Somali refugee worked to better his homeland.

Halkaan ka akhri

A quiet sense of mission

Somali refugee worked to better his homeland

Abdullahi Hassan Eyow studied petroleum geology, and spent the early part of his career searching for oil deposits trapped beneath the arid landscape of northern Somalia.

Then came war, followed by life in Canada as a refugee who never stopped thinking about his homeland and what he could do to make it safer. Eleven years ago, Eyow returned to Somalia to begin a new career: finding and developing human potential stifled by civil war.

Leaving behind a comfortable life in Ottawa with his wife and five children, Eyow worked with UNICEF in Mogadishu and later set up Kobciye, a non-governmental organization supporting youth programs and women’s groups. Based in Nairobi, he made long trips to visit programs in Somalia in spite of a growing number of health problems, including diabetes.

Late in 2011, Eyow – by now 57 years old – was overseeing the rebuilding of a youth shelter that had been looted by Islamic militants in the central province of Dhusa-Mareeb. A new pair of shoes cut his foot, the cut became infected, but he had work to do. Two weeks later he returned to Nairobi, where he was in and out of hospital for two months as the infection worsened. Back home in Ottawa, his family was worried.

“Everybody, even the children, were saying ‘Please come back, Dad,’ ” says his wife, Guled, 52. “His colleagues on the ground were saying he should come back and take it easy. But he said ‘The doctors know what they’re doing, I’ll be fine.’ “

The infection worsened, and finally on Feb. 26, Eyow flew to Munich, Germany for treatment.

“He arrived on Sunday, was admitted to hospital on Monday, and by Thursday he was unconscious,” says Guled. “We arrived on Saturday. He died on Sunday.”

The family’s understanding is that he died of blood poisoning. It was a sudden and shocking end to what his friends and family describe as a life lived with a quiet sense of mission.

“Part of me is mad at him, part of me said ‘That is his destiny,’ ” says Guled. “I will miss his smile, his kindness, how he was a family man, and so helpful. I am very proud of what he did.”

Eyow came to Canada in 1993 after completing his master’s in petroleum geology in South Carolina. Guled had arrived two years earlier with their three children. Unable to find work in his field, Eyow started working with the influx of Somali refugees, helping them to settle and find jobs.

In 1997 the whole family – by now with five children – moved to Ottawa to be close to Guled’s sister. Eyow went to Calgary to find work in the oilpatch but came back to Ottawa when Guled was scheduled for back surgery. Eyow was mother and father to the kids for the three months she was recuperating, then he got a job at Compaq.

Still, the feeling that he had something to contribute to building peace in Somalia never left him.

“We had long conversations about it over the years,” says Guled. “He always wanted to help the Somali community. He felt he could do something.”

In 2001, Eyow left for Mogadishu, where he stayed at the compound of longtime friend Mohamed Elmi, owner of Sambuza Village restaurant in Ottawa and former owner of Radio Horn Afrik in Somalia. Elmi recalls long conversations about politics, philosophy and world affairs.

“He was very likable, very humble, very eloquent,” says Elmi. “He got a job with UNICEF in child protection and he was very good at it.”

Guled says that after working with UNICEF for about seven years, the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, worsening conditions in Mogadishu and his own declining health led Eyow to take early retirement.

“The militia were coming in and looting, some of his friends got shot, he was taking insulin every day – it was very hard to live in Somalia then,” says Guled. “He returned to Ottawa, but he felt he had more to do.”

Three months later, he returned to Nairobi and opened a youth centre for Somali refugees. He named it Kobciye.

“It means empowerment in Somali,” says Shamsa Hassan, 27, his eldest daughter. “His passion has always been for youth, the most affected by war and displacement and poverty. Militia groups were recruiting young children to fight in Somalia. He wanted to educate them and give them a place to play basketball and volleyball, use computers and find jobs.”

Eyow expanded Kobciye’s operations to include three other centres, and was in the process of opening an office in Mogadishu. He would return to Canada once a year and the family visited him in Nairobi when they could. In between visits, says Hassan, they were in constant touch by phone, email and Skype. Hassan remembers Eyow talking to his children about their homework, explaining math problems or political systems, listening to their ideas and their dreams.

“He took us on that journey with him as much as he could,” says Hassan.

Still, it is hard to share your father with a passion that takes him to the other side of the world.

“It’s something that, as his daughter, I have struggled with a lot,” says Hassan. “- when somebody has a purpose, you can’t hold them back. I don’t think he would have been happy or we would have been happy if he didn’t get to do that work and help all those people.”

Several of Eyow’s children, including Hassan, inherited his passion for development. His son, Afrah, recently graduated with a degree in human rights and law. Her sister Kaltum, 18, worked with their father last summer at his centre in Eastleigh, the Nairobi neighbourhood that is home to thousands of Somalis.

Hassan, a graduate of the University of Calgary in political science and history, recently completed a postgraduate diploma in international development. She is confident that Kobciye will continue under new leadership, and muses about following in her father’s footsteps.

“He believed a lot of things would be solved if people were more educated, and he tried to get them into school,” says Hassan. “He saw there was so much work to be done. He never gave up.”

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