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The Significance of the Somali Diaspora

By Ryan Pelosky ’21

Somali refugees in Tunisia (Photo Credit: Pew Research Center)
Somali refugees in Tunisia (Photo Credit: Pew Research Center)

After 29 years of civil war, Somalia is the most peaceful it has been in a generation.

Governmental structure and non-warlord political leaders have taken root as Somalia’s path to order and stability unfolds, and Somali natives (members of the "Diaspora") are returning to their homeland in great volume and have become instrumental in the nation's rebuilding process.

Somalia is home to 15 million, 85% of whom are ethnic Somalis. Located in the Horn of Africa, Somalia has the longest coastline of any nation on the continent, which grants it vast potential for trade across the Indian Ocean to Asia and through the Suez Canal to Europe and the Americas.

As of a decade ago, pirating groups controlled much of the coastline. According to Sky News, more than 50% of the world’s containers pass the Horn of Africa coastline. As of 2010, the Somali pirating industry was estimated to be costing between $6.6 and $6.9 billion annually, with millions of dollars flowing into extremist militias’ accounts. Now, piracy is a near-defunct trade.

While the most recent ‘phase’ of Somalia’s Civil War began in 2009, the conflict has taken over 500,000 lives and forced millions into famine and flight since 1991. Prolific terrorist organizations, such as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (commonly known as al-Shabaab, or Youth Freedom Movement) and Hizbul al-Islam, have been vying for power among themselves and with the coalition government, which was founded in 2009, for years.

Recently, however, al-Shabaab and Hizbul al-Islam’s resources and influence have waned, and the first seeds of peace—and hope—have been sown in war-torn Somalia. Native Somalis from across the globe are returning en masse to their home country as members of the Somali Diaspora. Diasporans’ inherent loyalty to their home, coupled with their Western educational and labor experience, may be what prevents Somalia from falling back into internal strife and suffering.

Many diasporans, such as Dr. Hodan Ali, see returning to help their motherland as a moral duty or obligation. Dr. Ali said in a VICE video earlier this year that she returned to Somalia from Canada as a medical doctor. She oversees the delivery of aid to proper care centers across the country and is working to rebuild Somalia’s healthcare system from the capital city of Mogadishu—she has already built a hospital with antiseptics and other basic equipment that is severely lacking in Somalia.

Dr. Ali explained her obligation to her homeland: “Who is going to do it if people like myself don’t do it?”

“We cannot depend on international interventions,” she stated, as foreign aid has proven futile in yielding peace and security over the decades of conflict in Somalia, which is not to mention the ugly history of foreign intervention in the region (recall Black Hawk Down).

Another diasporan featured in the VICE video, Colonel Ahmed Mohamed Hassan of the Somali National Army (SNA), returned from the United Kingdom to “serve [his] country.” The SNA has seen years of victory and progress since 2009 with some help from foreign military aid. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), as well as American, Ethiopian, and Kenyan military forces, have seen minor levels of involvement in the last decade, with AMISOM often taking charge. The United States has augmented its role under the Trump administration, which has authorized a dramatic increase in airstrikes. Recently, Civil War fighting has generally been reduced to guerrilla warfare in the rural landscapes of the southern portion of Somalia, though al-Shabaab suicide bombings still strike major cities frequently.

Since its liberation from al-Shabaab in 2011, Mogadishu has undergone dramatic gentrification and redevelopment efforts. Factories, banks, and national and multinational corporations have opened or reopened their doors in the decade since Mogadishu’s pacification. As a result of such economic activity, small businesses—many founded and operated by diasporans—have sprung up across what was once referred to as the “pearl of the Indian Ocean.”

Al-Shabaab, however, remains a threat to all, especially civilians. Although the Civil War has weakened and receded into rural guerrilla conflict, suicide bombings pose a legitimate threat to civilians in major cities. Due to their repudiation of the Western world, al-Shabaab often targets diasporans or their businesses; storefronts, homes, and government buildings are struck with the most frequency. However, al-Shabaab’s (which translates to d that of their fellow Somalis help others and demonstrate a society progressing towards autonomy and stability.

Somalia must also rebuild its infrastructure after nearly 30 years of civil war. Diasporans are prominent in the Somali construction, architectural, and engineering sectors.

Osman Ali, a Somali-American engineer, sees great potential in this industry: “There are a lot of opportunities...If you look around, everything is demolished. If I’m an engineer, this is the best place to play.”

He has applied his experience from the American real estate industry to Mogadishu, where he has undertaken a million-dollar project on luxury living spaces. Similarly, members of the Diaspora across the country are finding opportunities to rebuild buildings, roads, and bridges to piece Somalia back together.

While proper healthcare, economic stability, and functioning infrastructure represent crucial pieces to Somalia’s puzzle, governmental order and structure are indispensable. Within the government, members of the Diaspora take perhaps their most prominent and necessary role in reviving a nation.

President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (also referred to as Farmaajo), a Somali-American, has held office since 2017. 80% of Mohamed’s cabinet, which consists of 26 men and women, are members of the Diaspora. Mohamed and his advisors have achieved unprecedented progress in their three years in office, and Somalia will be conducting its first democratic elections in over half a century later this year.

Al-Shabaab, however, remains a threat to all, especially civilians. Although the Civil War has weakened and receded into rural guerrilla conflict, suicide bombings pose a legitimate threat to civilians in major cities. Due to their repudiation of the Western world, al-Shabaab often targets diasporans or their businesses; storefronts, homes, and government buildings are struck with most frequency. However, al-Shabaab’s (which translates to the Youth) most effective and potent method is their recruitment, brain-washing, and exploitation of children.

The Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre is a secretive rehabilitation center for young al-Shabaab escapees and was founded by 27-year-old Somali-Canadian, Ilwad Elman. Elman left her tranquil life in Ottawa to return to Somalia and deradicalize child soldiers, who would otherwise have been jailed for being members of al-Shabaab (even though they were forcefully recruited) and used as informants for the Somali military—a traumatizing cycle for boys often no older than seventeen. Elman, however, firmly believes that “children can become children again if they are taken out of these militarized contexts,” a process she has witnessed “hundreds of times over.”

Elman and many others hold a strong belief that to bring peace and stability back to Somalia, there must be “an investment in the young people.” Having left Somalia for a better life with her mother and sisters, Elman envisions a Somalia that does not see its most ambitious youth fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea for a better life; she explains that young Somalis must be afforded opportunities within Somalia, which can only start “with giving someone hope.”

Fortunately, for her, for diasporans, for Somalis, and for world citizens alike, the Diaspora serves as a movement inspired and driven by that same hope—a movement well on its way to reviving a nation with unending potential.

How to help:

International Rescue Committee (volunteer, intern, donate):

Elman Peace (volunteer, donate):


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