Despite yearlong war Somalia is heaven for foreign refugees

Published on Monday 7th July 2008

Somalia: Despite 17 years of war and anarchy that caused death and injury of thousands of people and the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of others inside and outside the war-torn horn of African country, Somalia has been a "haven" for hundreds of foreign refugees from other African countries, particularly the Tanzanian island of Pemba, for the past eight years.

Mussa Suleinman, a Zanzibari refugee in Mogadishu, says he left his homeland along with a hundred and seventy families in 2001 as a result of unrest in the Indian Ocean Island of Pemba.

Suleiman, who now works as a barber in the south of Mogadishu, told Xinhua that the Tanzanian refugees had stayed in camps in Kenya before they decided to come here in Somalia.

"There was no help for us from aid organizations there and we could not get jobs and suffered a lot, so we came here," said Suleiman, who is now married to a Somali woman and has one child.

When the Zanzibari refugees arrived in Mogadishu back in 2001 they were welcomed by local residents and settled in one of the deserted former government buildings in Mogadishu where they still live.

"We were first given assistance by local people here who helped us with food, clothing and shelter but with time we had to fend for ourselves," Rashid Ahmed, vice chairman of the refugees, told Xinhua.

"Some us of us started working as carpenters, teachers, or fishermen while others started their own small businesses but most of us work as barbers to earn our living," said Ahmed, a barber.

Somalia has been through war for the past 17 years and all the economic infrastructures collapsed along with the collapse of the national Somali government in 1991. Unemployment has been rife and millions of Somalis relay on foreign aid.

Thus, because many Zanzibari refugees could not get jobs to sustain themselves and their families in Mogadishu, nor could they get enough aid from local or international agencies, some have gone to other regions to seek jobs while others have turned to begging in the streets.

"Most of those who went to other Somali towns like Hobyo, Kismanyo and Bossaso work on their own as fishermen," Ahmed said.

"They have their own small boats and go out into the sea to fish and trust their luck just like every other people in the sea," he adds.

The Horn of Africa nation with the modern history of producing some of the most numerous refugees has been a semblance of safe haven for hundreds of refugees not only from Zanzibar but from Somalia's eastern neighbor Ethiopia.

Hundreds of other long-term refugees from the Ethnic Oromos have lived in Somalia since the 1977 war between Somali and Ethiopia. Although most have returned to their home country as part of the UNHCR voluntary repatriation program of the 1980s, many still remain as second generation Somalis who know no other land as their own.

"I am Somali but Ethiopian Oromo originally because I only speak Somali and cannot utter a word of Oromo just like my father did," says Yusuf Mohamed, a Somali of Ethiopian origin in Mogadishu.

But the Zanzibar refugees have arrived in Somalia as the country was in the middle of grinding civil strife that has been going on for nearly the past two decades.

However, Zanzibar refugee leaders say that they do not feel any discrimination against them and they are not particularly targeted by any of the sides in the ongoing violence. They say they are respected as guests by all Somalis.

But the foreign refugees have had their share of the effects of the ongoing daily conflict in south Somalia, particularly in Mogadishu.

"One of the (Zanzibari) refugees lost his leg after being hit by a shell," Ahmed said.

A number of the refugees have fled the capital just like other people in Mogadishu to seek refuge in the internally displaced camps on the outskirts of the coastal city living in makeshift shelters and waiting for the occasional handout from local and international aid agencies.

Nevertheless, despite their linguistic difference, the Zanzibari refugees have been assimilated well into the local Somali population with a number of them married to local Somali women and have some children with them.

"All our children born here and those brought here young speak Somali better than Kiswahili and I believe we have been destined to be part of this great nation which is unfortunately going through its most difficult period," says Ahmed. "We hope one day there will be peace and brotherhood among all Somalis."