2/2014
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Maimuna Mohamud

The "ideal" return

An emerging “elite” group of diaspora-based Somalis frames return as an ideal type of contribution to Somalia and claim that the development of Somalia is incomplete without their leadership.

Emotional as well as other incentives  however trigger the return of these diasporas. Yet, local communities critically interrogate the role of the diaspora, and in so doing bring issues of legitimacy, authenticity and belonging to the forefront.

The rising influence of diaspora returnees from the West in the political and social life across Somalia illustrates a new type of engagement; it is one that is no longer centered on financial remittances as a primary mode of contribution and diaspora-sponsored development. Study of the Somali diaspora is still dominated by a focus on communities based in the West; however, studying their return to Somalia highlights that they are not sedentary.

Specifically, highly educated and professional Somalis are making crucial decisions to return to Somalia in order to “give back” and “contribute” in the reconstruction efforts of the country. Often times, these motivations are articulated as being ideal forms of contributions, and framed as sacrificial.

The belief that physical return of the qualified and the resourceful is instrumental to the long-term development of the country is a powerful underlying driver for such migratory decision. Still a fragile state, Somalia is not conducive for permanent return, thereby only allowing diaspora Somalis who have Western passports to engage in cyclical migration between their Western localities and the Somali regions.

In this article I propel forward the argument that some diaspora Somalis in the West frame return as an ideal form of contribution to and engagement with Somalia. From the perspectives of the diaspora returnees to the Somali regions, the skills and knowledge accumulated in the West are critical for the progress of the country.

The mammoth task of (re)building requires long-term vision, and goes beyond the immediate need for money and resources for basic sustenance. More and more qualified diasporans arguably privilege a more direct and hands-on engagement through return. Central to the understanding of this phenomenon is the role that the Western acquired capital such as education and citizenship play in facilitating the return to Somalia, and in the subsequent returns back to host countries in the West.

Rebuilding takes money but requires also long-term vision.

Yet, financial remittances continue to be vital for communities in Somalia. In the well-documented literature on this type of engagement (by both policy makers and academics), however, we are seldom exposed to how the Somali-based communities enact and negotiate power in the particular set up where money is at the epicenter of interactions and engagements.

For the most part the interactions between diaspora and their relatives in Somalia are limited to telephone calls, even if done frequently. One-way and linear, the flows of financial remittances miss the complex interactions between diaspora and home-based Somali communities, which could only happen through closer forms of interactions, such as living in the same geographical space.

By contrast, diaspora returnees’ physical presence among communities in Somalia stirs debates about belonging, diaspora status and diasporic consciousness and equally important claims to authenticity and legitimacy to have a stake in the future of the homeland. Such processes are dynamic and are being shaped in everyday interactions by local communities and diaspora returnees alike. The dialectical nature of these processes allows us to see the agency of local communities, as much as it also informs us about the behavior of a particular group of Somalis who engage in temporary return to the regions of origin.

I interrogate some ways in which local communities grapple with this type of return. In presenting the views of locals, I aim to critique an increasing sense of “diaspora privilege” in Somalia today, and hope to open a window of reflection to the Western based Somali diaspora for self-reflection and real dialogue with the locals, and to avoid reproduction of inequalities.

The study

This article draws on data collected from the Somali regions, which is part of the Diaspora Return project, an international collaboration between three research institutions, the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) led by Dr. Cindy Horst, the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota led by Dr. Ryan Allen, and the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS).

Ms. Anab Nur of HIPS conducted semi-structured interviews with 29 Somali women and men who have returned from the United States and Norway to three locations across the Somali regions: in Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Garowe. Additionally, Ms. Nur held 3 focus group discussions that were held with local communities, also in these three cities.

Local communities here refer to individuals who don’t have similar diasporic experiences of living in the West. The sample consisted of individuals who were at the time living and working in Somalia. All interviewees had either an American or Norwegian citizenship, and included women as well as men across age groups.

