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Former D.C. Bureaucrat Returns Home In Effort To Fix Ailing Somalia

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In 2001, Abdisalam Omer was trying to fix a neglected, mismanaged public school system, Washington D.C.'s. At one point, he described D.C. as a third world country. Fast forward to today, the former D.C. bureaucrat is trying to fix another place, his home country, Somalia, as its foreign minister. And he joins us now. Welcome to the show.

ABDISALAM OMER: Thank you.

MCEVERS: When you first went back to Somalia, you hadn't been there since you were a teenager. What struck you about it?

OMER: The poverty level. But there were two other things that have remained in my mind. One is the desertification. The places I used to play as a child, the trees that - some of them were hundreds of years old - were all gone. The second issue is the radicalization of the youth. The impact the civil war has on Somalia was just devastating. And if I might add, all my markers were gone. I couldn't tell where I was in most of the time because of the civil war and the destruction of these cities.

MCEVERS: Were those problems that you thought, that's something - I can help fix that, I can do something about that?

OMER: Yeah. I think every problem has a source, and that source primarily is poverty, but most importantly bad governance. The government is not true to its people, and there was a dictatorship. And after the late president, Siad Barre, left the scene then everything has collapsed because it was controlled. We're only coming out of 20 years of civil war, so I need to try. I need to make my contribution. Some in my family didn't agree with me going back, but I did. And I'm glad I did.

MCEVERS: The picture most people who are listening have of Somalia is a formerly failed state, a place where warlords once ruled the country, a place where al-Shabaab still holds territory and still launches attacks inside Somalia and in neighboring Kenya. You are now spending a lot of time trying to turn that narrative around, trying to tell a different story. What is the story you are telling of Somalia?

OMER: The story we want to tell about Somalia is that the people who are resilient, who have seen major crisis for the last 20 years refuse to give up. The investment is coming back to Somalia. Diaspora's coming back, including myself, the prime minister, half of the cabinet are people who have comfort outside Somalia. And this I can say with certainty that we have defeated al-Shabaab. We have a long way to go, so we have turned the corner. And we want to move forward and harness those gains that Somalis have paid so dearly for.

MCEVERS: You say there's a long way to go. What does success look like in Somalia and how long will it take?

OMER: Success looks like Somalia when there is no threat to children are going to school or when the coffee shops are open late at night, when the government is collecting taxes, when the elections will take place at the end of this year, when the parliament is functioning and debating, not shooting at each other. But they are talking about putting together a new constitution. Success looks like re-creating the apparatus and the basics of the governance. So life is coming back to normal, and that's what success should look like. And we have been in the belly of the beast, and we came out.

MCEVERS: Abdisalam Omer, foreign minister of Somalia, thank you for your time today.

OMER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.