Welsh Somalilanders On War-Ravaged Home They Cannot Forget

By Chris Wood

Scenes of shelled-out buildings and panic-stricken people fleeing Aleppo may seem far removed from the lives of most people.

But for some members of Cardiff’s Somaliland community, the conflict in Syria is akin to a nightmare they have lived through.

“Maybe it was worse than Aleppo. There were bodies scattered everywhere, people dying in the streets, children,” said Abdirahman Ahmed, about the war in his homeland.

He joined 150 people at Cardiff’s city hall on Thursday to recognize the contribution of Welsh Somalilanders and to raise awareness of problems still afflicting the state 25 years after the war ended.

These include a lack of medical facilities, jobs or help for the large amount of men suffering from mental health problems and a crippling drought exacerbating the situation.

 The Heritage of Somalis in Wales project created a collage of some of the first sailors from the area to arrive at docks in south Wales. Image copyright HERITAGE OF SOMALIS IN WALES
The Heritage of Somalis in Wales project created a collage of some of the first sailors from the area to arrive at docks in south Wales. Image copyright HERITAGE OF SOMALIS IN WALES

It was in 1870, after the opening of the Suez Canal, that men from Somaliland began travelling to Cardiff to work in the docks.

A community developed around Butetown and increased in size after 1969 when Somali dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre seized power in a military coup.

Mr Ahmed, a health expert, was born in Burao in 1970 and said life was manageable until about 1984, when people started speaking out against the regime.

He said their voices were suppressed and a “power struggle” developed into a war in 1989, with Somalilanders intent on taking back control in their country.

With dissenters living in fear for their lives, constant shells and artillery fire, Mr Ahmed said he and his family fled, leaving everything behind.

 Faisal Isa, Mohammed Yusuf, Saeed Ebrahim and Abdirahman Ahmed all fled Somaliland during the war. They are trying to help the community either in their homeland or in their adopted city
Faisal Isa, Mohammed Yusuf, Saeed Ebrahim and Abdirahman Ahmed all fled Somaliland during the war. They are trying to help the community either in their homeland or in their adopted city

“We walked miles and miles, about 150 in a few days. We would hide in the jungle during the day and just walk at night,” he said.

“There were hundreds of people. We made it to a refugee camp in Ethiopia and luckily, my grandfather had been in the Navy and was retired in Cardiff.

“That connection with Wales, that 100 year friendship. Every elderly person in Cardiff requested a family reunion and me and my cousins were the lucky ones.”

Mr Ahmed learned English, gained an environmental sciences degree and a teaching qualification before returning to Somaliland.

Parts of Hargeisa have been rebuilt after the war. Image copyright SOMALILAND MENTAL HEALTH
Parts of Hargeisa have been rebuilt after the war. Image copyright SOMALILAND MENTAL HEALTH

He worked voluntarily, helping to build hospitals and improve services as vice chairman of Somaliland’s equivalent of the General Medical Council.

Now back in Cardiff, he works as a taxi driver while studying for a masters degree in biomedical science, adding: “My ambition is to revolutionize the health sector (in Somaliland).”

Another wanting to return is Faisal Isa, 49, who plans to seek election as an MP in the capital, Hargeisa.

He organized demonstrations in college before he fled in 1986.

Mr Isa spent five years as an asylum seeker in both Abu Dhabi and the Netherlands before studying to become a mechanical engineer, working for BP and Shell.

The Somaliland community drew him to Cardiff, which he believes is a good place for his five children to grow up. But he has other ambitions.

“The elections have been delayed until March 2017 because of the drought but it could be longer as there is no water and people are moving away,” he said.

“I will move there if I win. The situation is so bad, I want to take examples from Wales and help people.

“People think they have to move abroad for a better life. But I want them to know there are a lot of good things that can happen there.”

The Cardiff-based Somaliland Mental Health Organization has helped raise £100,000. Image copyright: SOMALILAND MENTAL HEALTH

Another man looking forward to the elections in 2017 is Saeed Ebrahim – who wants to become a Labor councilor for the Butetown ward on Cardiff council.

His focus is on helping Somalilanders and other youths in his adopted city, many of whom would have been born in Wales.

After arriving in 1989, aged 10, he attended Willows High School, Tremorfa, played rugby for Cardiff Youth and gained a youth work degree from Cardiff Met.

He has been involved in projects across the city and sees the same problems affecting youngsters from different cultures, but thinks there should be a better understanding of where each comes from.

Mr Ebrahim believes many talented, young Somalilander professionals are lost to jobs teaching English abroad and should be encouraged to be more vocal in their pursuit of work in Cardiff.

Other issues include some being afraid to report hate crime and the threat of radicalisation.

“It needs to be brought to the surface, talked about and not tackled behind closed doors,” he said.

Somaliland XI before their match against the South Wales Police Select XI in the Cardiff Community Cohesion Cup at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff
Somaliland XI before their match against the South Wales Police Select XI in the Cardiff Community Cohesion Cup at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff

But there is nothing that brings communities together quite like sport, according to Mohammed Yusuf.

He was one of the first appointments to the Welsh Refugee Council in 1994 and now provides training and employment opportunities to people in the area.

Mr Yusuf is also involved in a football tournament that tries to integrate the different communities like Somalilander, Yemeni, Palestinian, Sudanese and Bengali.

Last year, 1,000 people watched the winners – Somaliland – take on a South Wales Police side at the Principality Stadium.

“It brings people together and helps the different cultures understand how each lives and creates a better neighborhood,” he said.

“The police also have a role to play and it (the tournament) helps them understand the ethnic minorities and stops people being intimidated by them.

“Football is a good way – and it was an opportunity for the communities to represent themselves in the main stadium in Wales.”

While many Welsh-Somalilanders left their homeland a long time ago, through playing sport, fundraising or simply using the language in their adopted country, they say it will never leave them.

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