By Ingeborg Vardøen
While Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, and his men travel extensively to foreign countries, spending time and money for which they might have found better use, thousands of their fellow Somalis are forced to go on a very different kind of journey.
Thousands embark on travel taking months, even years, risking their lives, sometimes losing them in the scorching desert and the open sea. Old and young die on the way, some are born during the flight. There is a constant flow of people running away from a country that has been in turmoil for more than two decades. A country that was once considered an African success, a country with many resources, not least human.
Unlike the government representatives, most of whom travel on passports from foreign countries, these unfortunate tahriib travelers have no such documents – not that Somali passports would be of much use anywhere in the world now.
Somalia’s main export article is people, young people who should be the future of the country, old people who would rather stay where they belong.
Parents who see no other way for their children to have a reasonable life, if one at all, embark on treacherous journeys in order to get away from the conditions in Somalia. Some are lucky, able to avail themselves of the chances they get an education and employment, others, and there are many, never fit in in countries very different from their own.
A large proportion of the Somalis arriving in the West now are ill prepared for what is required to integrate successfully, many are illiterate, having had little or no schooling, no relevant work experience, there are language challenges, among other challenges.
After nearly three decades working with, and getting to know, Somalis in Norway, and frequent travel to the northern parts of Somalia, I am concerned about the future of the people, even the “lucky” ones, who have managed to get away from the mayhem that rules most of Somalia.
Do the people in responsible positions – ministers, lawmakers, religious leaders – lose any sleep over the plight of the thousands, the millions who have been steadily pouring out of Somalia for decades and continue to do so, forming what’s become known as the Diaspora?
Many of you government officials have lived abroad, have foreign citizenship, your families probably still live there, it is not your children who risk their lives in search of a better life abroad. You may belong to the privileged group who have made it in the outside world; you are even privileged in your own country. In addition, if the going gets tough, you can leave again.
Spare some thought for the many who struggle to adjust, who are unemployed, ill adjusted, unhappy, homesick, traumatized. After two and a half decades in this country (Norway), Somalis are still among the lowest as regards employment, education and social status. The second and third generation are doing better, but are losing their connection to Somalia, they are part of a brain drain, and building their future here, not in Somalia, while still identifying themselves as Somalis, the loyalty which their parents felt is no longer there, many lose their language and their culture.
Of course, there are Somali graduates and academics, there are doctors, nurses, social workers, business people, but statistically they are few, compared to the many who depend on social welfare or are in low paid work. With large families and commitments to family back home, it is not easy to make ends meet, pressure on relationships often lead to divorce and without an extended family to rely on, parents, particularly mothers, face many difficulties.
When travelling in your country I meet youngsters who ask me to help them get to Europe, to get away. I know they do not believe that apart from this being impossible for me, life is not what they imagine. Many young people, even if they are born in Norway, feel a lack of belonging, and some are easy prey for influences leading to radicalization.
Norway has become a wealthy country (though it was not always so), we can afford to help people in need. When Somalis started to arrive here, because of the civil war, most people knew little about your country, but generally sympathized when the situation became known.
Economically Norway is able to provide the basic needs of asylum seekers and refugees, to provide housing, welfare, education and health care, as well as ensuring freedom of speech and religion. But a quarter of a century has passed and in those years, words associated with Somalia, in addition to war and hunger, have been terrorism and piracy, and we read and hear about new governments, new presidents, and new promises.
We, in this part of the world, have the resources to provide for those who seek refuge in our country.
But for how long is Somalia going to be a refugee producing country? Can you afford to lose generations of young people?
You, the rulers, what are your plans for creating an environment where people can remain in Somalia and start rebuilding it, rather than seeing the only chance of a decent life being elsewhere?
Ingeborg Vardøen lives in Oslo, Norway.