The Wehelie and Ahmed family -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The Wehelie and Ahmed family


Mohammed Wehelie and his wife, Sahra Ahmed, left their native Somalia when violence became rampant in the early 1990s. They will soon move into a safer, rehabilitated house big enough for their family, which includes sons Ilyas, 13 (right), and Yonis, 6, and twin daughters Hajira and Hibo, 11.
©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein


A journey with a final destination

For Mohammed Wehelie and Sahra Ahmed, home has been a long time coming.

Wehelie and Ahmed both left their native Somalia at the beginning of the 1990s, just as the country’s civil war started in earnest.

For Wehelie, that meant leaving behind the three-room house in Mogadishu that he lived in with his parents and 11 other siblings. “The rooms never increased, but the children did,” he said.

Wehelie moved to Switzerland in 1991. It was there that he met his future wife, Ahmed. “She ran away from Somalia like me,” Wehelie said. “We quickly discovered we had a lot in common.”

A decade later, the married couple finally won the lottery—an immigration lottery for Somali citizens that allowed them to move to the United States. Still, home was slow to materialize. Wehelie’s family has moved four times within St. Paul, seeking bigger or safer apartments. Even a steady income only goes so far when covering a family with four children.

Neither parent wants the family to stay in their current location much longer. Their apartment looks decent from the outside, but inside leaks go unfixed and the smoke from neighbors’ cigarettes sneaks in from the common hallways. Petty theft is common; the license plate was recently stolen off Wehelie’s car.

But nearly two decades after leaving Somalia, Wehelie and Ahmed are on the cusp of owning a home for the first time. Partnering with Twin Cities Habitat, the family will soon move into a rehabilitated house.

New opportunities

On a recent school night, Ahmed assisted with homework at the family’s kitchen table with three of her children: Ilyas, 13, and twin daughters Hajira and Hibo, 11. Yonis, the youngest son at age 6, was still outside playing in the cool air of a Minnesota September evening.

As the kids talked about their favorite school subjects and future aspirations, Wehelie walked in and smiled at his children’s answers.

“My children already have opportunities I never saw when I was their age,” he had said earlier. “My sisters were not even able to go to school in Mogadishu.”

Wehelie did take advantage of his opportunity to go to Mogadishu’s Somali National University, where he studied chemistry. He learned to speak Italian at the university, which mostly had Italian instructors. Since then, he has also learned Arabic, German and English.

He struggles to help his children learn Somali—they were all born in either Switzerland or the United States. “We talk to them in Somali, and they speak back to us in English!” he said.

For Wehelie, though, that is one of the few negatives since moving to Minnesota. He was able to study respiratory therapy at St. Paul College and has worked at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis since 2006.

Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in North America. “I can go to Somali shops in the malls to get food like we had back home,” Wehelie said. “If I want to speak Somali, I can speak with people here in my own language.”

Wehelie said his family, which is Muslim, also feels fortunate to practice their faith without fear: “You can express your religion however you like. I feel accepted. And we enjoy the diversity, too, learning about new things from people here.”

Home in view

Twin Cities Habitat has introduced some of those new things, including a community picnic with future homeowners in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood. Partner families also attend training courses on such subjects as basic home repairs and financial planning.

“I like how Habitat really cares about the people it works with,” Wehelie said. “Not only me, but many families who don’t have as much opportunity to own a home—maybe because of income or disability. They like to help those people.”

Back at the kitchen table in their current apartment, the children were asked if they were happy their cycle of moving residences and changing schools would soon end. They all looked up and shouted, “Yes!”

The children haven’t seen their future home in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood, but their mother has. “It is good,” Ahmed said shyly, but with a smile. She is still studying English. “I can see us there.”