Song For Farmajo: Columbus Somalis See Hope For Their Home Country

Mar 3, 2017

At a large banquet hall on the Ohio State campus, women wear dresses and headscarves of light blue and white - the colors of the Somali flag. People dance to a hit song written just for the occasion: the election of Somalia's new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.

"Ever since he got elected, there's been so many songs," says Hassan Elmi, who joined over a thousand people in the celebration.

President Mohamed's election is also big news for the Somali population here in Columbus, one of the largest such communities in the U.S. Local Somali-Americans see the election as good news for the country with a troubled past.

The song, Elmi says, is about hope for the new president - and for Somalia.

"What he's saying is, hey Farmajo, like, you know, little children, please hold our hand, please guide us," Elmi says.  

Farmajo is a nickname the new president inherited from his dad. A vendor here selling t-shirts explains it’s Italian for cheese: "Everybody like cheese, so they call him Farmajo."

A vendor at the event sells T-shirts that read "take me to Farmajo."
Credit Esther Honig

Farmajo ran on a platform of anti-corruption and unity, but he won the hearts of Somalis six years ago with his work as prime minister. In a short amount of time, he set up a payroll for soldiers and government workers and cracked down on widespread corruption.

For many, Mohamed's elections was a surprise victory. Despite wide spread corruption in the election process, as stated by the UN, the United States and the European Union, many here tonight say the people's choice prevailed.

Elmi says that optimism for the country's future is spreading throughout the Somali community worldwide.

"So it's happening right now in Columbus, it's gonna happen in Minnesota, it's gonna happen in Toronto," he says. "All over the world where the Somali people have a population."

But Somalia is a county Elmi hasn't seen for a whole 18 years. Like others here, he was a refugee fleeing Somalia's civil war of the 1990s. He now has roots here, a young family and a career in finance.

But the election of President Mohamed has some local Somalis considering a possible return to their native country.

Like many women at the event, Aisha Mohamed wears a dress that resembles Somalia’s flag.
Credit Esther Honig

Sowda Farah, a recent graduate of Ohio State, spent five years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to Columbus at age 10.

"I grew up here. I went to school here. I felt safe," Farah says. "But honestly, I don't feel safe no more." 

According to the FBI, since President Trump’s election more American Muslims have been targeted by hate crimes. Then, Trump's travel ban barred Somali refugees and visa holders from entering - or reentering - the country.

Even though the travel ban is currently blocked by courts, Farah's rethinking things. She says Farmajo's election could bring stability to Somalia.

Now she's considering returning to a country she barely knows.

"A lot of people, especially my age, are thinking of going back home," Farah says. "Taking their experiences, taking their education back home, because honestly, if you don't help your people, no one else will."

Farmajo has a strong following among younger Somalis who have spent most of their lives in the U.S.
Credit Esther Honig

Somalia's new president has become a champion for young Somali-Americans. Like them, he is a dual U.S. citizen and a former refugee. Farmajo also studied at the State University of New York  and later worked for the Buffalo Municipal Housing commissioner and the New York State Department of Transportation.

Ali Adam, an entrepreneur in his early 20s, says Farmajo's story is inspirational.

"That's telling me that I can go back to my country and become president one day," Adam says.

Like many people, Adam says Farmajo's presidency will mark a new era for the country, but he knows progress will be tough. Somalia faces a possible famine after months of drought. Terrorist group Al-Shabaab still carries out deadly attacks.

And after 26 years of civil war, Adam says rebuilding will be a challenge.  

"Just by himself, he can't do everything," Adam says. "The action has to come from the people."