Local TV host Hodan Nalayeh poses for pictures with a table full of Somali food at Bilal restaurant in Rexdale, Ontario. (Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Hodan Nalayeh spent the last days of her life doing what she loved most: sharing a side of Somalia rarely depicted in the West. On Twitter, she posted photos of young boys grinning on the island of Ilisi, fresh fish and lobsters pulled straight from the Indian Ocean and a colorful sunset from the port city of Kismayo.
“It was an incredible day to witness #Somalia’s beauty,” the Somali-Canadian journalist wrote.
Then, on Friday, al-Shabab militants stormed the Asasey Hotel in Kismayo, killing at least 26 people, including Nalayeh, 43, and her husband, Farid Jama Suleiman. Another 56 people were wounded. It took around 14 hours for Somali security forces to regain control of the hotel, where several tribal elders and another journalist, Mohamed Sahal Omar, were also killed. At least one American was also among the dead, the State Department confirmed.
Nalayeh’s death came as a particular shock to the Somali diaspora, where the YouTube star was seen as a relentless optimist — someone who found a way to always see the best of humanity in a country where so many others seemed to only see the worst.
Raised in Canada, Nalayeh founded Integration TV, an English-language channel that shared positive stories from Somalia and the diaspora. The mother of two recently moved back to Somalia in order to highlight the people and stories so often overlooked in other news outlets after decades of war: men and women breaking ground on a new library, female business owners selling clothes in a marketplace, camel herders sharing fresh milk with her family.
The genre of stories she was committed to telling could be summed up by one of her preferred hashtags: #SomaliPositivity. And her stories found a wide audience, particularly on YouTube, where she had more than 60,000 followers. In comments, viewers would often refer to her as a “role model.”
“Good job to this strong amazing Somali queen,” one wrote on a video published two weeks ago.
Her presence in Somalia sparked hope among those in the diaspora looking for proof that they too could one day return to their ancestral homeland, said Mukhtar Ibrahim, the executive director of Sahan Journal, a nonprofit news organization covering immigrant communities in Minnesota, where there is a large Somali population.
“She left her comfortable life in Canada to go to Somalia, and that’s a big risk for a lot of people in the diaspora,” Ibrahim said. “That’s the saddest part, that a lot of people cannot wrap around their heads around. She was doing her best, she wasn’t taking sides, she wasn’t into politics, she wasn’t critical of the groups that were fighting. She was just trying to do good storytelling about her community.”
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.
It is with great sorrow & regret we confirm the unexpected & tragic loss of Hodan Nalayeh & her husband Farid Jama Suleiman.Please keep Hodan & Farid in your duas. I’s the wish of our family that you honor our privacy at this time of mourning. pic.twitter.com/d2FEtzjOQN
— Integration TV (@IntegrationTV) July 13, 2019
Asad Hussein, a Somali writer and student at Princeton University, said Nalayeh strayed from narratives that portrayed Somalis only as “victims trapped in a vicious circle of conflicts.”
“She understood, as every good storyteller does, that the little moments in life matter just as much as the big ones,” he wrote in a message to The Washington Post. “Hodan noticed the people bathing in the ocean, the orchards in the courtyards, and the radiance of the setting sun, and she knew those were stories, too.”
In a recent YouTube video from Kismayo, the city where she was later killed, she sits grinning and drinking tea with young women in a marketplace. “You’re watching the best of Somalia as we show you around this beautiful town,” she said.
The 14-minute video pans to show views of the seaside and a soccer pitch, then features her laughing with a female shopkeeper and visiting a seafood processing plant. “I’m always hopeful that our great industries can be revived and rebuilt across the nation, and more importantly, in Kismayo,” she said, gesturing to the coastline. “Because this place is beautiful!”
After her death Friday, messages of grief flooded social media. Ibrahim never met Nalayeh face-to-face, but he valued her work so much that he said it felt like he had “lost a family member,” he said.
And he worried that her violent death would “discourage the most talented people in the diaspora from doing the same thing.”
“If Hodan died in that way,” he said, it’s possible others who return home “will end up in the same fate.”
But Hussein questioned what “Hodan would make of her death if she were here to witness it.”
Would she have seen it as brilliant life cut short?
“I imagine not,” he wrote. “She would see it as the beginning of a lasting memory. That was Hodan. She always looked beyond.”