The United States officially recognized the Somali government last month for the first time since 1991, alerting Somali refugees in City Heights and throughout the world their homeland is making a comeback.

Somalia has been called “the world’s most failed state,” enduring deadly famines and more than two decades of civil war with al Shabaab militants linked to al Qaeda.

The nation is rebuilding under a newly elected president who recently urged refugees to return to Somalia to help during a speech in Minnesota, home to the nation’s largest population of Somali refugees.

But will Somalis who have spent more than 20 years away — some even beginning life outside of their family’s homeland — make the move to Africa?

“The conversation, it’s already among the community,” said Mohamed Ahmed, a 23-year-old Somali living in City Heights. “People have already been back. People are planning to go back. And some people are a bit skeptical about going back and they’re not really comfortable about the situation back home.”

Ahmed left Somalia with his family when he was two months old and came to the U.S. at age 4. He’s about to graduate from San Diego State University, alongside other East Africans who arrived in America in the 1990s.

He says the timing for a revived Somali state couldn’t be better. Many members of the Somali diaspora are poised to graduate from American and European universities, if they haven’t already.

Somalis who grew up in Europe are returning to work in their native country — at a rate of about 1,000 per month, according to the United Nations. Flights in and out of Mogadishu have multiplied. Rent has climbed. Last year, young Somali professionals hosted a TEDxMogadishu talk.

Ahmed says a friend of his moved back and already has a job in the Ministry of Planning.

Ahmed could follow a similar path.

He’ll graduate with a degree in international security and conflict resolution in May. He already owns two suits. His demeanor is at once measured and passionate, like any good politician’s.

Over winter break, he and his colleagues in the SDSU-based group C.U.R.E. Africa (Communities United in Reviving East Africa) visited Somalia to survey existing schools and get to work building a new one in the rural countryside.

In his photos from the trip, Ahmed is shown talking with dignitaries and posing with bright-eyed school children.

He returned to the U.S. Jan. 21 and already has a school census compiled that reads like a government report.

Photo courtesy of Mohamed Ahmed
San Diego State University students in a group called C.U.R.E. Africa conducted a census of a Somali school over winter break and plan to open a new school in rural Somalia later this year.

Ahmed said he plans to return after graduation to cut the ribbon at the opening. And he said that’s not the last he’ll see of his country.

“As of right now, I want to continue my education, further my education. But will there be a time I will live in Somalia permanently? Yes,” Ahmed said. “And in fact, I can’t wait for that day.”

Abdi Mohamoud, executive director of Horn of Africa, a San Diego nonprofit that provides support for local East African refugees, said Ahmed’s drive is common among children of refugees.

“With the tragedy of having so many refugees flee from Somalia, the advantage has become that many of those refugees went to other developed countries and many of them were able to get very high-quality educations,” Mohamoud said. “They’re very eager to try to improve the devastation that their parents have fled.”

But Mohamoud said he’s not persuaded that many young Somalis will actually make the move to Africa.

Though Somalia is rebounding, its peace is fragile. Al Shabaab still controls a significant swath of land in the center of the country. And there is some dispute among minority clans about the structure the new government has taken — an eventual parliamentary democracy in which elders chose the transitional leaders.

Malnutrition is still a concern as world leaders try to work out how to prevent another famine in Somalia.

And Somalia’s economy has a long way to go. Currently, remittances from Somali families in City Heights and throughout the world account for about half the nation’s gross domestic product.

“It’s still a country that’s one of the least-developed countries in the world, and certainly the life that they’re going to have in Somalia is not going to be comparable to the life they’re going to have in the United States,” Mohamoud said. “So you’ll see about 95 percent of those youth, they’re going to make the United States their home. This is the only home that they know.”

Yousef Abraham co-founded C.U.R.E. Africa with Ahmed. He’s also an SDSU student and was born in America to Eritrean parents who fled military conflict in Eritrea. He’s on of Mohamoud’s 95 percent.

“My home is here in America, so I think I’ll be here permanently,” Abraham said.

Ahmed admitted he’d miss watching the Chargers play. But he insists Somalia is home.

“I felt when I was in Somalia, I was at home,” Ahmed said. “I felt like I was at peace, I felt like I was reunited with my country and my people. I was very emotional leaving. I didn’t want to leave that quick.”

The mosque where Ahmed attends Friday Prayers sits one lot in from a busy street corner in City Heights. It’s an area locals call “Little Mogadishu” because of the Somali shops and restaurants clustered there.

The imam, the Somali cab drivers, the shop owners — they all seem to know Ahmed. If they don’t know him personally, they at least know he’s “the boy building a school.”

“To me, I feel like I have the best of two worlds,” Ahmed said. “I have the Somali culture and I have the American culture. My parents worked very hard to keep my Somali heritage in place with me.”

And Ahmed said that blended upbringing has prepared him for a future in a changing Somalia.

“This American culture gave me the ability to live alongside people from different walks of life,” Ahmed said.

I asked Abraham whether he plans to one day work in his family’s homeland.

“Yes, definitely,” Abraham said.

If a growing group of young Somalis do return to Africa, it may have less to do with a president’s plea and more to do with that personal desire to make an impact on the world so many find in college.

“My major is actually in criminal justice and originally when I went into that field I wanted to do something with law enforcement,” Abraham said. “But since I started C.U.R.E. Africa, my focus has kind of shifted a little bit. And I think I found what I really want to do in my heart and it’s doing humanitarian work.”

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her directly at or 619.550.5665.

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Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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