The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 25, 2013

Daughters spend summer delving into democracy

From ditch hearings to the U.S. Supreme Court

By Mark Fischenich
The Mankato Free Press

---- — MANKATO — Abdi Sabrie's five daughters had a summer-long look at all levels of American government this year.

They met state lawmakers at a small town parade. They visited Washington, D.C. They chatted with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken. They toured the Supreme Court. They experienced a preliminary hearing on Blue Earth County Ditch 34 and then got a bonus preliminary ditch hearing on County Ditch 28.

That Blue Earth County Board meeting on June 11, with its heavy emphasis on agricultural drainage, kicked off the summer of government. But neither ditch hearing made the highlights list of the Sabrie girls.

"The Supreme Court," said Wardah, 17, of her personal favorite. "They explained how the justice system works."

Sumia, 9, likes the head-start she'll have as she studies government and science in school in the years ahead.

"We got to go to the museums and learn about stuff, so that when we grow up we'll already know," said Sumia, who also enjoyed the breakfast served by Franken to Minnesotans visiting his office.

Samira, 8, was impressed by the digs of Minnesota's senior U.S. senator.

"I saw her office," Samira said of Klobuchar. "It was soooo cool."

So, what about the county board meeting? With the ditch hearings? And the drainage inspector's reports? And the May financial status update?

No, that level of government didn't match Washington, D.C., for thrills, but it offered exceptional hospitality. The board's clerk gave the girls a box of cookies that had gone uneaten due to sparse attendance at the meeting, and the commissioners invited the four Sabries on hand that day to their post-meeting lunch at Uncle Albert's Cafe in Eagle Lake for burgers and conversation. A couple of the commissioners in particular gave them tips on what to visit in Washington and asked them to give their regards to certain members of Congress.

"Drew Campbell and Vance Stuehrenberg," said Sumia, recalling the commissioners and proving the girls were paying attention even at the lower levels of government.

As executive director of the African Family Education Center in Mankato, Sabrie has been working for years to educate new immigrants about American government. And he regularly intervenes on behalf of immigrants with political leaders from Mankato City Council members to county commissioners to legislators to the Minnesota congressional delegation.

"So it occurred to me, why don't I educate my children, start with my household?" said Sabrie, a native of Somalia.

Plus, since his work so often involves government, it was important to him that his children get a hint of what he does for a living. They got their first trip to the nation's capital in 2012 when Sabrie was one of the recipients of the Jefferson Awards for Public Service, but the visit was so brief that he decided they needed to return.

With his pregnant wife staying home and his son attending a basketball camp, Sabrie loaded the five daughters — including recent East High School graduate Amran — in their mini-van and headed east. While it was a potentially daunting road trip, he takes government seriously and wants to pass on that reverence for democracy to his family.

When Sabrie left Somalia in 1982, the east-African nation had a functioning government but it was far from democratic. When he returned in 1992, working as an interpreter and cultural adviser for the U.S. Department of Defense in a period made famous by the book and movie "Black Hawk Down," the country had descended into a civil war and was without a functioning central government of any sort.

"Even when we had a government, it was a different kind of government — a military dictatorship ... rather than a government of the people," he said.

The idea of common citizens trying to organize for change was impossible.

"There's no social activism. You go to jail if you get involved in something like that," Sabrie said.

While American democracy might not be working flawlessly right now, to say the least, he remains impressed.

"There's always problems, but it's something you can speak about at a minimum. And you can even organize and take action and change things for the better."

The nation's capital also has some powerful images for Muslim Americans. In the Supreme Court building, lawgivers from throughout history are carved into its walls — including the prophet Muhammad, along with Moses, Confucius, Solomon and others. The Sabries saw in the Library of Congress the copy of the Koran owned by Thomas Jefferson.

"That put in perspective for us that this is a country that kind of put together perspectives of all people and all ideology," Sabrie said.

Although those sorts of lessons were the purpose of the trip, Sabrie also made sure his daughters had plenty of opportunity for the traditional activities of a summertime cross-country family trip. There was swimming in hotel pools, visits with cousins to shopping malls, a stop at the National Zoo, a chance to see the dinosaurs at the Smithsonian's natural history museum, paddle boat rides on the Tidal Basin ... .

"Oh yeah!" Samira said, remembering the latter. "We started splashing water on each other. And you guys got stuck!"

The bigger lessons stuck, too.

"Executive, judicial and legislative," Sumia answered when Wardah quizzed her on the three branches of government. And then she explained what each branch does.

So what does the legislative branch of county government do? You know, the county board.

Six-year-old Sarah had the answer for that one: "They just talk and talk."

At the moment, none of the Sabrie daughters is talking about filing for a county board seat in the future, although their dad is making a run for the Mankato School Board.

Minnesota politicians at higher levels, however, might want to keep a wary eye in the direction of Mankato. For Klobuchar and Franken in particular, a challenge may be coming in a couple of decades when Samira reaches the minimum age to run for U.S. Senate. Both times that the Sabrie family posed for a photo with one of Minnesota's senators, Samira made sure to get a one-on-one shot with each lawmaker, as well.

And Klobuchar received fair warning when she asked the 8-year-old what she wants to be when she grows up.

"She said she wanted to be the next senator," Sabrie said.

Which maybe suggests Sabrie got his most important message across this summer.

"That this is their country and there's no limitations to what they can do in life," he said.

Klobuchar seemed to want to send the same message, even if it meant encouraging a potential opponent.

"She said, 'Go to my office, sit in the chair, see if you like it,'" Samira said.