Remembering Hamza Warsame: Family Presses On As Questions Surrounding Teens Death Remain Unanswered

by Goorish Wibneh

 Hamza Warsame, the Seattle Central College student whose death after falling from a building was ruled an accident last month, is remembered as amiable and go-to technology wizard by his family and friends.

Warsame, who aspired to study Computer Science at MIT, was a generous, community-oriented 16-year-old who always lent a hand to classmates needing help in school.

He was the darling of his mother. “Hamza was amazing guy,“ said Mrs. Warsame, who occasionally spoke in English during a brief video conference interview translated from Somali by Ikram Warsame, Hamza’s older sister.

“Honestly, my mom loved him…We are all her children but Hamza did have a special place with her,” Ikram said. “My mom is sweet… for Hamza, I guess, she felt different about him. He was the only child she named herself. But the rest of us were all named by relatives.”

Hamza, a Somali-American Muslim, died in the late afternoon of December 5, 2015 after plunging from a Capitol Hill building. At the time of his death family thought he was inside a Seattle Central class room working on a group assignment. In ensuing days, community members engaged in passionate protest after the teen’s family members alleged a lack of transparency and thoroughness during the Seattle Police Department’s investigation.

The meme, #Justice4hamza started soon after on social media, sparking several rallies demanding additional clarity from law enforcement around Hamza’s case. The incident grabbed national media attention, as speculation ran rampant Warsame was a victim of hate crime amid anti-Muslim rhetoric spewed by presidential candidates on the campaign trail.

According to both Ikram and Mohamed Abdi (a cousin of Hamza), the family has consulted with an attorney and the King County NAACP, and is weighing bringing a wrongful death case against those who were with Hamza at the moment of his death. Additional community rallies and a press conference by the family are expected soon.

The unexpected death of a favorite son and exceptional student has left the family in disbelief, including Ikram.

Ikram 2
Ikram Warsame. Photo Credit: Goorish Wibneh

On the day of Hamza’s death, her father and cousin picked her up from her job at the downtown Forever 21. On the ride home, she asked about each member of the family before finally getting around to Hamza.

“It hit us pretty hard because out of the people in our family, we didn’t expect Hamza…,” said Ikram still struggling to make sense of her brother’s death.

Despite a King County Medical examiner ruling his death an accident, a subdued mother believes three things might have contributed to Hamza’s death : he was African American, he was a Muslim and he was enviable as a person.

“He was a very knowledgeable boy, very smart boy and very sweet boy, “she said, “And it’s because of the jealousy that was surrounding him that he’s gone now. ”

She mentioned anti-Muslim speeches by Donald Trump as encouraging hate-crimes across the country.

Ikram is apologetic of her mother’s “strong feelings” that Hamza was killed based on “emotions”. She says all the family wanted was to see exactly what investigators were viewing. She expresses resentment towards the SPD, as they were initially unreachable by the family after repeated attempt to contact them during the investigation. The SPD finally reached out to the family via a Twitter account Ikram set up to counter some of the wanton speculation and character assassination directed at Hamza in the aftermath of his death.

She and her family continue to have misgivings about the mystery and inaccessibility of the person they keep referring to as the “white guy,” Hamza’s alleged college classmate who was with Hamza during the time of his fall.

Abdi, who is 19, alleged the police didn’t receive word from this person, who took more than two days to speak to police after Hamza’s death. Ikram is very cautious about releasing the man’s name, saying only that she believes he is much older than Hamza, somewhere in the age range of early to mid-twenties.

Initially ruled a suicide, the family believes the public pressure on Seattle officials was instrumental in Hamza’s case being reassessed.

The media crush in the wake of his death became so overwhelming for the low-key immigrant family that much of the responsibility interfacing with the public fell on Ikram.

The Warsames moved from Somalia to the US in 1994 as refugees. The father now works as a cab driver at the Tukwila International Airport, while the mother is a home maker. All five children of their children were born at the University of Washington Hospital when the family lived in Tukwilla. They moved to Rainier Vista in 2006.

Hamza would have celebrated his 17th birthday next month, perhaps together with Ikram who is two years older, and whose birthday is only one day apart from Hamza’s.

The two joined their sister Ifrah , 20, the eldest child, and two 14 year-old twin boys who are currently in Africa, in making up the Warsame clan. (All of them have visited Africa except Ikram and Hamza who planned to visit this summer. Ikram will be visiting Africa alone).

Growing up, the siblings were very close with each other, an older sibling would help take care of the immediate younger. In this family arrangement, despite “sibling rivalry”, Hamza was Ikram’s to protect and nurture.

Ikram who’s only 18 still conducts her duty, but now it is in the form of honoring her late brother in the face of heavy public scrutiny and “weird” speculations.

Hamza attended Thorndyke Elementary, in Tukwila, and Asa Mercer Middle School, in Seattle.

He was a junior at Rainier Beach High School when he started the Running Start program at Seattle Central College.

“My father and I decided to try to convince him to do the Running Start [program] because it essentially gives you two years of advanced courses,” Ikram said.

“In the end, he did agree, but then he agreed that he would only try for one month to see if it kind of fit him”. Otherwise, he would just go only to high school.”

He ended up liking it, according to Ikram. “He felt like he was a grown up; It was something that he never experienced before, there was no teacher around to tell him what to do all the time, he felt, I guess, free educational wise.”

He intended to do what Ikram did, graduate with an associate’s degree. After that he wanted to join MIT.

According to Ikram, Hamza was fascinated by video game design and the prospective salary a job would in the industry would offer. He often expressed his interest to in Computer Science.  Abdi describes Hamza as “scholar” who was also committed to studying the Quran.

“He did have a bright future definitely,” Ikram said, “All I remember is a bunch of awards in school. It’s so much.” She particularly remembers a few, including a year in elementary school when he was named an Outstanding Student of the Month three times.

Not only was Hamza inquisitive, according to both Ikram and Abdi, but he also liked to help friends with their lessons. An international student recently told  Abdi that he was able to pass a course at Seattle Central with Hamza’s support.

Although “social,” Hamza told his curious sister little about his friends at Seattle Central, he did bring many neighborhood friends home, which was not always convenient for Ikram.

Of his friends she said, “You’d see them in and out the house a lot, at the park playing basketball. They absolutely loved him. It would be to a point I would sort of get annoyed, because there would be a lot of boys in the house and I would be trying to do my own thing, sometimes I’d just go somewhere else and he would have the house to himself.”

Prior to his death, Hamza joined the Somali Student Association Club, a fact Ikram found out about after his death, although she had been aware of his interest in it. According to Abdi, he was picking up on the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to cooperate with similar social justice groups, because Somali Americans were “sort of”  Black in America.

However, Hamza had not expressed any concern or hostility towards anyone, according to his family  and friends.

Neither does Ikram.

“Seattle has always been my home. I’ve never experienced a source of hate myself from anyone because of how I look or my scarf or anything. So I am thankful for that,” she said, “but there have been some people from the community who stepped up and shared stories.”

She said she absolutely respects and appreciates those who shared stories. “But then at the same time, I don’t want that to be associated with my brother’s case,” she says trying to negotiate among multiple competing issues, “because we don’t know at this point if it was an anti-islam or anti-African American or anti-black hate crime.”

Mrs. Warsame also profusely expressed her gratitude at the outpouring of support from the community.

“Thank you very, very, very much to all of them, not just the people here, whatever country, Muslim, non-Muslim. They talked to us, called us  and send us their condolences,” she said mixing a few English appreciative terms in a predominantly Somali dialogue, “they were all shocked that a 16-year-old who was so good is now dead.”

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