalis found themselves thrown into a country they didn’t understand and that didn’t understand them. Gangs with names like Rough Tough Somalis and Holy Blood Gang were formed and the divide between the Somali refugees and the police widened.
“The Somalis were fighting with everybody. Sometimes they were fighting with the Asian gangs, the Hispanics, the African Americans,” Heibeh said.
Many of the newcomers were also unused to dealing with police officers and did not understand the fundamentals of the American public safety system. Heibeh has stories of immigrants who dialed 911 when they had a toothache or to complain about a neighbor who they claimed had cast a spell on them.
By 1998, Heibeh was working as a freelance interpreter for the San Diego County Superior Court. His experiences in court confirmed the struggles faced by the people of his country as they began life in their new home.
“I saw the trend of the good kids that came from affluent families, who were good kids when they arrived, who suddenly went to the gangs,” he said.
Concerned by what he saw, Heibeh turned his attention to his people’s problems. He was elected president of the Somali Association of San Diego and became more aware of the San Diego Police Department’s efforts to effectively communicate with other refugee communities — among them Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians — in the city.
The department had a history of dealing with immigrants from other cultures and had developed a system of hiring community service officers from the immigrant community to act as go-betweens for the police in the different ethnic communities. In 1998, the police department hired Heibeh as its first Somali community service officer.
Becoming a CSO served a dual purpose for Heibeh. Not only was it an opportunity to help the new immigrants in an official capacity, but becoming a part of the police force allowed Heibeh to pay a debt his culture decreed that he owed.
“For our culture, when someone gives you hope, gives you something, hosts you, that means you owe that person. I owed the life of my immediate family to this country, to this government. To give them back, I had to make my people law abiding, productive, contributing to this society,” he said.
Heibeh felt that the best way to pay off his debt was through law enforcement. He began a double-pronged effort within the police department, helping to explain the basics of how the police force operates to new immigrants while educating the police about the cultural and social rules of the Somali people.
Sgt. Andrew Hoffman, Heibeh’s supervisor at the Multi-Cultural Community Relations Office, said the role Heibeh played during the first few years of Somali immigration was essential to his department. Citing Heibeh’s “natural ability to straddle both cultures,” Hoffman listed his colleague’s achievements, from translating police brochures to reprimanding wayward young Somalis like a surrogate father.
“I don’t know what we would do without Abdi,” Hoffman said. “We’d have to find someone else like him and I don’t know if there is anyone else like him.”
Heibeh talked with touches of pride and sprinkles of humor, but at the root of his work are serious issues. Child abuse, domestic violence and poverty driven crime are his daily bread, and he stressed that the process of transitioning from a country as different as Somalia to Southern California can often turn ugly.
With such radically different systems of law and society, immigrants to San Diego from Somalia often find themselves facing personal crises that go a long way beyond the obvious effects of culture shock, Heibeh said. With his specialized knowledge of both societies, Heibeh acts as a moderator between cultures, offering support to those facing the stress of relocation and giving advice to his colleagues when they hit a situation they’ve never encountered before.
In 2000, urged on by his colleagues, Heibeh attended the local police academy and despite initially failing the physical fitness test — he was out of shape by his own admission and had trouble scaling the 6-foot wall — he was sworn in as an officer of the SDPD in June 2000.
Heibeh claims to be the nation’s first Somali-born police officer and these days he is often called to make presentations to police departments around the country. He now manages a team of two Somali police service officers (who perform essentially the same role as a community service officer once did) and one Somali police cadet. Hoffman estimated that fewer than 10 percent of people in the mid-city district haven’t at least heard of Heibeh, and said that his colleague is both respected and well-liked by the people he serves.
But for Heibeh, a tribal chief in Somalia, his position at the police department is not simply about making friends and influencing people. As a grateful immigrant, a devout Muslim and a strict adherent to the old laws of decency that he says crossed the Atlantic with him from Africa, Heibeh says he’s happy to simply be of service to his community.
“If I die in the line of duty, I’m honored,” he said. “The only way I can give back to this country what they have done for me and for my family and for my countrymen is just, in the morning, to put on a suit, go to work, jump in the patrol car and put my life in the line of duty.”