Things didn’t go so well when Hamse Warfa, then a young teen, arrived in the United States with his middle-class family of 16 as refugees in 1994. They landed in Colorado, where they were the only Somali family in their new neighborhood. 

Then came the Colorado winter.

“My mom was like, ‘Where’s the closest place we can go with no snow?'” recalled Hamse, who is now very familiar with snow as Minnesota’s deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). 

The next stop was San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood. It didn’t have snow, but it did have a high level of crime. Still, it turned out to be Hamse’s starting point for a career that he says has focused on building bridges between decision-makers and those affected by their decisions. 

For the many Somali refugees in City Heights, the crime, debilitated school system, and lack of resources were nothing compared to the civil war they fled. Hamse said there were so many immigrants in City Heights, he remembered dozens of languages being spoken within a 10-block radius. 

Resources were short, he recalled. “On the other hand, in San Diego we found a sense of welcoming. We could feel that we’re dignified people.”

In San Diego, Hamse learned how to navigate government social services for his family and got his own start in nonprofit community advocacy work. A couple of decades later, he was appointed to the deputy commissioner position in April 2019, responsible for Minnesota’s employment, training, and grant-making programs.

“I see myself as a bridge—bridge between different sectors, bridge between different ethnicities,” Hamse said. “It can be a tough space, but it’s also a powerful position to be in.”

It’s not the most glamorous job, but it affects the lives of Minnesotans every day. When he was appointed, Hamse decided his first priority would be to address economic disparities for communities of color in Minnesota.

Among his responsibilities is overseeing the Office of Economic Opportunity at DEED, which addresses economic disparities for communities of color in areas of employment and business development.* He also serves on the governor’s workforce development board, which creates plans to increase jobs in the state. Hamse is in charge of providing training programs to help people become more competitive job candidates. The bulk of his time is spent developing grants for nonprofit organizations, many of whom are working to address racial disparities in economic opportunity. 

As the highest-ranking African state government official in Minnesota, Hamse has reimagined how Minnesota boosts economic opportunities for everyone. In his second year in office, Hamse had lofty goals to address income inequality. The COVID-19 pandemic put those on hold, but revealed the need for economic relief in the state’s communities of color.

During the pandemic, he’s ramped up $60 million in grant funding for small businesses in financial hardship. 

DEED announced Wednesday that it held the first in a series of meetings to bring advocates together with state leaders to identify concerns affecting immigrants and refugees, who make up a large part of the workforce, Hamse said. Between 2010 and 2018, foreign-born people made up 60 percent of Minnesota’s labor force growth, according to the American Community Survey. Hamse added their participation is growing.

Hamse and his diverse team at DEED have launched other initiatives including creating the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs and an assistant commissioner position to lead it, virtual training through a program called Coursera, and a more robust grantmaking system. 

Top state officials say Hamse, whose job is to reach all communities in Minnesota, pushes for state programs across the board to reach immigrant communities and communities of color.

In a statement to Sahan Journal, Governor Tim Walz described Hamse as a “smart, compassionate, and connected leader with deep roots in Minnesota’s immigrant and business communities.”

“He always is very clear that his job is to ensure that the most impacted people are centered in the conversations,” Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan said. “That’s just evident in everything he does.”

Hamse said he’s received comments on social media claiming he was appointed to the position as a diversity candidate. “In the era of Trump, those are the kinds of things that people like myself and other executive leaders experience that my colleagues, who are white, don’t,” Hamse said. It only took two degrees, Ph.D. coursework, 20 years of experience in philanthropy and economic development, and the lived experience of a refugee to get Hamse where he is today.

From soccer to basketball, and refugee to advocate

Hamse grew up in an affluent suburb of Mogadishu, where his most vivid memories are of going to the beach and playing soccer. Hamse’s parents were successful entrepreneurs. His father, Mohamed, was a livestock trader. His mother, Hindisa, ran a clothing store. Hamse recalled having 20–30 people living in his house at any given time. Along with his family of 16, they would often host some people in need of shelter. Naturally, Hamse said he grew up to be quite social.

When civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, Hamse’s comfortable life was upended. As a teenager, Hamse relocated to the Otanga refugee camp in Kenya, and eventually the Dadaab refugee camp. 

“It was daunting,” Hamse recalled, “moving from playing soccer in a Mogadishu suburb to lining up for water.”

The Warfa family spent 3 ½ years in Dadaab before resettling in the United States.

In San Diego, Hamse traded soccer for basketball. The closest basketball courts were at Colin Park in City Heights. After playing a few games, Hamse would sometimes walk to one of his favorite Mediterranean restaurants. Hamse also recalled gathering at Colin Park with other Muslims in City Heights for Eid, too.

Hamse volunteered for the Horn of Africa, a nonprofit advocacy group for East Africans. By 2001, he was the associate executive director of the organization. During this time, he also received his bachelor’s degree in political science at San Diego State University. After graduating, he immediately pursued a master’s in organizational management and leadership at Springfield College in San Diego.

Hamse also worked in philanthropy and gained experience in grantmaking for the Alliance Healthcare Foundation in San Diego, and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation in Eden Prairie. Altogether, Hamse came to DEED with 20 years of experience in the public and private sectors. In 2014, he also published his autobiography, America Here I Come: A Somali Refugee’s Quest for Hope.

