MOGADISHU // Mukhtar Ainashe gave it all up: a consulting job for the US government worth US$10,000 (Dh36,700) per month; the comfortable home in the suburbs of the US capital. He even put a hold on raising his two children and working on his PhD so that he could come here and help clean up the disaster in his native Somalia.
"I gave up my job because this country is in a mess and there are millions of people who have no hope and no future unless something's done," said Mr Ainashe, 41, a presidential adviser on security. "I'm hoping I can somehow or another make a positive contribution to that effort. That's why I'm here facing the bullets every day." And there are bullets every day. Just outside Mr Ainashe's window, the distinct "pop, pop, pop" of gunfire can be heard as Islamist militants battle government soldiers on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia's besieged, crumbling seaside capital.
After nearly two decades of constant war, about three million Somalis have left the country. Hundreds of thousands of middle-class, educated Somalis are living in the United States, Canada, northern Europe and the UAE. Large Somali population centres include Minneapolis, Washington, Ottawa, London, Oslo and Dubai. Somali-owned businesses line the streets of the Deira area of Dubai and Somalis own three Dubai-based airlines offering direct flights from the UAE to Mogadishu.
Doctors, lawyers, professors and other skilled professionals have joined the Somali diaspora, adding to a so-called brain drain on the country. But in the past year, there has been an effort by young professional Somalis such as Mr Ainashe to return to their homeland and help the fledgling government build a viable state. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN special representative for Somalia, has been working closely with the Somali diaspora to get them involved in their own nation building.
"My wish is that the diaspora work hard to remove the name of Somalia from anything negative," he said in an interview. "It is important that there is a basic consensus to agree on a place that they can call home, a place they are proud of." About half of the 39 cabinet ministers in Somalia's government are from the diaspora as are at least 100 members of parliament and dozens of mid-level bureaucrats trying to establish the first real government in 19 years.
Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, a Canadian citizen, had a comfortable life in Ottawa and Washington before returning to Mogadishu to lead the government as prime minister. His appointment to the post in February was seen as a way to appease members of the diaspora, who keep a close eye on politics back home. "I was born and bred here," he said in an interview from the heavily fortified government headquarters. "This is actually my home. I'm glad that I was in Canada. I'm glad that I was exposed to political democracy, multi-party systems and also had an educational background from western countries.
"That, combined with my social background, will help move the dialogue forward." Mr Sharmarke said the diaspora is the key to rebuilding Somalia, if its members are groomed by the right side. "The diaspora is an added value to our country," he said. "We are working with the international community to influence our diaspora before they are recruited into such extremism." Just as overseas Somalis are returning to join the government, diaspora members are coming back to fight alongside Islamist rebels trying to overthrow the government.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has investigated a case of about 20 Somalis from the US state of Minnesota, who turned up in a training camp for al Shabab, a Somali extremist group with ties to al Qa'eda. Dozens more young Somali men from the United Kingdom, Australia and Sweden have come back to Somalia to fight for al Shabab. Investigators worry that they could return to their adopted countries and launch an attack.
"The diaspora could also be a source of problems, funding violence or misbehaving in host countries," Mr Ould-Abdallah said. "If the youth make mistakes, it is the leaders who have not provided examples." One of the suicide bombers in an attack that killed 30 in northern Somalia last year was from Minnesota, and one of the bombers who killed 21 at an African Union base in Mogadishu in September was from the state of Washington. The bomber who killed 22 people at a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu this month was from Denmark.
Still, the majority of Somalis are returning to Somalia to rebuild rather than to destroy. Abdullahi Mohamed Jimale Barre, a prominent Somali lawyer, was living in Uganda when he got a call from Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Somalia's president. Within days, he was on a plane for Mogadishu to run the country's judiciary as attorney general. "I want to write the history of my country," he said. "My country needs me."
Mr Ainashe, who lived in Norway for most of his 20s and 30s, recently moved to Washington, where he was working on his PhD in education policy at George Washington University and raising two daughters under five. For the past six months, he has been living in Mogadishu in a small bedroom he shares with three other government officials. The bedroom also serves as his office. He rests his laptop on a chair and sits on his bed to work. He hangs his clothes on a coat rack. Above his bed sits a stack of books, including a biography of Che Guevara and a book called Journey of the Jihadist: Inside the Muslim Militancy.
His room is in the guest wing of the presidential villa. Henry Kissinger and Idi Amin have both stayed in the room next door. Instead of thousands of dollars per month, Mr Ainashe now works for $600, which usually never appears. He is more or less a volunteer. Mr Ainashe encourages other Somalis abroad to come back and join the effort to help the Somalis who are still here. "Politicians always talk about the little guy, the regular folks," he said. "I'm doing this for the regular folks in Somalia.
"I have a life. I can travel tomorrow with an aircraft and go to Washington and forget about all this. But they actually have to live here in Mogadishu. They have nowhere else to go. If you see how they live, it gets you emotionally. You say hey, maybe living like this is not so bad after all. That's where I get the motivation to keep working." firstname.lastname@example.org