As the Somali poet Warsan Shire notes, "No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark." For many reluctant immigrants who find a safe new place to live, there remains a clash between gratitude for their new-found security and the lingering guilt of leaving behind everything they knew, as it crumbles.
Somali-born Buri Mohamed Hamza resolved his own conflicting impulses with grace and fortitude, first finding a safe haven in Canada for his young family during a time of political upheaval, then returning years later to help steer his country as a legislator. He was nominated in 2012 to the first Federal Parliament of Somalia, which restored political stability after years of unrest.
Mr. Hamza's efforts to bring peace and order to his homeland ended in tragedy last month, however. He was among 15 people killed when al-Shabab militants detonated a car bomb at the Nasa Hablod Hotel in Mogadishu.
Buri Mohamed Hamza was born Nov. 15, 1947, the first of seven siblings and half-siblings, in the southern Somali city of Barawa (also known as Brava). He was a member of the Benadiri ethnic minority, a people originating from the country's southern coastal region. His father, Mohamed Hamsa Abdulwahab, died when he was three, and although his mother, Fatima Haji Mumin, remarried, he was raised primarily by her father, his grandfather, Haji Mumin. From a young age, he stood out as a leader within his community, helping others read and write in English and filling out forms for people. He took care of his mother and siblings, helping them all resettle outside of Somalia amid the political unrest over the years.
Mr. Hamza also departed from his homeland, moving to Long Beach, Calif., as a young man to study biology at California State University, graduating in 1970. He earned a master's degree in zoology from Cairo University soon after. In both cities, Mr. Hamza sought out the company of other young Somali students, finding among them kindred spirits and comforting reminders of home.
"Buri was a role model for many Benadiris and Barawanese, who are generally disenfranchised in the country's political process," said Hassan M. Abukar, who knew Mr. Hamza during his years in Cairo and often invited him home for meals to discuss and debate the home they had left behind. "To me, he was the type of politician who did not put a premium on tribalism. Buri wanted a Somalia free from foreign intervention. He believed the country was able to solve its problems on its own."
He returned to Somalia after his studies and, in 1982, married Suda Banafunzi, a fellow Barawanese. The couple had started a family when Somalia's central government collapsed, prompting them to move to Toronto in 1992 in search of a more peaceful life. Ms. Banafunzi remembers the challenges of being immigrants with two young children. All the while, her husband carefully monitored news of their homeland, seeking the right time to return and rebuild.
"There was no stability in Somalia during the civil war and everybody was looking for a better place, better opportunities for their families, especially when you have two little babies [as we did]," she says of the time they came to Canada. "This came as an opportunity and a better environment [for us]. He was always hoping that things will work out in Somalia and people would go back and build the country."
While in Canada, Mr. Hamza worked many jobs, including as an Italian-language court interpreter, and became a naturalized Canadian citizen. He also studied environmental sciences at York University, earning his master's degree in 2005.
Dr. Peter Penz, now a professor emeritus with York's faculty of environmental sciences, supervised Mr. Hamza's master's project after the student disappeared from the faculty's radar for a time, midway through his studies. Unknown to them, Mr. Hamza was already a political figure in a constituency south of Mogadishu at the time, trying to make a difference. Mr. Hamza returned to Canada to finish the degree, focusing on the role the environment and its preservation play in the political landscape of unstable countries where resources are valued above citizens' lives. Mr. Hamza was prescient, choosing a subject that had been explored little at the time but subsequently attracted great scholarly interest.
Dr. Penz says Mr. Hamza's motivation seemed personal. "In a sense, his completion project for the master's program was really a kind of funding proposal for a project that would combine what would now be called environmental governance with peace building," said Dr. Penz, who stayed in touch with Mr. Hamza through the years. "I understand he was also keen to find a way of developing livelihoods for young men that would keep [them] out of getting involved with terrorist organizations."
After years being connected to and politically engaged with his homeland from abroad, Mr. Hamza sacrificed a comfortable life in Canada with his family to return to Somalia in August, 2012, to take a place in the new Somali cabinet. He rose to prominence as state minister of foreign affairs in January, 2014, and state minister of finance in October, 2014, maintaining close ties with the premier and speaker of the house. He took up his final portfolio, state minister for the environment, in February, 2015. During his tenure, he headed the Somali delegation at international climate-change summits, even meeting dignitaries from his adopted country as a representative of his birth country.
Once he began his political career, Mr. Hamza returned to Canada to be with his family once a year. Though his wife and children lament the limited time they had with him, they take solace in his commitment to the work he did.
"I think the one thing that I took comfort in was that he loved what he did, and not a lot of people can wake up and say they love what they do," his daughter, Raja, says. "People used to ask, 'Don't you miss your dad, don't you want him back?' I used to talk to my dad every single day, whether it was through phone or FaceTime. He wasn't here all the time but he was a big presence in my life, as well as my mom's and my brother's."
He maintained particularly strong connections with his hometown of Barawa over the years, helping to build schools and install streetlights there, as well as personally funding a school for the deaf and blind in nearby Marka (also known as Merca). Even his family was unaware of his philanthropy until calls flooded in after his death.
"We have a saying that when you give something with your right hand, your left hand should not know," Ms. Banafunzi said. "That's exactly what he'd been doing. We hear all these stories and we're all amazed because we'd never heard of them."
Mr. Hamza, who died on June 25 in Mogadishu, leaves his wife of almost 34 years, Ms. Banafunzi, as well as two children, Mohamed, 29, and Raja, 27, who reside in Woodbridge, Ont.
The family is planning a public memorial in Toronto, although no date has been set.
"He always emphasized education. Education was the key to everything," his daughter, Raja, says. "[When I was] growing up, he used to make sure I was always studying, even when I was done with my homework. He used to tell me, education doesn't always just come from school. You have to always find ways to just learn. Talk to people, read things, watch the news, do things just to learn."