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Sean Kirst: From civil war in Somalia to giving thanks in Buffalo

Sean Kirst

A couple of times a day, I find my way downstairs to the Grab & Go shop in the lobby of The Buffalo News, where the guy behind the counter sells me coffee and punches my card. At a spot where Lake Erie makes its presence known not far beyond the window, we often end up talking about the weather.

In Buffalo, that inevitably leads toward comparisons, good or bad, with the climate in other places we might have lived. That is how I learned, bit by bit, where Murjan Issa was born, and how he wound up adjusting to the long winters in this city.

One day, when we had a little time, he explained his journey.

Really, it comes down to this: Issa only made it to Buffalo because, as a teenager in Somalia, he happened to be playing in a pickup soccer game at the same moment that a friend heard Issa's name during a BBC broadcast. The long-shot coincidence led Issa to an emotional reunion with his parents and triggered the events that would one day bring him here.

Listening to him, coffee in my hand, I thought of the truth at the heart of our business: The best stories often emerge when you least see them coming, typically involving some universal bond.

This one certainly fits, on Thanksgiving.

Issa, 39, told me he was raised in a remote Somalian village. In the early 1990s, as civil war tore apart his country,  the elders in his community did their best to avoid taking sides. They hoped some level of a fragile we'll-mind-our-own-business approach might keep the bloodshed from their land.

“We did not carry guns,” he said. “We were just farmers.”

Yet they had food, and the people doing the killing were hungry. At 13, on a quiet morning, Issa was outside with his parents, his sister and his grandmother when his childhood came to an abrupt end. Their compound was overrun by angry men, firing automatic weapons.

“Once they attacked,” Issa said, “they did horrible stuff.”

People screamed and ran in all directions. In the chaos, Issa could not reach his family. He saw smoke and heard gunshots. He knew if he went back, he might be beaten or killed.

He had never really gone far from his home. Terrified, he joined a band of strangers whose villages had also come under assault. They moved toward the forest, trying to put distance between themselves and the violence.

Their goal was Mogadishu, hundreds of miles away. To eat, they begged or hunted for scraps. No one around Issa took pity on a solitary child.

“The only thing I trusted were my feet,” Issa said.

Murjan Issa, who runs the Grab & Go convenience shop in the lobby of The Buffalo News, came to Buffalo 15 years ago. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Half-starved, they reached their destination. Mogadishu, a city of 2.5 million people, was also suffering amid the war. Issa finally found work doing household chores for a woman who was kind to him. For several years he moved from place to place and job to job, sweeping sidewalks and running errands as a way to eat.

Once, while traveling on a crowded lorry, an elderly woman died in front of him, killed when robbers hit her with a stray bullet. Issa eventually returned to Mogadishu, where everything he owned consisted of one small bag holding a spare shirt and a pair of pants.

A man befriended him, promised to help him find work, then stole the bag.

Even at those moments, Issa said, he would stumble upon unexpected kindness, men and women willing to provide enough work to pay for food. Over time, he saved enough to return to his home region, in search of his family.

His parents had disappeared. No one seemed sure if they were dead or alive.

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Discouraged, Issa settled nearby, about 500 miles from Mogadishu. He took another job sweeping sidewalks. Life was reduced to living from one morning to the next. One day, he paused to join a game of pickup soccer when a friend ran up, frantically calling his name.

The young man had been listening to a radio broadcast from the BBC. A journalist spoke with refugees at Kakuma, a United Nations camp in Kenya. One of the women interviewed, a woman who had fled Somalia, said she could find no peace until she learned the fate of her son.

She asked for help in finding Murjan Issa. His mother was alive.

Issa and his friends ran to the one place in town with a radio. They begged the operator to contact the camp. Listening hard through the static, as the sound cut in and out, he heard his mother’s voice for the first time in years.

“She was crying and I was crying,” Issa said. “Whatever went through me, I cannot even say. All I know was that I wanted to see her.”

Last week, he shared that story in bursts, between pauses to sell a doughnut or a slice of pizza. He recalled how he explained his plight to his boss in Somalia, who helped him put together the money to make the long trip back to Mogadishu. Yet he still needed to travel another 1,800 miles, to the camp.

Again, when he needed it, he found help. He met a cousin, a man named Muya who now lives in Rochester. While Issa settled in to work and save, Muya offered to teach him to speak English.

So Issa studied the language “all day and night,” even as he built up a little money. While it was enough to get him to Mombasa, a Kenyan city, early in 2001, he needed more to cover his final burst of traveling. He met a man called Suleiman who provided him with such a profitable job, selling lotion, that Issa would later give that name to his own son.

On April 15, 2001, nine years after he ran in fear toward the wilderness, Issa arrived at Kakuma. He paid a few coins for a man to give him a ride into camp on a bicycle rickshaw. As they neared their destination, people began shouting: “Your son! Your son is here!”

His younger sister Weliya, who now lives in Buffalo, ran outside to greet him, just before Issa stood face-to-face with his weeping mother.

“That was the greatest day of my life,” he said.

It also served as a pivot in his fortunes. In the camp, his knowledge of English held high value, and American immigration officials hired him to help with the language. He met his wife, Musa, at Kakuma. Within a few years, the entire family was accepted for refugee status in the United States.

His parents now live in Kentucky. As for Issa, after settling in Texas, he and his wife joined relatives in Buffalo more than a decade ago.

It struck me that this guy who casually sells us our coffee is here only by the most-against-the-odds set of events. Who knows what happens if a friend near a dusty Somalian soccer field did not hear that BBC broadcast at exactly the right moment?

Issa never abandons that sense of wonder. He and Musa have four children. Those kids have grown accustomed to constant reminders from their father about the meaning of food, warmth and shelter, about the blessings of an education far from civil war.

“I tell them, 'Man, you are lucky,' ” Issa said. “'You are here, and it is peaceful. But out there?'”

He waved his arm toward the faraway horizon, trying to capture his full journey to Thanksgiving.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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