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Diaspora Keeps Somalia Alive But Remains Divided


Somalia continues to be wracked by conflict, despite another congress aimed at national reconciliation having ended recently in Mogadishu. Human rights groups say fighting between insurgents and Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and occupying Ethiopian troops has killed many people and displaced hundreds of thousands. But somehow Somalis continue to survive, chiefly as a result of international aid and financial remittances sent to them by their relatives who’ve relocated to foreign lands. In the fourth part of a series on the situation in Somalia, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines the role played by the country’s extensive diaspora.

A prominent member of Somalia’s diaspora community in the United States, Prof. Ahmed Samatar, who’s dean of international relations at Macalester College in Minnesota, is certain there’s “hardly a corner of the globe” that doesn’t host a Somali community.

“I sometimes think Somalis don’t get enough credit for their resilience and their adaptability,” he says. “We’re talking about people here, most who couldn’t even speak a word of English, and then they uproot from the desert and move to countries like Germany, Norway, England, the US and Australia. They learn to speak all these foreign languages, and melt into completely foreign cultures – sometimes in the face of great religious and racial discrimination and other challenges. It really is a sad but remarkable situation, what talented Somalis have been able to achieve. Their success is a testimony to what Somalia could become, if only the country’s political elites could put aside their differences.”

Almost two decades of violence in Somalia has forced many of the country’s people into exile. In the latest chapter in the saga of the Horn of Africa nation of 10 million people, insurgents said to be loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts – who have been branded terrorist sympathizers by the United States and Ethiopia – are battling TFG and Ethiopian troops.

Human Rights Watch says all parties in the conflict have committed gross violations against innocent civilians, including executions and indiscriminate bombing of residential areas.

“It’s amazing that through this all, Somalis, and especially those living in Mogadishu, are carrying on with their day-to-day lives,” says Omar Faruk Hassan, the chairman of the National Union of Somali Journalists. “But a big reason why they are surviving is because of all of the money that is sent to them by their relatives in the diaspora. So, as long as the markets continue to be open and the traders can import goods from Dubai and Yemen, and people can get their remittances at the money transfer companies, then people can buy food and other essentials. If it wasn’t for the diaspora, Somalia really would have no hope.”

“The Somali Diaspora actually has been the backbone of the survival of the Somali people during the last 16 years. It’s because of the donations and remittances they have been sending home that has kept people alive in Somalia, so they’re very, very important,” says Dr. Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi, a Somali linguist, historian and cultural expert and author of a book, “Culture and Customs of Somalia,” based in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

According to Prof. Abdi Ismail, who teaches geography at the University of Minnesota, the Somali Diaspora contributes almost a billion dollars a year – “bigger than any export earnings that the country can generate” – to the tattered economy.

He laughs and says, “You could say that the diaspora is the Somali economy!”

Ismail is fresh from a visit to South Africa, where he met some of the 20,000 Somalis living in various cities in Africa’s most powerful economy. It left him feeling optimistic.

“They are making businesses in places that African people in South Africa were unable to break into. So Somalis by sort of their culture are entrepreneurs, and they want to rebuild their country if they are given the chance,” he says.

But Ismail also says many of the Somalis he’s met in the diaspora express “complete lack of faith” in the TFG, saying the transitional authority is incompetent and not fully representative of Somali society because it’s dominated by President Abdullahi Yusuf’s Darod clan.

A spokesman for the TFG, Mohammed Abdirizak, says many Somalis in the diaspora are being “over-critical” and he urges them not to “criticize from a safe distance” but instead to return to Somalia to “make a difference.”

“I myself am from the diaspora – I’ve been here (in Mogadishu) for a very short time, but I can see a lot of things where I can contribute. We need the help of those who are criticizing the government to come into the country and help us. We need every one of them. We need the expertise of other Somalis who are abroad,” he says.

Samatar agrees that the Somali diaspora can be a “very powerful tool for democracy and peace. Most of the talented people have fled from Somalia. There are more Somali doctors, for example, in the United States, than in all of Somalia, and most of the top educated Somalis are in the diaspora: lawyers, engineers, pharmacologists, living all over the world. If there’s ever going to be a revival of Somalia, these people have a very, very crucial role to play.”

And yet, says Abdirizak, many educated Somalis living in foreign lands aren’t willing to share their talents with their less fortunate compatriots.

“They seem very good at speaking and criticizing, but it seems as if they don’t want to get their hands dirty. They’re in their comfort zones abroad and are concentrating on themselves, instead of rebuilding their own country,” he says.

Ismail responds that it’s asking a lot of Somalis, “whoever they may be,” to abandon their new lives in foreign countries to return to a homeland that’s “still a war zone.”

“It’s upsetting to me that there’s this feeling amongst certain people that Somalis in the diaspora are cowards, who don’t love their country, and for who life is very easy amongst foreigners, away from the people they love. They do it to survive, not for fun. Don’t you think we’d all go back if we could, if there was a prospect of returning to a prosperous country that is free of warlords, foreign invaders, militants and selfish clan leaders, where we could build good lives?”

Ismail does, however, agree that the Somali diaspora community shouldn’t be above criticism.

“They are disorganized, and some of them are quite sectarian, and unless they are able to get together, and create a kind of social movement that has particular focus on democracy and peace and development, then it will all be rhetoric (about) what role they can play (in the future of Somalia).”

Samatar urges his fellow Somalis in the diaspora to plough some of their assets, including their intellectualism, back into their homeland, to “help the process of reconstitution and reconstruction of Somali society by offering their talent, by offering their resources – and maybe even offering themselves as potential leaders for the direction the country needs to go.”

Dr. Andre Le Sage, the academic chairman of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism section of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a US-government think tank in Washington, has worked throughout the Horn of Africa region for various international organizations, including the United Nations. He’s also a former political advisor to the negotiation process that resulted in the formation of the TFG, and he maintains contact with a great many Somalis in Somalia itself, and also in the diaspora.

“Somalis are a wonderful and genuine people, very open to forging lasting, trusted relationships with outsiders. There is absolutely no way that I could have worked inside Somalia without the support, trust, honesty and security given to me by my Somali contacts,” Le Sage says.

“The Somali diaspora is huge, and it is growing. But it is just as fragmented as the people inside the country.

Nevertheless, I think that they have a number of potential levers that they can pull, to either help or hinder the process of rebirth of a Somali society. The first is that they can help in terms of resources – and that is resources both in terms of capital, money, and in terms of human talent.”

But Prof. Hagi Mukhtar of Savanna State University in Georgia says people shouldn’t expect “too much” from Somalis in the diaspora.

“Somalis in the diaspora also have their own lives and their own struggles. They must do what they can to help Somalia, but first they have to help themselves.”

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