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Crying for a much beloved country; Immigrant community in Buffalo rallies assistance for starving homeland

At the little market at Grant Street and Potomac Avenue, neighborhood Somalis stop by to pick up a few groceries and get the news of the day.

The men stand around the counter, or play a game of chess at an outdoor table, where talk inevitably turns to the famine in Somalia -- the largest humanitarian crisis in the world right now.

They can barely believe it's the same place they once called home.

"I can tell you about the Somalia we left," said Mohamed Suleyman, 74. "I can't tell you about the Somalia there is now."

"Twenty years ago," added Abdalla Mohamud, 53, "Somalia is a beautiful country -- really. It has long beaches on the Indian Ocean."

"Now," Suleyman continued, "it is dead."

The Somalis who walk through the door of the African Market Center and Deli on the city's West Side escaped the chaos of Somalia, found jobs and raised families in Buffalo, and sent their children to college in the United States.

They are among the lucky ones -- and are reminded of it each day.

Images broadcast around the world of Somalis fleeing drought, famine and conflict in southern and central Somalia conjure up haunting memories of their own journeys out of the coastal country in East Africa.

Photos of crowded refugee camps also remind them of loved ones trapped in camps -- still waiting.

Pictures of dehydrated, malnourished children licking their bowls bring on a sense of guilt, knowing food is available in their own cupboards or around the corner at the African market.

"Tears come out of my eyes," said Suleyman, an elder and president of the Somali community of Buffalo.

The market opened last year, a sign of the growth in the Somali community.

More than 1,000 refugees from the war-torn country were resettled in Buffalo over the past 15 years with the help of local refugee agencies.

Each of the half-dozen Somalis in the store Thursday afternoon had stories of hardship.

Suleyman fled Somalia in 1991, when the president was overthrown and the country descended into lawlessness and civil war.

He left his home and farm.

His family was split up. Suleyman and his children grabbed a wheelbarrow, loaded it with containers of water and set out on a three-day trip that would take them to refugee camps in Kenya.

There, they endured terrible conditions.

Day in and day out, they waited for food to be handed out, waited for their ticket out of camp.

In 1996, Suleyman and his family were resettled in Buffalo, where he worked as a maintenance man at the Adam's Mark hotel.

He hasn't left Buffalo since.

He calls it "heaven."

The experience was difficult, Suleyman said, but not as tough as what the Somali people are enduring right now.

"We had a little bit of energy," Suleyman said, "but these people are as thin as sticks."

The United Nations children's agency predicts the crisis will get worse.

The agency estimated 390,000 Somali children are suffering from malnutrition. More than a third of those are facing imminent death, as humanitarian organizations struggle to deliver aid.

It's a race against time.

If Somalis around the African deli have had any good news to discuss these days, it has been the success of two of their own from Western New York.

Mohamed A. Mohamed, a state Department of Transportation worker from Grand Island, served as prime minister of Somalia for nine months before being forced out in June.

The new prime minister is Abdiweli M. Ali, a Niagara University professor from Amherst.

"That's what makes us proud," Suleyman said. "In all 50 states, New York State is the best because there are two prime ministers from here."

"Buffalo is now famous," said Mohamud, who works for the city streets department.

Ali's wife, Hodan Isse, a University at Buffalo professor, and Hassan Farah, a Somali native who grew up in Western New York, also are in Somalia to help with relief efforts.

"It's the country I'm from," said Farah's sister, Fadumo, 21, who was only a baby when her family fled Somalia. "Most of my aunts and uncles are still there. I'd love to go there, but I don't want to see the country in ruin."

Faced with a sense of helplessness, the Somali community tried to contribute what it could and pulled together to collect $1,600 during a fundraiser for Somalia a couple weeks ago.

The larger Muslim community in Western New York is joining the cause, during Ramadan -- a season of giving.

A dinner and fundraiser to aid Somalia is being held today in the Islamic Center on Heim Road in Amherst.

"All we can do is send them what we have," Suleyman said. "All we can do is let the world know and let them know we need help."

email: jrey@buffnews.com