The Untapped Power of the Somali Diaspora
Posted by Donald Y. Yamamoto
August 26, 2011
Donald Y. Yamamoto serves as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.
With famine spreading across the Horn of Africa, the Somali-American diaspora isn’t just watching the images fan across the television, they’re organizing themselves into action. More than 100,000 Somali-Americans reside in the United States and their deep communal ties to relatives in Somalia are the foundation of their giving. The United States recognizes that this positive force of giving can help shape the political trajectory of Somalia, which is why the State Department’s Africa Bureau has been nurturing relationships with diaspora communities in Seattle, Washington; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Columbus, Ohio. For the past two years, I have traveled and met with Somali elders, youth, academic experts, and community organizers in the United States who have a deeply-vested interest in the well-being of their mother country. While members of the diaspora have acclimated and welcomed the United States as their new home, they have not forgotten nor forsaken a hope for a stable and peacefully-governed Somalia.
I recently met with communities in Seattle and Minneapolis. The purpose of my engagement is always threefold: to share information about U.S. policies in Somalia, receive feedback about those policies, and discuss concrete ways to move forward. The immediate concern in the diaspora is providing food relief to famine victims, which many view as a result of al-Shabaab’s ruthless reign of terror paired with a transitional government that is struggling to provide basic services for the people. In spite of the political instability, the diaspora remains committed to Somalia’s future and their actions speak loudly.
Some may question why a State Department official would focus on domestic communities when the nature of our business is foreign affairs? It is because the Somali diaspora is set apart from other diaspora groups. The Somali Diaspora is responsible for sending approximately $1 billion worth of remittances back to relatives in Somalia; that’s 85 percent of Somalia’s GDP. Each remittance is usually small in amount. They’re the contribution of the Somali taxi drivers in Seattle and the business entrepreneurs of Minneapolis’ Riverside shops that save up enough money for relatives in Somalia to buy food, receive health care, and pay for daily incidentals. Imagine the power if the Somali diaspora harnessed their giving into strategic communal projects like building schools, paving roads, or providing other services in Somalia?
Another ray of hope for Somalia’s future is their young people. They do not carry the cultural baggage of clan divisions, but aspire to bring peace to a nation that has been war torn for 20 years. I’m always amazed at the dynamism and vision of the Somali youths I meet. In particular, Somali-American students at the University of Washington and University of Minnesota are not only leading fundraising efforts to bring awareness to the famine in the Horn of Africa, they also are becoming a voice in their communities for a way forward in Somalia. The Obama Administration has highlighted the importance of African youths through the 2010 President’s Forum for Young African Leaders and the First Lady’s 2011 trip to engage youths in South Africa and Botswana. Their message is that Africa’s future belongs to its youth, and it is a message that youths in the Somali diaspora are heeding.