Over the past three years, Abdi Gul Mohamed, a Canadian citizen, has seen his wife and three young children only a couple of times. That's because his family lives in Toronto, where his children were born, and he lives in Mogadishu, where he is a member of the fledgling government of Somalia.
"It's difficult for me and for them, but especially for them. I miss them a lot. It is a great sacrifice. A lot of people cannot understand why I sacrifice that much," the 45-year-old said in an interview during a rare visit home.
Mr. Mohamed is one of four Somali-Canadians who are cabinet ministers in a transitional government that expired a few months ago and is now trying to reconstitute itself.
"It's a volunteer job that we're doing. There is no salary, I have no budget, not even any kind of allowance, no transportation, no car -- forget about all this," said Mr. Mohamed, a pilot by trade.
His title is Minister of Air and Land Transport but he said he spends much of his time trying to bring his fellow Somalis together. "We inform the people, make them understand what happened to our country, forget about the past and prepare for the future."
In this, being a Canadian is a definite asset, he said. "People know that I am Canadian. In Somalia, if I am doing something good, Canada will have a credit as well. . . . Therefore what we want is that Canada take a leading role to re-establish our country because Canada is known to be involved in humanitarian issues, always."
Mr. Mohamed arrived in Canada as a refugee claimant in 1990 when the political situation in Somalia was deteriorating and the country was on the verge of civil war. Now he has joined the Somali diaspora in trying to build peace and authority in a country of 11 million people.
The transitional government was elected to a three-year term by a broad representation of Somali clans at a peace conference in neighbouring Djibouti in August, 2000. But it has little authority outside Mogadishu, which is still beset by militia rivalry and banditry, and the government itself is a cauldron of factional and clan disputes.
What little legitimacy it has is questioned now that the term has ended, without a replacement government.
With the collapse of the Mohammed Siad Barre regime in 1991 there was an escalation of internecine warfare, which destroyed what little infrastructure existed and made worse a calamitous famine that killed hundreds of thousands and left millions destitute. Anarchy and starvation have reigned ever since.
Since 2002 a group of states in the Horn of Africa have tried to broker peace and reconciliation but their efforts have been undermined by the fact that Somalia's economic, legal and social structures are virtually non-existent. What is more, there are continuing disputes over two autonomous areas, Somaliland and Putland.
Canada does not recognize the transitional government and the little aid ($2.8-million this fiscal year) it does provide is primarily for emergency food relief.
The United States abandoned Somalia a decade ago and now treats it with great suspicion, believing it a haven for al-Qaeda operatives working in East Africa. Last month, the United Nations Security Council, concerned about terrorist organizations within Somalia, called for greater international enforcement of an arms embargo.
The Department of Foreign Affairs advises Canadians against travel to Somalia: "Canadians are at risk of kidnapping, murder or arrest without notice or apparent cause." The Security Council said international humanitarian efforts are severely hampered by "conflict and violence within Somalia, including brutality against civilians."
To this, Mr. Mohamed replies: "It is unsafe because it lacks the support it needs. It will never be safe unless it gets the help it needs. It's a chicken-and-egg situation."
A UN humanitarian review of Somalia a few months earlier said that Somalis, "despite their remarkable resilience," remain among the poorest and most vulnerable people on the globe.
Among those resilient Somalis is Mr. Mohamed, whose family in Canada relies on welfare to survive. In Mogadishu, he lives hand-to-mouth, living and travelling on the beneficence of extended family and friends in Somalia and in Canada, now home to about 100,000 people of Somali origin.
"The culture of Somalis is a bit different than we see here in the West. We rely on each other, whether it's a brother, sister or relative or friend, or even sometimes people who don't have relationships with you. . . . Most of the people who work there [for the government]are supported by the people in the diaspora. That's the way we survive and that's the way our people have survived for the past 13 years."
Mr. Mohamed said very little money goes a long way in such a poor country, with no official banking system. An important source of financial sustenance are the remittances sent home by Somali expatriates using the traditional Hawala money-transfer system.
In the face of what seem intractable problems, Mr. Mohamed does not give up hope. "Very few Somalis have optimism. I am one of those. My faith is one of the pillars that keeps me going. We know that if we struggle and use our own power and wisdom we can change this situation around. I see light at the end of the tunnel."