In 2014 Jawaahir Daahir received the British Empire Medal from Her Majesty The Queen in recognition of her work with the Somali community in Leicester. She is also the founder and Managing Director of Somali Development Services, which offers support, advice and training within the Somali community and beyond, based in Leicester. This year, she returned to Somalia after three decades. She shared her story with TSIM.
Ayan Abdi Diriye
You were, last month, in Somalia after 30 years. What has made you keep away for so long?
I think the shock and disbelief of the brutal war that killed many of my family members, other Somalis and injured many including my youngest child who was 1.5 years at the time, caused many to flee for their safety. The stories that I heard about how our people were killing each other, raping women and girls including looting the public and private properties in the name of clan. This was not an easy situation to digest but also the notion that Mogadishu became a clan city instead of the capital of our country.
I am pleased that things are changing gradually now and many Somalis are recognizing that clannism isn’t the way forward.
Three decades after; what did you observe that has changed in the country? What areas/issues do you feel Somalia government should put more effort in? I think almost everything changed. The way people do business, behave and interact with each other, the structural building of Mogadishu, the gap between rich and poor, the manner people view progress and how to achieve it, the way it is governed and the political process and also people’s mindset in all the mentioned above.
I think the most important that a country has is its people, especially the youth and we are aware that 70 per cent of Somalia’s population is the young generation that mostly grew up in a society that lost everything that is foundational for human development. The civil war has destroyed our society, traditions and customs, trust between people from different clans, backgrounds and the ability to work together for the common interest of our country and people.
Any government that comes to power needs to prioritize reconciling the different clans, try to cure hearts that have been affected by the civil war and win the hearts and minds of the society. This is not an easy task but, if you try to quench a fire only from the top while you know its flaming in deep down, then the likelihood of the fire recurring is very high and it is a dangerous prospect to be in. Somalia needs to reconcile itself for ones and all and rebuild its nation through dialogue, acknowledgement, acceptation of one another and creating a healthier mindset for youth.
Are there any unexpected changes that you witnessed? Many of the places that I lived, studied or played as a child were unrecognizable. Some of them replaced with new structures while others still had visible ruins. Also, the barricades and security checks for hotels and important buildings was an astonishing one. Although one can expect such situation in a post conflict country, for me it was an emotional experience.
You engage with Somalis in diaspora on a day to day basis through your work, which are the recurring challenges for them and in general for Somalis in diaspora? Somalis in diaspora faces significant challenges in the places they live including balancing out of expectations and reality. Those living in third world face more challenges than those who live in the West including safety for themselves and their families. Many who set up their businesses in Africa are facing prejudices, discrimination and hate crimes. A good example of that is what is happening in South Africa.
For those in the West, long and uncertainty asylum and refugees’ process, unfamiliar environment, lack of skills and experience leading to high unemployment rate are some of the challenges they have to deal with. People who we are engaged in our services mainly face lack of access to mainstream services due to language and cultural barriers. Our organisation helps them with learning, training, employment, welfare, general advice and guidance through multi-lingual and qualified advisors as well as, assistance with accessing further specialized support.
The Somali community in Leicester is one of the largest in the UK. Minority communities still experience extreme scrutiny in Europe. In your work, how are you addressing the issue of tackling discrimination?
Majority of Somali diaspora in Leicester are European nationals and that is why the Brexit vote will have an impact on many of them. We are receiving many concerns from community members about this issue which has created an extra worry and uncertainty for many people.
We are addressing it in different ways including offering one-to-one support to our advisors providing information on the matter, as well as directing them to the right channels, for example if one needs a solicitor or other immigration service. Additionally, we recently organized Post-Brexit conference where we invited a range of professions including the Assistant Mayor, Police, Senior Advisors from different organisation that deal with hate crime, immigration and welfare issues to provide a platform where European Union nationals from the Somali diaspora can get appropriate information on their concerns and uncertainty.
How best would Somali diaspora be involved in policy making in the countries they reside? Is there sensitization for Somalis to actively seek services in these countries of their residence?
People can become good and active citizens in different ways including being members of parents’ forum in their children’s schools, taking volunteering opportunities, becoming members of national parties and exercising their right to vote by registering and voting. What is the implication of Brexit to the Somalis in UK and in Europe?
It is clear that things will change but no one knows yet which direction will it take. Therefore, my advice is first, don’t panic as the process itself will take a couple of years. The possible change is that many Somali EU nationals that live in UK may need to apply for permit residence or UK citizenship. Being eligible to apply for these, one would need to fulfil certain criteria which they can find from the UK Government’s website. Those who live in Europe may need to apply for visa in order to enter UK. I’m sure you market Somalia abroad… What are the challenges in doing this?
I think the key challenge is the constant negative image through the media that tarnished the Somali people and Somalia. It is always, hunger, famine, war, terrorism and piracy that many people associate with Somalis and Somalia.
The other challenge is whether the Somalis themselves can change these narratives by being examples of positive image and promoting it regularly such as the achievements of Mo Farah.
How can Somalis in diaspora help in rebuilding Somalia? It is well known that the Somali diaspora are directly or indirectly involved in rebuilding Somalia through remittance, humanitarian, social, education, political and economic contribution. In this visit, I have witnessed the efforts of the Somali diaspora including schools that have been set up, hospitals, developmental projects and businesses.
I think the more the security of the country improves, the greater role they can play as the confidence of investing in the country grows eventually.