Defying Conventional Wisdom?
Diaspora Youth and Participation in Somalia.
When I first began researching diaspora youth involvement in Somalia, I must admit I was not expecting to find much. I had read the literature that suggests that in most country cases, diaspora participation is highest among first generation emigrants, and that it falls off in the second generation. It is argued that children born and raised outside the family’s country of origin do not feel the same sense of responsibility to send remittances or to maintain links with their relatives living ‘back home’.
Why should they? A young woman who has never met her grandmother, or who does not know her uncle or cousins, may not feel as bound to share her probably meagre income with them. Growing up in another country, the young person’s energies may be directed towards supporting her family living nearby, and on her own educational and professional training.
However while there may be, on aggregate, a drop in the level of remittances sent from second-generation Somalis, it would be foolish to think that this is the full story. As soon as I began to ask people about the supposed lack of care amongst second-generation Somalis, I found important cases that defied this characterization. Thousands young people in the diaspora are giving their money, their time, and their skills to help their families and communities in the Horn of Africa. The evidence is everywhere that rather than forsaking the country of their parents and grandparents, young Somalis are committed in ways that have not been well appreciated.
Recently I was doing some research for UNDP together with a team of colleagues on the involvement of the Somali diaspora in relief, development and politics in their country of origin. We carried out research inside Somaliland, Puntland and South/Central Somalia as well as in Dubai, London, Minneapolis, Nairobi, Oslo and Toronto.
We were particularly interested in gathering information on collective remittances, support given either in cash or in kind to support local non-governmental organisations, social service providers, and development-oriented private investment inside Somaliland/Puntland/South-Central Somalia. We were also more interested in the qualitative aspects of what and why people gave of themselves rather than the quantitative questions of how much they were sending. This was a necessary focus given that there is a high level of suspicion and distrust concerning diaspora involvement in contributing to the conflict, and concerns about the possible recruitment of youth to the al-Shabaab movement. People were uncomfortable divulging information about how much they were giving to their relatives. I will return to this issue later on in this paper.
In this paper I want to give a few examples of the extraordinary dedication that young Somalis are demonstrating, and to examine the opportunities and challenges that young Somalis face. I argue that as vibrant and significant as youth support is, the current international climate of suspicion and the limited opportunities that many Somali youth have prevent them from making even more of a difference. I also discuss the personal and local benefits of youth engagement in Somali support. First, here are three examples of Somali youth initiatives that are providing essential support to people in the Horn of Africa.
FeedSomalia was started in 2011 by a group of young Somalis in Toronto, Canada who wanted to do something to help those affected by the food emergency in Somalia. In just a few months, the movement has spread to eleven chapters in four countries, all run by young volunteers. Feed Somalia Toronto has raised approximately Can$70,000 in less than two months for the famine relief. Volunteers of Feed Somalia Toronto have assisted in numerous campaigns to raise funds for immediate relief.
All funds raised go to Human Concern International, who have been working in Somalia for more than twenty years. With a sophisticated website, capacity to process online donations, and a Twitter feed that shouts out whenever a new volunteer signs up for service, the group has gained high visibility in an extraordinarily short period of time. Their future goals are to not only raise money for relief but to create sustainable, long term solutions for the on-going crisis in Somalia and to be the catalyst for young Diaspora Somalis to aid their homeland.
Worldwide Somali Students and Professionals
Worldwide Somali Students and Professionals was formed in 2010 by a group of students at University College London, together with their friends at universities in the UK and in other countries. They are also building linkages with Somali professionals from the transport, health, business, and other sectors. In early 2011, they launched a project called ‘Operation Restore Home 2012.’
This project aims to mobilize at least 1000 students to return to Somalia together in June 2012, to carry out agricultural, health, and education projects in ten areas throughout Somalia. With this project, the group hopes to demonstrate to Somalis who have not migrated that they have not been forgotten by their young compatriots, and also to demonstrate to the non-Somali world that young people are actively pursuing positive change. Many of those ‘returning’ will be doing so for the first time since they left as young children; some have never been to Somalia at all.