Hamse would often visit Minnesota, given its large Somali population. His wife lived here, and they decided to move back to be closer to her family. At the time, he was pursuing a Ph.D. in leadership studies at Hamline University.

As a Bush fellow in 2016, Hamse founded BanQu, a blockchain service for “underbanked” people. The purpose of the software was to address extreme poverty and provide access to credit and bank services for refugees. That way, they can develop a credit history and economic identity. Hamse took a leave from his Ph.D. studies. He said he felt like he got the opportunity to finally do work he had simply been studying.

Before he was appointed deputy commissioner of DEED, Hamse also founded the Tayo Consulting group, another initiative to address poverty. The group came up with systemic solutions to improve the health, education, economic opportunities, and social protection for vulnerable families.

“I’ve been doing peacebuilding work for most of my life because of the role that violence played in my life,” he said. “We have important roles to fill as immigrants, as people of color who are facing structural barriers.”

Hamse said he was hesitant when Walz encouraged him to apply for the position at DEED. “I come from tech entrepreneurship and community-building work,” he said. “I really didn’t see myself as a state government official.”

But Walz and Flanagan made clear that they wanted diverse leadership for the state government, and Hamse had noticed more Somali immigrants running for and winning elected positions throughout Minnesota. 

As an appointee, his work hasn’t always been as visible as elected officials’. Still, the position was merit-based, and he joked that should count for something.

“I’m the highest Somali American official in state government. Enormous responsibility comes with that,” Hamse added on a more serious note. “I wasn’t hired for immigrants, I was hired for the entire state.”

DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said Hamse immediately struck him as someone who is deeply passionate.

“He has the heart of an activist, but the mannerisms of a diplomat,” Grove said. “When Hamse speaks, people listen.”

At a time when people of color and immigrants in the workforce are increasing, Grove said that the agency needed someone like Hamse who understands their role in the economy both intellectually and personally. Grove said Hamse also understands the ways in which they’ve been left out of important conversations.

“In government, certain muscles get built up over time, and there’s a sort of standard way of doing things that is oftentimes not reexamined,” Grove said. He added Hamse has made sustainable changes at the agency, despite the barriers of bureaucracy.

Reimagining economic relief during the pandemic

For Grove, Hamse’s most successful initiative has been reimagining how DEED administers grants. Hamse got in a car and drove all across Minnesota to meet with the leaders of nonprofits so they were aware of grant opportunities. He also simplified the application process. As a result, Grove said he’s seen a major shift in the organizations receiving DEED grants. 

“He completely reimagined it to be a full statewide outreach effort to engage community-based organizations, immigrant leaders, and workforce leaders across the state,” Grove said. “Anytime we roll anything out, we’re doing it in conjunction with the community.”

The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs at DEED, headed by entrepreneur and activist Anisa Hajimumin, is one of the first of its type in the country. 

Anisa said she answers to communities facing endless barriers. 

“Most of the conversations we have, it’s about bringing the right people together: Who’s an ally to fulfilling this ‘One Minnesota’ goal?” Anisa said. “What can we do to educate white folks that really don’t understand the struggles BIPOC community members face, despite their economic capabilities? And how can we amplify our leadership to highlight the contribution of BIPOC communities?”

Hamse has been able to offer some unique approaches. Respecting the elderly, for example, is heavily emphasized in immigrant communities, Anisa said. So Hamse knows that in communities of color, it’s very important to connect with the elders. 

Anisa recalled a Native American liaison who recently praised Hamse for the way he held meetings with tribal leaders—with respect, close attention, and care for the elders.

These meetings were crucial for DEED’s response to the pandemic. 

According to the research group Minnesota Compass, workers of color, particularly Black and Native American communities are more likely to have filed for unemployment insurance since the pandemic hit in March.

According to data collected from the U.S. Census and Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, workers of color in the state are more likely to have filed for unemployment insurance. Credit: Minnesota Compass

When COVID-19 first hit Minnesota’s economy, Hamse knew that he had to include displaced workers of color in any of DEED’s recovery efforts. He organized $30 million in emergency loans for small businesses struggling to remain operational, as well as $60 million in grant funding given to businesses in increments of $10,000. For people who lost their jobs—or work in a sector that will likely not bounce back after the pandemic—Hamse launched a program offering more than 4,000 virtual training courses for in-demand jobs. DEED has also been hosting virtual career fairs. One of them was specifically designed for immigrants and refugees.

The police killing of George Floyd, and the discussion of economic opportunity lacking in the Black community was a defining moment for Hamse. “I knew I needed to act as one of the key leaders of color in the Walz administration,” he said.

“All my life I’ve been a bridge. I’ve been navigating, negotiating, advocating for community needs, but also taking the message of the administration to the community,” Hamse said. “A big component of it is addressing the deficits that lead people to ending up in the justice system: it’s about job creation, it’s about an inclusive economy, it’s about providing opportunities.”

In the next year, Hamse said his main priority will have to be providing pandemic relief. The state has a lot of programs, but those who most need them often don’t have access. Then, there are questions of transportation, language barriers, and childcare. “These are issues that the state needs to tackle in a more holistic approach,” he said.

Only then will the state be on track to meet Hamse’s long-term goal: Creating a truly equitable economy.

*Correction and clarification: This story has been modified to better reflect the differing responsibilities of the Office of Economic Opportunity at DEED and the Department of Human Services. The story has also been clarified to recognize the visibility of Hamse Warfa’s role as DEED deputy commissioner.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.