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From Williamsville South to the diplomatic mission of a lifetime, Schwartz tackles challenge of Somalia

WASHINGTON – The first U.S. ambassador to Somalia since the “Black Hawk Down” incident got his start in world affairs by staring at a map of Africa in a classroom at Williamsville South High School.

“In ninth grade, I had a class in Afro-Asian cultures, taught by Karen Willyoung,” recalled Stephen M. Schwartz, a career diplomat who took the oath of office Monday as the first U.S. ambassador since 1991 to serve in Somalia, one of Africa’s most volatile countries. “There was something about it that really inspired me, and I was quite interested in learning about all these parts of the world.”

So he did it, in person, first in the Peace Corps and then in a 24-year career with the U.S. Foreign Service that has largely found Schwartz toggling between Washington and various African countries.

And next month, Schwartz, 58, leaves for the challenge of his career: representing U.S. interests in a country that spent the better part of two decades without a government, a country best known in America for a book and movie that told the story of the deaths of 18 American service members there in 1993, a country where the terrorist group Al-Shabaab killed 15 people in an attack in the capital only last weekend.

It’s a challenge that Steve Schwartz is most certainly up for, said two very disparate sources: Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, and Karen Willyoung.

Blinken heaped praise on Schwartz during Monday’s swearing-in ceremony, saying he was chosen for the post in Somalia after excelling at every position he has held at the State Department and its embassies around the world.

“Steve makes people feel listened to, looked at and lifted up,” Blinken said.

In the meantime, Willyoung – now 73, retired and living in Clarence – recalled Schwartz as “a very good student” who dutifully memorized that map of Africa and who showed an unusual curiosity about the world beyond Buffalo.

Now, though Schwartz will have to work through a thicket of difficulties as he re-establishes an American presence in a country where the last U.S. Embassy closed – and its diplomats fled by helicopter – amid a civil war in 1991. By late 1992, the civil war combined with a drought to cause mass starvation, which prompted then-President George H.W. Bush to provide military security and logistical support for the U.N. humanitarian aid mission.

But that effort culminated in catastrophe when street rebels shot down two Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, during a U.S. military operation the following October. A harrowing attempted rescue of the trapped U.S. soldiers resulted in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down” – which, Schwartz said, accurately captures the chaos of the time.

Worse yet, chaos – in the form of rule by rival clans and the Al-Shabaab terrorists – continued for two decades.

Things only began to improve once, with significant aid from the United States and other countries, Somalia established a new government in 2012.

And now, with an election looming, it’s Schwartz’s job to re-establish the U.S. diplomatic presence in Somalia.

“It will not be easy,” said James K. Bishop, the U.S. ambassador who fled with the rest of the embassy staff a quarter-century ago. “Al-Shabaab remains a threat, obviously, and the economic problems remain to be solved.”

Yet Schwartz stressed that Somalia has made much progress in recent years, as an African-led force drove Al-Shabaab out of most parts of Mogadishu, and as the new government started work at rebuilding an army.

“Policywise, I really want to bring all the U.S. can offer to Somalia in terms of helping develop political and governmental structures,” he said in an interview.

Doing so won’t involve any of the glitz and glitter that comes with serving as a U.S. ambassador in, say, Paris or London. Schwartz will spend part of his time working out of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and when he’s in Somalia, he won’t spend time in an embassy compound but in “The Ark,” a windowless bombproof bunker at the Mogadishu airport that doesn’t even have a secure communications connection.

The Ark’s existence serves as proof that Schwartz’s mission will be a dangerous and somewhat lonely one. His wife, Kristy Cook, and the Ethiopian children whom the couple adopted, Hannah and Jonas, will remain in the D.C. suburbs so that the teens can finish their schooling in America while their father attends to his risky business overseas.

Asked whether the danger had crossed his mind, Schwartz said: “Yes – but I think we do what we do where it’s got to be done. The world and the U.S. are worse off when there are parts of the globe that are ungoverned, exploited by terrorists, exploited by criminal networks, exploited by pirates. And Somalia has seen these things.”

One of Schwartz’s goals will be to decommission The Ark and re-establish a real U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu.

“I think in the two years I expect to have this job, we will see a big transition in our relationship with Somalia, and also in our ability as a embassy to get things done,” he said. “We’re working actively within the State Department to think about what kind of a facility we might build or have built for us.”

Schwartz also plans on returning relatively frequently to the United States to visit cities such as Buffalo that have an unusually strong connection to Somalia. One of the transitional Somali government’s first prime ministers was Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a former civil servant in Buffalo who returned home to Somalia and who now heads a political party there. He was succeeded by Abdiweli M. Ali, of Amherst, an associate economics professor at Niagara University, who served for a year as prime minister. And according to State Department figures, 2,314 Somali refugees resettled in Buffalo between 2002 and 2015 – more than from any country other than Myanmar, formerly Burma.

Money that refugees earned in places like Buffalo and sent back home has helped stabilize Somalia, said Ahmed Isse Awad, the Somali ambassador to the United States.

“The Somali diaspora kept Somalia alive,” said the ambassador, who seemed overwhelmed by Schwartz’s appointment and the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time in a quarter-century. “I cannot describe the feeling. It bodes well for our future.”

As for Schwartz’s future, it’s one his family saw coming.

“He’s been working hard for this,” said his brother Lewis Schwartz, 45, part of a contingent of about 20 friends and relatives from Buffalo who attended Schwartz’s swearing-in ceremony, including Schwartz’s father, Robert. “It’s been a goal since high school.”

Then again, it’s not easy to work your way up from Southside Bowling – the family business on Seneca Street where Schwartz worked as a kid – to the State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Room, the ornate ballroom with eight chandeliers where he took his oath of office Monday. For Schwartz, getting there meant not just earning an undergraduate degree from Miami University in Ohio, but also two master’s degrees, one from the University of London and another from the National War College. Then it meant plowing through a variety of diplomatic assignments, some in obscure places such as Mauritius.

He was in Nigeria when freedom fighter Moshood Abiola dropped dead while meeting with U.S. diplomats. And years later, Schwartz found himself pulled away from meetings in Nigeria to attend a sudden meeting of eight heads of state who gathered in Paris to discuss the Boko Haram terrorist group.

Before leaving for Mogadishu, though, Schwartz has a plan. After wrapping things up in Washington, he will head to his high school reunion in Williamsville on July 16. And he’s hoping that Karen Willyoung will be there, and by the sound of things, it’s likely she will be.

Told that one of her former social studies students credited her for starting him on the road to one of the hardest jobs in U.S. diplomacy, Willyoung said: “I’m just delighted to hear that.”