WSS&P also ran a food distribution centre during Ramadan 2011 in Mogadishu for 1000 displaced persons every day. I started following this group at the end of 2010, when they had about 400 people following them on Facebook. In the few months since these two initiatives were launched, the group’s Facebook page has risen to 3500.
Worldwide Somali Students and Professionals has chapters in more than 40 countries and hosts both local and ‘virtual’ events to raise awareness and support for Somalis who need it. Students who belong to it say that the group also helps them to find a social network in the diaspora countries they are living in of people who are similarly committed to positive change, and that the support they receive from each other also helps them in their academic work and family life.
UK Somali Student
UK Somali Student is a registered charity run entirely by student volunteers. It was started to provide tutoring services to Somali students in the UK. It has recently embarked on an initiative to provide up to 200 scholarships to students in the Horn of Africa. The group currently has agreements with 10 universities throughout Somaliland, Puntland and South/Central Somalia to place students. The universities include: Amoud University, Benadir University, East Africa University, Galkacyo University, Hargeysa University, Kismayo University, Mogadishu University, Nugaal University, Puntland State University, and Sanaag University.
Each participating institution has agreed to provide two scholarships itself. In addition, selected students will be obliged to participate in social outreach programmes including literacy drives in rural areas, thereby spreading the benefits of the programme beyond the tertiary education sector. UK Somali Student have partnered with the Somali Research and Education Network (SomaliREN), other members of the Somali diaspora, and Somali media outlets to organize their project. The first scholarships are being provided for the 2011-2012 academic year.
One of the remarkable things about these three initiatives is that they are not clan-based efforts. Those who contribute to them do so not knowing what clan or even sometimes what region the assistance will be provided to. The volunteers come from all clans as well. This is in marked contrast to much of the giving that occurs within the older diaspora population, which is still directed largely to clan-based associations. The move to de-emphasize clans is significant and suggests that it may be possible to transcend the destructive clan conflicts that have contributed to perpetuating the conflict.
The role of Social Networking
In all of these initiatives, whether locally organizing within the same city or mobilizing support transnationally, social networking is a key communication tool. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other networking sites help people to share information, discuss current events, and publicize their fundraising efforts. Much of the discussion is carried out in English, a language that many Somalis speak even if they do not live in an English-speaking country; the Somali language is used less often but still frequently; many young Somalis do not feel confident writing in that language, even if they speak it fluently (and many do not) because they have never formally studied it.
While not everyone who participates in social networking is necessarily involved in supporting their country of origin, the discussions that go on between members is overwhelmingly concerned with events and conditions there. Moreover, the networks have proven to be effective channels for sharing information and raising money.
At one event that I attended, sponsored by the UCL Somali Students Society in London in December 2010, £700 was raised to help people in the Dadaab refugee camp. Since the declaration of famine in Southern Somalia, many groups have been joining together to send money. In the UK, FeedSomalia is run by a consortium of nine NGOs who collaborate to raise funds and awareness of the famine in Somalia.
Virtually every first generation Somali diaspora member who we interviewed said that they were involved in providing some financial assistance to relief and development activities. Some respond to ad hoc requests to provide assistance, through fundraising events aimed at helping refugees in Dadaab, displaced people in Afgoye or Mogadishu, or to provide emergency support to flood affected people in Hargeysa or Burcao.
Others provide monthly support, sometimes through subscriptions to various activities such as scholarship funds or schools. Still others provide large cash outlays to help relatives or clans-members begin a development initiative. They are also often involved in the planning and implementation of these activities, and may be looking to get some of their investment back so that they can re-invest in another activity.
Our research with the diaspora revealed that in some cases youths are working to make their own, separate financial contribution, such as in the provision of salaries to the emergency rooms in Hargeysa and Burcao hospitals. In other cases, youth contributions are subsumed within larger organisational and family contributions, whereby the young person gives a contribution to their mother or father, who then adds it to the amount being remitted by the family.