Context

A substantial body of work exists on the topic of Somali diaspora engagement with communities in Somalia. Despite this scholarly and policy attention, much of the work on Somali diaspora contributions has focused on remittances, with little attention to how diaspora Somalis’ migratory decisions could be viewed as critical contributions.

In a similar vein, the two-way mutual beneficial engagement where qualified diaspora returnees gain emotional and other opportunities through the physical return have not been examined in great depth. Indeed, deeply embedded within the motivation to return to Somalia are commitments to better one’s self, but also the communities in Somalia. It is a sort of engagement based on reciprocity and mutual benefit.

For the majority of Somalis living in the West today, their tales of migration began in late 1980s or early 1990s. Extreme civil unrest began with horrific atrocities in Somaliland, and was followed by generalized violence across Somalia that forced hundreds of thousands into exile.

No strangers to migration, most of Somalia’s population has used mobility as a primary means of survival for centuries. But for the first time in history Somalis were reaching far away places in great numbers. This would be an exodus, with consequences that would affect every aspect of life for both these communities and their relatives who remained in Somalia.

The intricate nature of diaspora involvement with communities in Somalia exposed them to harsh realities in the region. Furthermore, the fact that diaspora Somalis maintained such close relationships, through remittances primarily, over the years also meant diaspora stayed closely connected with (and implicated in) the rapid changes and development across Somalia. Indeed, Somali diasporas in the West were often seen as agents of change from afar, in positive and in some negative ways.

The ideal return

While mass and repeated waves of expulsions characterize the nature of recent Somali migration, Somalis with considerable resources and networks are those who most likely ended up migrating and settling in the West. Subsequently, opportunities in Western countries like education, and ability to work and attain “highly prized citizenship”, have further heightened awareness about “diaspora privilege” vis-à-vis continued suffering in Somalia.

At the heart of their new engagement, Western diaspora Somalis show the desire to contribute to the development and reconstruction of Somalia. Given the multiplicity of modes of diaspora contributions to Somalia, it is particularly important to underscore the way in which some Somalis in the diaspora frame their decision to return as a more ideal form of contribution.

The following quote underlines that many Somalis in Western diaspora locations have been able to gain good education, and in many ways they are aware of their privileges. A Somali-American diaspora returnee to Mogadishu points to some considerable changes which the Somali community in Minnesota is experiencing: 

"I feel that aside from the fact that this is our country, we have a responsibility to give back. Education is a privilege, that experience of being in [the West] for those many years is a privilege. I feel that we can actually do something positive here seeing as this is a country that is re-building. We need all hands on deck, we need everyone who can come back to come back. Not everyone can come back though, not everyone has that luxury, some can’t afford to come back [in the same way]. That’s why I am here."

Diaspora returnees overemphasize the ideal motivations of return. A strategic decision that combines the personal as well as the ideal, temporary return enables diaspora Somalis to tap into distinct opportunities available in Somalia but at the same time remain intrinsically connected to their adopted societies—evident in multiple and cyclical returns. For a small group of diaspora based Somalis, the fluidity of borders as such opens up a space for keeping a livelihood and engaging in multiple transnational spaces.

In other words, diaspora members continue to maintain their lives in host countries, many even keep their businesses and jobs, but return to Somalia to take advantage of other opportunities. Overall this phenomenon severely challenges dominant views about citizenship and belonging. It indeed even helps us to redefine how we as scholars have traditionally grasped the nature and character of Somali diaspora engagement.

Diaspora members continue to maintain their lives in host countries, but return to Somalia to take advantage of other opportunities.

The Western diaspora Somalis returning for work, investment or for political positions envisages broader and more effective impacts than sending financial remittances can aim to achieve. In the past few years the return migration patterns of Somalis in the United States and Norway suggest a shift in the ways they envisage their roles in Somalia’s future to be. More and more, this is being articulated as an obligation towards the homeland.

