'Don't give up on your passion': Hodan Nalayeh remembered as media trailblazer

Somali-Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh was killed Friday in an attack by extremist group al-Shabaab in the Somali port city of Kismayo. She was 43.

Somali-Canadian journalist, 43, killed in attack in Somalian coastal city of Kismayo

Hodan Nalayeh, shown here on a hill overlooking the city of Garoe, was born in the northern Somalian city of Las Anod but moved with her parents and 11 siblings to Alberta in the winter of 1984. (Hodan Nalayeh/Facebook via Canadian Press)

As bombings and attacks rocked Somalia in recent years, Canadian-Somalian journalist Hodan Nalayeh found what she believed was a higher calling: Showcasing the hidden beauty of her homeland and its people.

On Twitter, she shared posts featuring marine life dangling from the hands of fishermen, a small boat setting out in cerulean waters, and locals holding leopard-spotted stingrays.

"Dried fish is big business on the island of #Ilisi. They call this fish 'Shabeelka Bada,' or 'tiger of the ocean,'" Nalayeh wrote Thursday.

"People save all their lives to have a retirement by the beach, yet we have plenty of it and cannot see its value. Let's appreciate the beautiful blessings we have," she wrote in an earlier posting.

On Friday, the journalist dedicated to telling positive stories from a country suffering through decades of civil war, extremist attacks and famine was killed along with her husband, Farid Jama Suleiman, entrepreneur Mahad Nur and at least 23 others after a bomb exploded outside the Asasey Hotel in the Somalian city of Kismayo and gunmen stormed inside. Fifty-six other people were wounded in the attack, according to the Jubbaland regional president.

Somalia's Islamic extremist rebels, al-Shabaab, claimed responsibility for the 14-hour assault that ended as troops killed the gunmen.

On Saturday, friends and family reeled as they heard that Nalayeh, 43, a journalist and mother expecting her third child, was among the dead.

'Always very inspiring'

Maaz Khan, a 24-year-old filmmaker in Toronto, said Nalayeh had shared her hard-earned wisdom when he met her a few years ago.

"She was always very inspiring," he told The Associated Press. "She would say, 'It's tough in the beginning, but always push through and don't give up on your passion.'"

Ahmed Hussen, Canada's minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, mourned the journalist's death, saying on Twitter that she "highlighted the community's positive stories and contributions in Canada" through her work.

"We mourn her loss deeply, and all others killed in the #KismayoAttack," he said.

In an April 2015 post on Twitter, Hodan Nalayeh is seen posing with former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne. (HodanTV/Twitter)

Move to Canada

Nalayeh was born in the northern Somalian city of Las Anod but moved with her parents and 11 siblings to Alberta in the winter of 1984, arriving on a day when temperatures dropped to –40 C. Her father, a former Somali diplomat, took a job as a parking attendant, she told in a 2014 interview.

The family relocated to Toronto in 1992, and Nalayeh later completed a bachelor of arts in communications from the University of Windsor and worked in sales and business, she said.

In the podcast Meaningful Work, Meaningful Life, Nalayeh said that she made a mid-career pivot, going back to school to earn a postgraduate certificate in broadcast journalism and fulfill her childhood dream of being a journalist and television host. She became the world's first woman Somali media owner, according to statements she made to Canada's Status of Women committee in 2014.

Platform to tell Somali stories

In 2014, she launched the Integration TV platform as a way to tell Somali stories, moving to the coastal city of Kismayo in 2018 to continue her work after visiting Somalia several times.

The platform, widely known among members of the Somali diaspora, had gained hundreds of thousands of social media followers in the last five years. It also led Nalayeh to meet Suleiman, who was recently helping to build a drinking well in the drought-stricken African country. The couple was married last November in Kenya, according to her sister.

Saciido Shaie, a Somali activist in Minnesota, said Nalayeh had wanted her two sons and younger generations of the Somalian diaspora to know about her country of birth.

"She was like, 'I will take this platform and I will use it to shed a light both to Somalians in Somalia and Somalians outside,'" Shaie said, adding she was "heartbroken" at her death.

Aw Hirsi, who knew Nalayeh's husband from their time together as government ministers in Jubbaland, described him as a dedicated husband.

"He was a magnificent, creative guy who deeply cared for the [average] man. He was so kind, so understanding and down to earth," Hirsi said.

Shaie said when someone asked Nalayeh what she would like to be remembered for, the journalist said she didn't want to be "famous and all of that."

Rather, she said, Nalayeh responded: "I just want people to remember me as someone who is a unifier."