Often the young person does not have a clear idea of to whom or for what the money is being sent. Some youths also suggested that although teenagers may not be as engaged in diaspora activism, the desire to become involved may increase when they reach their mid-20s or have their first full time jobs and are able, for the first time, to make their own financial contributions.
Giving in Kind
It has been well documented that most remittance support to Somalia goes to meet basic household needs: food, medical expenses, and school fees. Several young Somalis told us that they were less involved in providing remittances for regular household support, particularly to relatives they do not know well, than they were in providing community-based support. These include those who work for organisations like Worldwide Somali Students or FeedSomalia, but also includes individuals contributing to non-youth specific efforts to implement development projects, or to support schools or healthcare facilities.
Some said that they planned to gain the skills they would need to return to Somalia temporarily or permanently; they are studying fields such as medicine, economics, agricultural economics, geology and development studies. Some who were born outside Somalia or left when they were young children recounted their first visits as teenagers, in which they donated their time and expertise to an organisation or project.
Among Somalilanders in particular (because of the relative safety there) many young people return during the summer holidays to visit relatives but also to volunteer their services at hospitals, in government offices, and for local NGOs. Some students have returned to attend school. Abaarso Tech, a secondary boarding school founded in 2008, has several students who have returned from the diaspora.
Expression of Multiple Identities
Youth activism is often centred around a residential area, a school or university, or a mosque. Many young Somalis say that supporting people ‘back home’ helps them to define themselves in a positive way and helps them to find a place where they feel they belong. They meet other young Somalis who are united by common interests, and this can help strengthen their local social networks. This is particularly important in societies where marginalization of youth is extremely common (see below).
Despite the local axis around which a great deal of activism turns, there is an emerging transnational Somali political identity that many young Somalis ascribe to. This has taken root particularly since the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia in late 2006. The occupation united Somalis from different clan and regional backgrounds against the perceived common enemy: Ethiopia. Anger was also directed at the western countries who supported that intervention as well.
Out of this frustration emerged a new line of rhetoric among the Somali youth: that they needed to be central to developing an alternative, Somali-owned and led future for the country. This idea lies at the heart of many of the groups currently responding to Somalia’s political and humanitarian crises; it also is a principal motivator for individuals who volunteer their time, skills and money. Thus while a lot of activism is the old-fashioned face-to-face type, through fundraising events, concerts, film screenings, etc, political and even tactical discussions are held through social media on the transnational stage.
Another layer of identity politics that young Somalis are involved in is that of a transnational Muslim identity. Many people learn about Islam not only from their family, but by reading text and on-line sources and talking to Muslims from other cultural backgrounds. This pan-national Muslim identity may motivate activism, as much of their giving is tied to the principle of zakat or other teachings that emphasize the importance of helping those less fortunate than oneself.
A third layer of identity that many young Somalis feel is of course one associated with the country in which they are currently living. Being British Somali is different in some ways than being Canadian or Finnish Somali, and many young people manage this aspect of their identity as well. Some of those who have grown up in the diaspora are knowledgeable about how to attract funding, media attention, and political support from the countries of origin.
Some of the diaspora organisations have partnerships with social welfare and development groups that include non-Somalis as well, even organisations that have strong links to those at the centre of formal political power in the country of origin. Being able to creatively manage three or more different kinds of identity is one of the hallmarks of being a young Somali.
Challenges facing Somali Youth
The support that Somali youth mobilize is not an unmitigated success story, though. Concerns about terrorism and security have led to a climate of suspicion that affects young Somalis no matter where they live.
Many of those living in Western countries must, even more than their parents, deal with the fact that their contributions – both financial and in-kind – are often suspected of going to support conflict rather than relief, development and peace-building. It has been widely reported that al-Shabaab is active in recruiting from among the dispossessed and marginalized youth in Western diaspora countries.
While this phenomenon clearly does take place, the numbers of people who join al-Shabaab are tiny compared to the large numbers of youth who are or want to be engaged in positive support. Suspicions on the part of local police and immigration officials that any Somali travelling abroad is off to join the militants discourage many from engaging in positive ways as well.