The decision to move back to Somalia (even temporarily) requires mobilization of networks and resources and utilizing available financial and social capital, chiefly education and Western citizenship. Many indeed return for distinct opportunities that fulfill personal goals. However, little distinction is made between achieving personal goals and aiming to better the lives and transferring skills to individuals and communities in Somalia.

The decision to return is neither an obvious one, nor it is a feasible option for most of Western based diaspora members. In the following quote from an interview with a returnee to Garowe, he expresses the strong urgency to return, but also highlights that this return may not be feasible for everyone. The passage here also underlines the ideal motivation behind his return:

"I had an opportunity to be educated and I have learned a lot. I wanted to help my people in any way I could. This has always been my dream: to come back and contribute to this country. I was not economically motivated to return – in fact I had a comfortable life and a good income. I chose to come back because I knew that the country was experiencing a capacity problem. [It] needed people who were educated, had knowledge and experience to come back. My biggest influence here is to help and “feed” my country. [But] different people have different views; not everyone wants to come back. Some people don’t want to leave the cushy life that they have [in the West]".

This new type of engagement reflects the changes that diaspora Somalis have undergone in the two decades since the largest scale of migration to the West have begun. Notwithstanding feelings of alienation and marginalization in the West, as well as some significant setbacks in education and employment, arguably diaspora Somalis have made some notable achievements in their countries.

An “elite” group of Somalis are those with access to opportunities to pursue education, gain professional experiences and save money in their new host societies. The ability to acquire citizenship of affluent Western states is an immensely important opportunity without which the return to Somalia would be difficult to consider.

Patterns of return

A number of factors facilitate the return of diaspora Somalis from countries like the US and Norway. Having citizenship of these countries enables a unique type of return movement enabling them to go back to the Somali regions while still having the ability to return to their country of citizenship.

For many who make the decision to return, their return is seldom permanent. The immediate families of these individuals still remain in the host societies; returnees still see it imperative to have the opportunity to go back for visits. In addition to having families in host countries that act as a pull factor back to the US or Norway, diaspora Somalis also need to access certain services, particularly health care. This is especially true for older returnees.

Overall the unpredictable conditions in Somalia make returnees anxious about permanent return. Though seeing their presence in Somalia as the epitome of commitment to the country and its communities, the length of the time spent in the region rests on a number of conditions. Firstly, employment contracts in Somalia tend to be short term. Getting another contract rests on the organization and the availability of more projects. For those who have returned for political positions, the volatile nature of Somali politics means that they are often there for short periods of time.

Secondly, security situation in much of the Somali region renders permanent return unfeasible. This is especially true for diaspora returnees in Mogadishu. Despite relative security in late 2012 and 2013, threats to diaspora returnees in Mogadishu, particularly those in political positions, has increased. Al-Shabaab has issued direct threats to diaspora returnees in general, and anyone associated with the government has become a target for assassinations.

Generally the lack of infrastructure and the security concerns in Mogadishu in particular inhibit the ability of diaspora returnees to consider long-term return to Somalia with their families. The decision to go back to Somalia often separates families, as children for the most part have to stay in the US or Norway due to lack of adequate education available in Somalia, and elderly family members may require access to health services that are not available in the Somali regions.

Hence, health care and adequate education are two crucial services without which the families of returnees will not relocate. Diaspora returnees don’t pack up their lives in host societies as a result of making a commitment to live and work in Somalia. Effectively they continue to live in two places.

Adequate education is crucial service for the families of returnees.  

Local contestations of return

Both diaspora returnees and communities in Somalia ascribe labels onto each other that are further reproduced through the return migration of diaspora Somalis. For returnees and for those living in Somalia, a “local” is someone who has not had the diasporic experience of living in the West for a number of years and does not have a Western foreign passport.

Conversely, Somalia-based non-diaspora individuals also use the label to assert authenticity, and to denote their resilience. In many cases, locals like to highlight that their decisions to stay in Somalia through its worst episode is a testament to their patriotism and loyalty. They express a desire that these experiences are recognized and rewarded.

