Deputy Secretary Blinken Swears in Stephen Schwartz as the New U.S. Ambassador to Somalia.Photo Credit/flickr.com

The first US Ambassador to Somalia since the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident got his start in world affairs by staring at a map of Africa in a classroom at Williamsville South High School.

“In ninth grade, I had a class in Afro-Asian cultures, taught by Karen Willyoung,” recalled Stephen M. Schwartz, a career diplomat who took the oath of office Monday as the first U.S. ambassador since 1991 to serve in Somalia, one of Africa’s most volatile countries. “There was something about it that really inspired me, and I was quite interested in learning about all these parts of the world.”

So he did it, in person, first in the Peace Corps and then in a 24-year career with the US Foreign Service that has largely found Schwartz toggling between Washington and various African countries.

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And next month, Schwartz, 58, leaves for the challenge of his career: representing US interests in a country that spent the better part of two decades without a government, a country best known in America for a book and movie that told the story of the deaths of 18 American service members there in 1993, a country where the terrorist group Al-Shabaab killed 15 people in an attack in the capital only last weekend.

It’s a challenge that Steve Schwartz is most certainly up for, said two very disparate sources: Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, and Karen Willyoung.

Blinken heaped praise on Schwartz during Monday’s swearing-in ceremony, saying he was chosen for the post in Somalia after excelling at every position he has held at the State Department and its embassies around the world.

“Steve makes people feel listened to, looked at and lifted up,” Blinken said.

In the meantime, Willyoung – now 73, retired and living in Clarence – recalled Schwartz as ‘a very good student’ who dutifully memorized that map of Africa and who showed an unusual curiosity about the world beyond Buffalo.

Now, though Schwartz will have to work through a thicket of difficulties as he re-establishes an American presence in a country where the last US Embassy closed – and its diplomats fled by helicopter – amid a civil war in 1991. By late 1992, the civil war combined with a drought to cause mass starvation, which prompted then-President George H W Bush to provide military security and logistical support for the UN humanitarian aid mission.