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Conn. Attorneys Take On the Challenge of Opening Office in Somalia
The Connecticut Law Tribune
Perhaps they're opportunists. Or maybe just dreamers.
One thing is for certain -- they're plenty brave.
Two West Hartford, Conn., lawyers with a successful practice are about to give up their comfortable lifestyle and hang up a shingle in the dangerous, war-torn country of Somalia in Africa.
"This seems like something that makes sense to me. Something I can be proud of," said attorney Ryan Bausch.
Bausch, a Quinnipiac University School of Law graduate, did some criminal defense law in Middletown, Conn., before deciding to share office space in West Hartford with former Quinnipiac classmate Abdul Abdurahman, who focuses on immigration law.
Before long, the two were sharing legal expenses and tips on their respective practice areas. Ultimately, they decided to name their West Hartford office The Law Offices of Bausch & Abdurahman. In about five years, the practice has grown to six attorneys, with clients calling from all over New England, as well as other parts of the East Coast and the West Coast. The firm mostly represents immigrants.
"You do a good case for somebody and they tell 10 other people," said Abdurahman.
In the past couple of years, the two lawyers discussed what else they might be able to do to make a difference going forward.
Abdurahman, who was born and raised in Somalia before leaving at age 22, had the opportunity to attend peace conferences in London, England and Turkey. There, he met some senior Somali government officials.
He learned more about what was happening in his homeland. People, like members of his family, left to avoid persecution by the al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate whose arrival in the southern half of the country in the last decade led to several years of war. Abdurahman remembered Mogadishu, a cultured seaside city with immigrants from various countries, including Great Britain and Italy. But al-Shabaab came in and wanted everyone to wear hijabs and follow extreme Islamic doctrine. Some non-followers were dismembered, even beheaded.
Abdurahman was told that things are starting to change for the better in Somalia. In September, there will be a presidential election, as the country hopes to set up its first stable government since 1991. That president-elect will then pick a new prime minister.
Abdurahman said many Somalians fled to Canada, England or the United States, became highly educated and are now giving up their comfortable lifestyles to return to Somalia to help rebuild. "They were there when it was dangerous and risked their lives," said Abdurahman. "It's gotten better and we have them to thank."
'RECONSTRUCTION AND HOPE'
The only thing missing, government officials told Abdurahman, was a legal presence. So Abdurahman talked it over with Bausch and they decided to visit Somalia and see it for themselves.
Even though family members and friends told them "don't go, it's very dangerous," the two lawyers left in July and visited Mogadishu. The Sahafi Hotel, where they stayed, provided the men round-the-clock security, especially for Bausch, who as an American was a potential kidnapping target.
Despite the warnings and danger, Bausch saw something else. "I saw reconstruction and hope," said Bausch. "I didn't see crime on the streets. I didn't see guys with guns. Open rebuilding is what I saw."
Abdurahman and Bausch met with six government cabinet members in Mogadishu and the public officials expressed their desire to have the Connecticut men come to Somalia and open a law office. The two lawyers wouldn't be handling criminal or immigration cases but other areas important to an emerging nation -- oil and gas law, maritime law, international trade and writing legislation.
As an example, the lawyers said, as Somalia opens back up to international business, American companies that have previously drilled for oil in regions with large petroleum reserves will likely try to reclaim their interests. "These companies will need someone to interpret these [new government] regulations and how it affects them," added Bausch. "Our focus is on getting business back to Somalia."
The two lawyers extended their stay in Mogadishu from four to eight days and registered with government officials so they could legally practice law there. Their American legal training and qualifications were sufficient. Abdurahman is licensed to practice in Connecticut. Bausch has been admitted to the bars of Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.
The two men intend to visit Somalia again in the fall and register to practice law in the Hargeisa region, which is in the northern part of the country and still has a separate government. Ultimately, Bausch and Abdurahman plan to open an office in a business district of Mogadishu. They plan to relocate there anywhere from six months to one year from now.
"Some people are fearful of going to Mogadishu," said Bausch. "They think it's the same Mogadishu as in the movies." Mogadishu was the setting for Black Hawk Down, a 2001 film based on the 1993 battles between U.S. Army forces and Somali militia fighters.
"Once there's peace and security, Somalia will take off," said Abdurahman. "The question is … will you be there from the beginning?"
PLENTY OF CHALLENGES
Bausch said his safety will be a concern, especially when he first moves to Somalia. Further, he acknowledged he will encounter a language barrier. But Abdurahman speaks the Somali language fluently. And, Bausch said, plenty of people in Somalia do speak English.
There will be other challenges. The attorneys must determine how many staffers to hire for the Somali firm. They're thinking anywhere from 20 to 50. If they do well, maybe that will grow to 100. They already have some help lined up -- Abdurahman's brother, the business manager of the West Hartford firm, will accompany them.
The other four lawyers will stay behind and continue the practice.
And with whom might they contract with for legal services? The government? Businesses? Abdurahman admits that he and his partner are taking a significant financial risk. But he said the decision to go has been made, and it's now simply a matter of working out the logistics.
"It's time to get down to business," Abdurahman said. "Sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is. We're very excited about it. Only time will tell if we made a wise decision.
"We'll be the little Connecticut law firm that's gone international."