Intriguingly, Somalis who have lived in non-Western countries even for long periods of time, but who did not have Western passports are still considered “local”. The definition of a local therefore includes also many Somalis who have lived in other parts of Africa, in the Gulf, or in South and South East Asia.

One of the most important findings speaks of ways in which local communities distinguish between “good” and “bad” diaspora. The following discussion that took place in Mogadishu highlights how sophisticated the locals’ grasp of the types of diaspora returnees is. In general, successful diaspora returnees are those who are able to take advantage of the opportunities that were presented to them in the West. Those include getting a good education and university degrees, as well as working.

At the same time, successful or good diaspora returnees would have had to maintain Somali traditions and observed Islamic teachings whilst they were away in the West. This is the group of diaspora returnees who are perceived to be in a good position to contribute to Somalia’s development and rebuilding efforts.

"You have different groups, and you can name two: those who are educated, and others who aren't… I think the educated ones are those who can make positive contributions [to Somalia] and the uneducated diaspora returnees are the ones who tend to bring more negatives. Amongst the positives that they have done bring better quality to the country and encourage more investments – there used to be investments before but now it has increased. They have brought new ideas that were not here before."

In addition to this noteworthy distinction, many locals shared strong opinions about the particular sectors (types of work) where they felt diaspora returnees’ contributions were most needed and welcomed. By far, contributing to business investments was considered most worthy by locals. Returnees can make direct and tangible impacts by providing services and products for local communities whilst also generating job opportunities for the unemployed youth of Somalia.

For the most part, diaspora returnee contributions in the civil society sector are perceived to be self-serving. Returnees who work in development or humanitarian sectors are viewed to be operating “their own organizations”, and using their language skills and passports in order to speak “the NGO language” to get funding for projects that seldom benefit the local communities.

Returnees who work in development or humanitarian sectors are often viewed to be operating “their own organizations”.

Of all areas of contributions, locals do not welcome diaspora returnees coming back to hold high governmental positions, or to engage in politics. This was a sentiment shared across the Somali regions. In Somaliland, locals revealed that returnees in politics had little understanding of local political realities, and therefore were unfit to lead. Additionally, because many diaspora returnees have been away from Somalia for decades, they tend to hold on to old grievances, and to replicate past mistakes.

In this sense, diaspora politicians reignite clan politics in Somalia, some locals claimed. A number of misconceptions are fueled by difficulties of finding spaces that would allow for discussions between the locals and the diaspora returnees.

Dialogue between the locals and the diaspora needed

An emerging “elite diaspora” frames return to Somalia as a more ideal form of engagement than financial remittances sent from the West. Returning for work allows educated and qualified Somalis to invest newly acquired skills and knowledge where it is needed in Somalia. They also see that their contributions are indispensable for progress of the country in the long run.

In this configuration, the main motivation for return to Somalia is to “give back” – an abstract rationale that is largely based on idealist notions about the obligation that largely rests on the shoulders of these diaspora members. However, motivation behind the decision to return is a complex interplay of emotional factors and opportunities in Somalia. As much as the idealist and moral part of return is emphasized, there are also compelling personal triggers that culminate in the decision to (often temporary) return. Once in Somali regions, their commitment and legitimacy are questioned, however.

If conditions across the Somali regions continue to improve, more and more Western based Somali diaspora will seriously consider return – even for shorter periods of time. Many will want to contribute through investment of resources, expertise and education. A debate and dialogue between diaspora returnees and locals is timely and should be further encouraged.

Maimuna Mohamud 

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Maimuna Mohamud is an independent researcher working on issues related to forced migration, gender and diaspora studies. She has recently written a Policy Brief based on the research presented in this article for the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu, Somalia. The author gave a key note presentation on the topic in a seminar co-organized by the Finnish Somalia Network and the University of Helsinki, Finland in November 2014.

Photos: Laura Meriläinen-Amaumo

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