Money transfer companies report that they have had difficulty transferring large amounts of money to charities operating inside Somalia even if they are able to document the transfer trail that the money follows. Some people in the US who want to collect individual donations and then forward the amassed funds in one transfer say that they are not permitted to send more than $500 at a time. The fact that the diaspora is able to mobilize so much support is even more impressive given these constraints.
The sense in which the Somali community generally feels that it is under siege due to the high level of suspicions that surround them is hard to understate. Animosity and suspicion aimed at Somalis can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating further alienation, marginalization and humiliation which may encourage some youths to become further radicalized and to consider joining the insurgents. Al Shabaab recruitment media (particularly in the form of videos disseminated on the internet) directly target individuals’ sense of honour and commitment to family and nation.
Somalia is routinely portrayed as under foreign occupation, and the enemy is identified as ‘The African Crusaders’ (aka the AMISOM peacekeeping force who hail from Christian-dominated countries in the region) who have been sent to do the bidding of Western countries led by the United States. Young men are promised that joining the ‘Mujahaddin’ will allow them to reclaim their honour through service to jihad.
While most men are not swayed by this offer, those who feel most aggrieved may well find the invitation attractive. Certainly al-Shabaab’s message speaks to the view that most Somalis, even those who have not been radicalized, have that the western international community is largely responsible for the continued political problems inside Somalia.
Priorities and Difficulties with Integration
Even without this climate of suspicion, many Somalis experience difficulties finding employment, their school drop-out rate is high, and in many countries the number of Somalis in prisons is extremely high. They face challenges living in diaspora countries that may make contributing to communities and individuals in the Horn of Africa difficult to impossible. The reasons that some Somali youths fail to excel in diaspora countries are complicated and a full analysis is beyond the scope of this paper.
However, it is important to recognize the pressures that the Somali youth are subjected to: in many cases they must work to help support their immediate families; many must translate for their parents whenever they come into contact with the social services; many are also responsible for their younger siblings and the numbers of female-headed households is high. Finally, many young Somalis have themselves, or their parents have, had incredibly traumatic experiences prior to and/or after leaving Somalia. The result is that many face added pressures that non-Somalis do not have. Many young men in particular grow up without positive male mentors or role models.
The qualitative research that we conducted for UNDP in 2010 and the work that I have done since has given us what I suspect is a much more nuanced understanding of the various ways that the Somali diaspora is involved with their communities ‘back home’ than would have been possible if we had conducted quantitative research. It may be true that at an aggregate level a smaller percentage of the Somali youth are contributing than their parents, it is possible that the diaspora support will wane with each successive generation.
However, the level of commitment that the Somali youth are showing, and the impact they are having on conditions in their country of origin is extraordinary.A narrative that focuses only on the dropping off of financial remittances among youth may mask many important forms of involvement such as those mentioned above. Young, educated Somalis are defying the conventional wisdom about the low levels of commitment among diaspora youth in critical ways. Their efforts need to be recognized and applauded.
Department of Development Studies
School of Oriental and African Studies, London
Photos: Cali Xaji, Courtesy of Worldwide Somali Students and Professionals. All photos are from the Iftar feeding programme run in Mogadishu Ramadan 2011.
Hammond, Laura & Mustafa Awad & Ali Ibrahim Dagane & Peter Hansen & Cindy Horst & Ken Menkhaus (2011). Cash and Compassion: The Role of the Somali Diaspora in Relief, Development and Politics. Report Commissioned for UNDP Somalia.
Lindley, Anna (2011). The Early Morning Phone Call: Somali Refugees’ Remittances, Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Elmi, Khadra (2010). Distant voices and the ties that bind: identity, politics, and the Somali diaspora youth. Accord 21, London: Conciliation Resources.
FeedSomalia: http:// www.feedsomalia.org
Human Concern International (HCI): www.humanconcern.org
UK Somali Student: https://www.facebook.com/groups/uksomalistudent/
Worldwide Somali Students and Professionals: https://www.facebook.com/WorldwideSomaliStudents