San Diego: Somali refugee’s leadership skills impress

undefinedHalkaan ka akhri

One morning this week, Hamse Warfa was introduced to a San Diego State class as a recent SDSU graduate — class of ’04 — and a Somali refugee.

Soon, observers predict, the 32-year-old City Heights resident will be known for much more.

“He could really write his own ticket,” said Bob Montgomery, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego.

That ticket, Warfa said, may lead to elected office. Some day. Today, he’s too busy to campaign; his plate is piled higher than a glutton’s at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

He works full time at Alliance Healthcare Foundation, managing 30-odd grants to nonprofit groups serving poor San Diegans of all ethnicities. He’s a Ph.D. candidate (leadership studies) at the University of San Diego. He’s active in the San Diego Refugee Forum, a group for professionals working with immigrants fleeing oppression. He’s president of the Institute for Horn of Africa Studies and Affairs, a San Diego think tank with an international membership.

But running for office three years from now, when that Ph.D. is hanging on his wall? “That’s my interest,” he said. “I want to be shaping the discussion.”

It’s easy to imagine the campaign. His skin is the color of dark coffee, his smile as white as whole milk, his talking points red, white and blue. “Anything is possible in this country,” he said. “I came here with no language and no resources and within 15, 16 years, I am influencing policymakers internationally and helping my community locally.

“My adopted home has given me so much.”

So he steals another hour from his wife and two children and drives to SDSU. There, he outlines East Africa’s woes and then takes questions. The students are sharp — What is China’s role in the Ogaden, the oil-rich lands of northern Somalia? — but their questions reflect book knowledge.

Warfa’s replies reflect his life. “Talking about the oil in the Ogaden, what comes to my mind was my grandfather was displaced by war, my father was displaced by war and I was displaced by war,” he said. “To do this oil exploration, the government is going to move everyone out of certain areas. I am thinking about the people who are going to be displaced.”

The three-year line

Chasing peaceful solutions to violent problems can be dangerous.

In 1991, as civil war raged across Somalia, Warfa’s parents were preparing to abandon their Mogadishu home when their 11-year-old disappeared. With a band of idealistic friends, he planned to enter the capital, march against the war and end the fighting.

“That,” Warfa said dryly, “didn’t materialize.”

Instead, warriors fired on the young protesters. The children ran and Hamse managed to catch a ride back home. Reunited, his family set off for safety, eventually landing in Kenya refugee camps.

Warfa spent much of the next three years standing in lines — for food, for water, for asylum applications.

The family moved to Denver in 1994, then settled in San Diego in ’95. Warfa attended Crawford High School and enrolled in an after-school program run by the International Rescue Committee.

“Even back then,” Montgomery said, “he was ambitious — and I mean that in a good way. He’s always aspiring toward success, not just for himself but for his community.”

While Warfa is committed to San Diego’s 20,000-plus East African refugees, his life and work is not limited to that population. But his background may become a political asset. San Diego’s council districts were recently redrawn, raising the possibility that City Heights — home to many immigrants from Vietnam and East Africa — will soon be represented by someone who knows what it means to be displaced, to flee one country and embrace life in a new land.

“Hamse could make history as the first refugee elected to San Diego City Council,” said Councilman Todd Gloria, who has worked with Warfa through the community groups he represents. “I don’t think that’s out of the question, given what he’s accomplished so far.

“I just hope he waits until I’m termed out.”

‘The Try’

Warfa’s story was featured in James Owens’ “The Try,” a book of inspirational true-life stories. Owens stressed the San Diegan’s commitment to nonviolence despite experiences in his native and adopted countries. In January 2010, a robber murdered two of Warfa’s cousins in a Minneapolis store.

“He could respond to that and take vengeance, but he doesn’t do that. He says we have to change course, find a better way,” said Charles Dambach, chief of staff to Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek. “There is a morality and an intelligence to him.”

He also has “the try,” Owens’ term for a determination to press forward, no matter how daunting the task. Warfa recently co-chaired a conference at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, discussing regional solutions to the Horn of Africa’s woes. Some thought the approach — trying to unravel this area’s intertwined problems — was too ambitious.

Warfa disagreed. “We need to create tomorrow’s leaders,” he said in his softly accented English, “not just for Africa but all over the world.”

Any candidates?

Dambach, who spoke at the Wilson Center conference, nominates Warfa: “Here in Washington, people pay attention to him.”

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