The ongoing civil war has caused serious damage to Somalia’s infrastructure and economy. Thousands of Somalis have either left as economic migrants or fled as refugees. Most spent months, if not years, in refugee camps aboard. Around 200,000 Somalis refugees have fled to Yemen and roughly 50,000 to the UAE. There are around 150,000 Somalis living in Canada, 100,000 in the UK and 85,000 in the US.
Within Somali, more than a million people are internally displaced.
“There are more than 1.1 million people displaced from their homes and their original places of living. 1.1 million people. There’s certainly nearly that same number who are reliant upon food assistance from the United Nations agency and other donors, nearly a million people who can’t meet their own food needs,” says Nicholas Kay, United Nations special representative for Somalia.
Somalia receives aid from both the UN and the Arab League – of which it is a member – how it’s allocated and where it goes can sometimes appear inconsistent.
Many Somalis have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, hoping to return to Somalia once the civil war dies down. Ethiopia has become home to 4.6 million Somalis and Kenya to over 2 million. After a series of Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya starting in 2011, the Kenyan government began ordering Somalis back into refugee camps and some to return to Somalia.
Other Somalis have even fled to war-torn Libya, a hub for human traffickers who export them to the full. From there, they must make the often treacherous sea journey to Europe and then by land to onward destinations. Those who survive can encounter a wide range of problems – but sometimes find help from established Somali communities.
With the collapse of government, Somalis have often turned to their tribes, clans and sub-clans to fill the void, and clan allegiances can extend beyond Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya into the diaspora. “The clan is a wonderful form of insurance,” says the BBC’s Africa Editor, Mary Harper. “Because if I arrive in London and I’m from a particular Somali clan, I’ll find my Somali clan brothers and sisters and they’ll look after me. If I don’t have any money, they’ll give me money to maybe start a business and maybe I’ll pay it back. If I don’t have anywhere to live, they’ll help me find somewhere to live. So they really, really look after each other.”
“The Somali community in the UK has been in existence long before the state collapsed,” says Laura Hammond, Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. “As a community the Somali community is suffering quite a lot from a lack of integration which is caused not just by their own difficulties, learning the language or figuring out so-called British life. But it’s also about structural exclusions that are put in place. So it’s very difficult for them to find jobs, it’s very difficult for them to solve their immigration status. It can take them years to actually gain citizenship.”
Abdi Warsame and Abdirizak Bihi are part of the Somali community in Minneapolis in Minnesota state in the US. Warsame has become an elected member of Minneapolis City Council and has worked hard to ensure that his people are properly and evenly represented at the municipal level. Bihi runs the Somali Education Advocacy Center: “In 1996 I moved here from Washington DC to work with the refugees I’ve seen in camps. So I knew the challenges they’ll face here. I became an interpreter, a counselor, a cultural broker. We’d train them to or help get Somali speaking personnel so they could address the issues that the new Americans were facing. And it’s not really easy to be black, Muslim and immigrant.”
When Aboukar Awale came to the UK in 1997, he found mafrishes, cafes where Somali men would drink tea and chew the addictive stimulant khat. He himself became an addict – but the drug is now banned in the UK, thanks to the campaign spearheaded by Awale. However, it’s still a big problem among young Somalis and so he’s now taken his campaign to the streets of Somalia itself: “I thought if I am lucky, then what about the children of Somalia, and those being raised who think khat is a good thing? And that’s how I started this campaign.”
Like many Somalis across the diaspora, Awale hopes deeply that one day he’ll be able to return to help re-build his homeland: “It will happen inshallah. It might not happen in ten years; it might not happen in maybe 20 years. But one day… It just breaks my heart. But inshallah, Somalia will come back. Someday Somalia will be back.”
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