The small-business owner sold food products in bulk to support his family while paying his way through university. His education, ambition and management skills landed him a job in regional government, where he worked his way to the top job.
When his predecessor was assassinated, Noor Ahmed Hassan was named governor of the Galguduud region of Somalia in September 2017 — putting him in the crosshairs, too.
“It’s very, very dangerous,” said Hassan, who is in Winnipeg preparing for his refugee protection hearing Monday before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
After surviving decades of civil war and terror attacks — including Somalia’s largest in October 2017 that killed nearly 600 people at Mogadishu’s Safari Hotel — the greatest threat to his life was being appointed to lead one of the country’s 18 administrative regions. Like the slain governor (Mohamed Dahir Ali Elmi) he was to replace, Hassan became a target for al-Shabaab terrorists trying to overrun the country, as well as an armed opposition.
In an interview Wednesday at a Tim Hortons coffee shop on Isabel Street, Hassan shared highlights from his short-lived appointment to lead the central region where he was born.
“There was a lot of conflict,” he said through an interpreter, showing Somalia TV news clips, including an interview with a reporter and a news conference where he’s one of four leaders seated on the dais.
“I was given the opportunity by my own people who needed a new leader,” said Hassan, 47. “The economy and everything was going down.”
When he was named governor of Galguduud region, following a peace agreement brokered for central Somalia, he said he was reassured by the head of Galmudug state that he’d receive heavy security.
Within weeks, Hassan’s office was attacked. He and his staff were beaten and taken hostage by opposition militia for three weeks before African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) forces took control of the building and freed them.
“They can’t protect you,” Hassan said. His family — six teenage and adult children from his late wife, and his second wife who was expecting their first child — lived apart from him for their safety since he joined the government in 2017. “I felt like I was in my own prison.”
Last year, he saw a way out: a conference on artificial intelligence in Las Vegas. While waiting for his U.S. visa to arrive in April 2018, an al-Shabaab suicide bomber set off a car-based explosion near the Mogadishu airport — narrowly missing Hassan. The bomber died and two police officers were injured; Hassan was unscathed but sure he was the intended target.
When his visa arrived, he headed to Las Vegas, then north to Minneapolis, home of the largest Somali community in the United States. Friends told him there was no hope of the U.S. granting him asylum under the Trump administration, so he headed to Canada.
He took a bus to Fargo, N.D., then paid a taxi $150 to get him close to the border at Emerson. He walked for three hours, arriving in Canada in the dark on May 1, 2018.
The RCMP took him to the Canada Border Services Agency to verify his identity and make sure he wasn’t a security threat. He was driven to the Salvation Army in Winnipeg, then Welcome Place for help filing a refugee claim and other paperwork.
He went to Toronto, where he had friends, and worked in shipping and receiving, sending money to his family in Somalia. Now, he’s back in Winnipeg for his hearing and hopes the city will become his permanent home.
If granted refugee protection, he’s eager to bring over his wife and young daughter, as well as his six grown children.
“I think here is the best option,” said Hassan, who sees Winnipeg as a safe place to live. “Toronto is very expensive and getting a home is very hard.”
If his refugee claim is rejected, Hassan plans to appeal, all the while working to send money to his family.
“If Somalia could have saved my life, I would’ve stayed there.”
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home. email@example.com