x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

They fled a war, but still look back

Two decades of violence have scattered Somalis around the globe with many seeking refuge in the UAE.

DUBAI / ABU DHABI // Tucked behind the dazzling shopfronts of Deira's gold souk and back through the maze of alleyways, a hidden neighbourhood is bustling. Women crowd into shops looking for bargains on clothes or fabrics, while men sit on plastic chairs at the teahouses, sipping hot drinks and catching up with old friends. They converse in the language of their African homeland, more than 2,000km away.

Many have lived here for decades, while others have only been here for a matter of days, but all feel closer to home in this small patch of Somalia in the UAE. Nearly two decades of civil war have wreaked havoc on the lives of millions in the East African country, as well as those who were able to flee. Today, Somalis can be found all over the world, from neighbouring Kenya to the US and throughout the UAE, where the population is estimated at around 30,000.

In a narrow street in the Al Ras area of the gold souk, where there are said to be close to 70 Somali-run gold and clothes shops, a group carrying Australian, British and American passports gathers. Somalis are predominantly Muslim and feel a strong connection to the Arab world. Besides their native language, Somali, many speak Arabic and some English. Jin Ali, 30, from Mogadishu, who fled his war-torn country in 1995 and secured citizenship in the US before relocating to the UAE two years ago, sums up the feeling of many when he says simply: "We are all Somalis."

Sitting in front of his textile shop, he adds: "This is a good, safe country, where I can work." Across the narrow ally, a rainbow of rolled-up fabrics, some flecked with gold, are stacked along the three walls of Noor Osman's shop. Mr Osman has been here for 18 years and is one of the lucky ones, able to bring his family to join him 11 years ago. He, his wife and four children live in Ajman, where Fatima, Abdul Rahman, Aba and Amina all attend school. "Here it is very good and we have business. I've had this shop for 11 years," Mr Osman said. "But, Mogadishu is in my heart, and I will go back if I can."

Although a new Somali government has now started issuing updated passports, many still carry worn, handwritten documents, which are only valid for travel to a few countries. Mr Osman held up his own passport issued in the 1980s; his much younger self staring out from the main page. Amina, from Brava, was 14 when she fled her country with her brother. "My parents told me to just go if you have the chance, so I did."

That was 20 years ago. Amina still works in Dubai, buying and reselling items to support herself. She says she will never go back now. Others, like Abdul Omar, 40, who runs a cargo business in the heart of the souk, now divide their time between the UAE and Somalia, where his family still lives. Much of Somalia has been without a functioning government since clan-affiliated militias overthrew the military dictatorship of Sayid Barre in 1991. After years of civil war and failed attempts at governments, the latest effort at a transitional federal government was installed earlier this year. Now operating from parts of Mogadishu, the government headed by President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed faces the daunting task of establishing law and order in the volatile and fractured country.

Some Somalis here lament the lack of understanding about their homeland and the complex history that has lead to divisions, coups and bloodshed. Mention the country to a non-Somali, and many people's first thoughts are of bandits and pirates. While much of the southern and central parts of the country remain unstable, northern areas including Puntland and Somaliland are relatively peaceful and prosperous.

Somaliland, a self-proclaimed independent republic, has a functioning government, but is yet to be recognised by the international community. According to some Somalis in the UAE, the streets of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, are a world away from the lawlessness of Mogadishu. Maryam Aw Abdi, 29, a dental surgeon, is a second-generation Somali from the north. Although Dr Aw Abdi was born and raised in the UAE and has only been back to Somaliland a few times, she has a strong sense of her Somali identity.

Her parents did not finish school, but they were adamant that their children would be given good educations. Dr Aw Abdi's father arrived in the UAE four decades ago in search of work, one of a flood of young Somalis, some just teenagers, who ventured to the Gulf in the mid-60s. Mr Aw Abdi travelled with friends to the Yemeni city of Aden before boarding another ship for Dubai, then just a small trading town. He and his friends decided to try their luck further up the coast in Abu Dhabi.

As the family legend goes, the young men walked the 150km up the coast, not knowing what would they would find. Luckily he was able to land a job as a driver and decided to stay, but with the intention of returning to Somalia. Forty years later, he and his family are is still here. Abu Dhabi is the only home his 10 children have ever known. "I always thought that I was part of this country and everything was fine," Dr Aw Abdi said. "But, when I met my family [in Somaliland] I felt like I belonged. The UAE has been very kind to us, but suddenly I felt like it was a second home."

Most of the UAE's Somalis are businessmen; some are traders, involved in shipping, others run hotels or import livestock from their home country. Others still work in the medical and government sectors. Sharif Baalawi is the head of the Somali Business Council, which has some 200 members. He has been in the UAE for 25 years, and raised his nine children here. "For everyone his home is where he is born, so we are thinking of Dubai as a second home," he said. "But my children look to Dubai as home."

Bashir Goth, a veteran journalist and poet based in Abu Dhabi, is another of the long-term members of the community, having first arrived to the UAE in the early 1980s. "Somali people are very resilient, especially considering that over the last 20 years they have had to deal with civil war," he said. Many Somalis who lived here have now moved on to other parts of the world such as Britain, Canada, the US and Scandinavia. Some have been given refugee status, while others have simply moved on to establish a new life.

But not all have been so lucky. Some are here illegally and have spent time in jail because of their lack of documentation. Others struggle to survive on meagre incomes from temporary jobs. One woman, who would only identify herself as Naima, 25, has been in the UAE for five years, but recently lost her job and does not have a valid visa. "If you don't have a visa then you don't get a job, and it is a lot of money to get a visa," she said. "I can't go back to Somalia because of the fighting, but there is no one to help me. I just want to find a job."

Members of the community such as Dr Hassan Shurie, a consultant at Dubai's Department of Health and Medical Services, work to help vulnerable Somalis here, as well as those back in their homeland. Dr Shurie has been in the UAE since 1991. Back home, he taught at Mogadishu University's faculty of medicine. "When the civil war started, everything was destroyed. You don't have to be that intelligent to know that if you can leave, you should," he said.