Somali youth trapped in an unsettling nexus: Juggling an ‘Open Prison’ and an unpredictable homeland

Somali Youth Trapped In An Unsettling Nexus: Juggling An 'open Prison' And An Unpredictable Homeland
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Harun Maruf
Wednesday June 21, 2023

FILE – Somali refugees are seen through a discarded mosquito net as they gather in the new arrivals area of the Dadaab refugee camp near the Kenya-Somalia border, in Garissa county, Kenya, Jan. 17, 2023.

Nasra Abdi Hassan, a public health officer for the World Health Organization, arrived in Mogadishu on the morning of June 9 to attend a training for women on security awareness.

Later that day, she went to the beautiful Lido Pearl Beach hotel for an evening meal with a friend. At around 7:55 p.m., al-Shabab militants attacked the hotel. Hassan was one of six civilians shot and killed.

The death of someone who moved to her ancestral homeland to provide health service symbolized the heartbreak and sadness felt by many Somali refugees. She dared to go to Somalia while hundreds of thousands of Somalis remain in Kenya still feeling unsafe and unsure about returning home.

“I was not happy with her return,” says her father, Abdi Hassan. “She and her mother overwhelmed me. I told them, ‘Don’t risk her life for several hundred dollars. We’ll find something to eat.'”

Hassan was born and raised in Dhagahley, one of the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. Her family spent everything they could afford to send her to a school in Nairobi to help advance her education. She was a bright student. She obtained a diploma in nutrition and dietetics from Mount Kenya University.

Two years ago, she traveled to Afmadow in Somalia’s Jubaland State to work for a local nongovernmental organization on women’s health. Last year, she was appointed as the public health officer of Afmadow district, helping with the drought support operations of WHO.

After she was shot, the WHO posted a tweet in remembrance of Hassan, who was 27.

“She played a vital role in supporting the drought response operation in Jubaland and inspired many with her unwavering commitment,” the WHO Somalia office tweeted.

Fardawsa Sirad Gelle, who was born the same year as Hassan in Dadaab, says her death was a reminder of the dangers in Somalia.

“Somalia is not a country we have ever seen,” she said. “Whenever you hear a slight optimism, that it’s improving, a disaster strikes. My heart doesn’t allow me to return, the family doesn’t want you to return.”

Youth in Dadaab also remember what happened to Abbas Abdullahi Sheikh Siraji, a refugee who returned to Somalia to become minister for public works and reconstruction. Siraji was shot dead by the bodyguard of another government official in May 2017. He was 31.

Another prominent Dadaab youth leader who returned to Somalia, Weli Aden Mohamed, was killed in an al-Shabab raid on a hotel in Kismayo in July 2019.

Dadaab youths say Somalia’s insecurity is a primary reason they continue live in the “open prison” of Dadaab, as they call it.

“When you are in a refugee camp you are like in a prison,” Gelle said. “You walk within the prison, but you can’t exit.”

In her entire life, Gelle, a humanitarian worker, spent only 15 days outside the camps, attending seminars in Nairobi and Garissa.

“You feel a lot of stress,” she said. “Every morning for nearly 30 years you see the same place you saw yesterday. You are not even growing mentally. Somalis say, ‘Nin aan dhul marin dhaayo ma le.’ ‘He who hasn’t traveled has no eyes.'”

In April, Gelle’s life entered a new stage when she got married. Despite the uncertainty in the refugee camp, she is clear about what she wants for her children.

“I don’t want my children to be in a homeless situation, to grow up in a refugee camp, someone with no identity,” she said. “I never want that for them.”

When Gelle is not doing humanitarian work, she works as a news presenter at a radio station for the refugees called Gargaar or Help, delivering humanitarian news. She follows global news on her phone, checks on information posted by those she follows on social media, and watches reports by investigative journalists, an ambition for her in journalism.

Fellow journalist Mohamed Abdullahi Jimale, who was born in Dadaab, echoes similar hopelessness and anxiety about security concerns in returning to Somalia.

He said some of the youth in Dadaab refer to themselves as the “Lost Generation,” because they are suffering from an identity crisis.

“They were born here, their children were born here, some have their grandchildren born here, and they are still in refugee life,” he said. “Therefore, I would like to tell the world to get us out of this open prison, so that we can become free people.”

Since 2016, more than 90,000 have voluntarily returned to Somalia, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

“Some people want to go back but others don’t,” Jimale said. “There are not a lot of opportunities back home, you don’t know where to start, opportunities come very rarely. When Siraji died a lot of people were demoralized.”

Mohamed Abdi Affey, special envoy of the Horn of Africa for UNHCR, says he hopes the Dadaab refugees will be able to leave their camps through an integration program that was launched Tuesday by the Kenyan government and UNHCR.

He says the integration plan will allow the refugees to seek education, health services, and work outside the camps.

“No one wants to live in a refugee camp forever,” Affey said. “What we have in Kenya is youth people who were born here, studied here. It would have been good for them to return to their country to serve and benefit themselves, but that is not being allowed by conditions in Somalia because young people have lots of fear to return.”

Affey says support from the international community has been dwindling lately given all the situations in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Ethiopia.

“We are collaborating with the Kenya government and the international community to work to create hope for these young people,” he said.

Kenya and UNHCR believe the integration plan will benefit refugees as well as the host communities find more opportunities.

“We hope these integrated settlements will receive significant funds which will benefit the host communities,” Affey said. “It will require turning the plan into action, we see that will create new hope … but that in itself will take time to feel the change.”