This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

EMU welcomes Somali president back to campus

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud topped off his attendance at the historic U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit hosted by President Obama with an Aug. 7 visit to Harrisonburg, where he renewed 13-year-old ties with Eastern Mennonite University and its Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud waves as he prepares to depart after an Aug. 7 lunch gathering with EMU President Loren Swartzendruber, background, and other university leaders. — Michael Sheeler/EMU
Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud waves as he prepares to depart after an Aug. 7 lunch gathering with EMU President Loren Swartzendruber, background, and other university leaders. — Michael Sheeler/EMU

In a lunch conversation, Mohamud told EMU leaders: “I’d like to officially request your help for Somalia with the tools and techniques you have here, which are very life-saving tools — not [only] life-saving at the individual level but life-saving at a national level.”

He commended CJP’s Women’s Peacebuilding Leadership Program, which has 16 Somali-speaking women as graduates or current students: “You educate a woman, you educate a family. You educate a family, you educate a whole nation.”

He added that another important group to nurture as peacebuilders is the youth of his country, who constitute the largest segment of its population and who have spent much of their lives experiencing violence.

“All of their lives [have been] unstable for a long time,” he said. “They keep running, one place after another.”

The young of Somalia need trauma healing, education and work opportunities in order not to be vulnerable to recruiting by terrorist organizations, he said.

CJP program director Jayne Docherty concurred with Mohamud’s observation.

“We don’t want to create a society where young men are drawn into violence because they have no prospects for a positive life while young women are taught to be peacemakers,” she said.

Docherty touched on EMU’s “long commitment to the Somali region.” She spoke of celebrating the graduation of CJP’s first cohort of Somali women in the peacebuilding leadership program at a ceremony held in neighboring Somaliland in December. There she felt great hope but also heard the women express “the need to connect large-scale work on trauma healing with any initiatives to rebuild the country.”

Mohamud arrived in Harrisonburg in a black car sandwiched between two other black vehicles, with accompanying members of the U.S. Secret Service.

“We are always honored when our former students return to campus, [but] to my knowledge, you are the first Summer Peacebuilding Institute alumnus to return with a motorcade,” said CJP executive director J. Daryl Byler in his welcoming remarks.

Journey to EMU

CJP’s connections to Somalia include alumna Khadija Ossoble Ali, who earned her master’s degree in conflict transformation from CJP in 2001. Ali became a member of Somalia’s parliament and served in the prime minister’s cabinet. She left Somalia in the mid-2000s due to political changes and began pursuing a doctorate at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. With her doctorate just completed, she recently met with Mohamud in Somalia where they spoke of new responsibilities for her.

After Ali began studying at CJP in the late 1990s, she recommended EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute to Mohamud, who was then an educational leader in Somalia. Mohamud took three SPI courses in 2001, focusing on mediation, trauma healing and how to design learner-centered trainings.

Since Mohamud’s time at SPI, more than a dozen Somali men and women have attended SPI, plus many others who have Somali roots but enroll in SPI from other locations.

“The tools and the instruments that I took from here helped me a lot in sitting with the people,” he said, “having the patience and the endurance to listen to sometimes irrational arguments.”

His SPI training helped him to realize the people speaking irrationally and often choosing destructive paths were burdened by psychosocial traumatic baggage as a result of their constant exposure to violent conflict.

Unfortunately, he added, Somalia remains a tinderbox. A destructive act by even one person can undermine years of efforts at peacebuilding and reconciliation and spark widespread attacks.

Threatened by terrorists

In this environment — with Somalia’s still-weak, distrusted governmental bodies — the terrorist group Al-Shabaab has played a viciously destabilizing role.

Members of Al-Shabaab tried to kill Mohamud in a hotel assault four days after he became president on Sept. 10, 2012. They have launched other attacks on him over the last two years, sometimes killing people around him.

On a positive note, Mohamud said Somalia is a “very, very rich country” in terms of possibilities for its people once stability is achieved. It has arable land, two rivers, the longest coastline in Africa and the most livestock per capita. Somalia is situated at one of the “most strategic locations in the world.”

As one of three who spoke on behalf of EMU, Byler referred to the interfaith nature of EMU’s work with Somali-speaking people, who are largely Muslim.

As a sign of CJP’s commitment to Somalia and the rest of the Horn of Africa, Byler said CJP is establishing its first “practice and learning hub” to partner with and support East African alumni to address the systemic problems that feed violence.

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