Cape Elizabeth, ME. – Like many a natural born American, I had one parent who was not.
In the waning gray days of World War II, Eastern Europe was a place of devastation and dislocation. In that tumult, my parents – he an American army officer who had escaped from German POW camp, and she a member of the Polish Home Army – met and married in February 1945 after a courtship of only ten days.
“In wartime,“ Pop once told me, “you don’t analyze, you act.“
Ten days later Mom and Pop were forced to split up, he heading east in search of an American mission, she remaining behind with only a handwritten note identifying her as the wife of an American soldier while asking anyone who could to help.
It took the better part of 1945 for Mom to escape Russian occupied Poland and make her way to Nuremberg, Germany where she found refuge with General George Patton’s Third Army. It was in late 1945, then, that she finally sailed for America hoping she would recognize the man she had married nearly a year before. Such are the rippling effects of war and its many deprivations and dislocations.
Mom finally arrived in St. Louis, Missouri in January 1946 and by June 1951 was a mother of three native-born American kids living in a newly built suburban home. But she did not become an American citizen until 1972 some 26 years later. Though she loved America and all it had given her, she was forever a proud Pole, too.
“How do you renounce who you are?” she once said when I asked why it had taken her so long to apply for citizenship, as renouncing former allegiances was one of the requirements of American citizenship.
This is a long way around to recognizing that America still remains the most unique country in the world, the only nation born of an idea rather than of blood or soil. But it is also an acknowledgment that America is not alone in generating patriotic feelings in the hearts of its people, especially those who were forced leave because circumstances beyond their control had given them no choice but to go.
So when the American president – whose mother was born in Scotland and grandfather in Bavaria – fomented a chant of “send her back“ from xenophobic followers against a Somali-born U.S. Congress person, it flew in the face that America has shown the world throughout its history.
Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) came to the United States from Somalia with her family as a ten year-old in 1992. She is the Somali-born U.S. Congress person President Trump’s followers want to “send back” after she made comments they found critical of Israel and America.
Four-time U.S. Olympic distance runner Abdi Abdirahman also fled war-torn Somalia with his family when he was only three years old. After existing in a Kenyan refugee camp for five years, the family found asylum in the USA in 1985.
Today, Abdi is working toward bringing the sport that has defined his adult years back to his homeland, because though he is a proud American, and eager capitalist, he remains a loving son of Somalia, too.
“Last year I thought, we have so much talent in Somalia, but kids have no opportunity to race there”, Abdi told me at the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on July 4th. “So I’d like to help develop the next generation.”
Abdi went back to his homeland this past April after the Boston Marathon where he hosted a small 10k.
“Some guys ran 31 minutes,” he said. “But Somalia has been at war for so long. I’ve seen what it did to the country. It destroyed families and everything.”
Yes, war eradicates the past while robbing the future. Over the last several decades, the creme of Somalia’s native running talent has been scattered throughout the world.
Abdi and eight-time University of Minnesota All-American Hassan Mead are here in the U.S.; four-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah is British; two-time Olympian Mo Ahmed represents Canada; 2:07 marathoner Bashir Abdi hails from Belgium; and 2016 Olympic marathoner Abdi Nageeye calls the Netherlands home.
“Many of us are from the same region in Northern Somaliland,” Abdi explained. “It’s the Rift Valley of Somalia. There are so many kids there who never had a chance.”
Abdi said there are already a few training groups back home, “but to date there is no funding. So we wanted to begin something ourselves.”
The first stage will be to bring some friends to Somalia. Then, on September 20, 2020, Abdi hopes the inaugural Horn of Africa 10K will take place in Hargeisa.
“The Horn of Africa 10K won’t be at high altitude,” says Abdi who, along with Bashir Abdi will run this weekend’s TD Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth, Maine . “It’s only at 3000 to 4000 feet. Right now we have the course designed as a point-to-point but we’d like to make it a 5K loop through the middle of the city.”
Now aged 42, Abdi has been based in Tucson, Arizona throughout his 30-plus years in the USA. It’s where he got started running at Pima Community College before blossoming at the University of Arizona. His infectious personality has made him one of the best liked runners of his generation. When I visited him in 2007 before the Olympic Trials Marathon in New York City, I dubbed him the “Mayor of Tucson” as it seemed like he knew everyone in town.
Today, with the help of a long time friend who runs Horn of Africa Cable in Somalia, Abdi hopes to begin the process of reversing the long trail of deprivations and dislocations that have eviscerated what should be one of the world’s leading distance running nations.
I think Mom would have understood his quest quite well.