No welcome mat for Somalia refugee
Seven months later, living in exile, I’ve found that the threatening phone calls haven’t stopped. Nowadays, however, they are not from would-be assassins. Instead my cellphone rings with warnings from immigration officials in countries where I have sought, usually without success, to find a safe place to live.
“Why don’t you leave?” was the near-daily taunt from one government official in Djibouti, who called so frequently I almost began to consider him a friend.
Since leaving my home, I’ve bounced from country to country around East Africa, trying to find one willing to accept someone with a passport from Somalia. I was threatened with arrest in Djibouti for overstaying my visa; kicked out of Somaliland for being a “foreign” journalist; welcomed by Uganda, but only as the country grappled with an Ebola outbreak; and finally allowed into Kenya after paying an exorbitant $700 fee. In keeping with my unlucky streak, two days after I arrived in Kenya, the country held its disputed election, ushering in weeks of violence and inter-ethnic killing.
My story is not uncommon. Many of Somalia’s 600,000 displaced people have left the country; but few are finding host nations willing to lay down a welcome mat. And in a region where free media are rare, my press pass hasn’t exactly opened doors for me either.
Unless you are willing to live in camps along the Kenya- Somalia border, qualifying as a U.N.-recognized refugee is tricky. Charities and United Nations agencies focus their help on refugees living in camps, but there is little assistance for those of us struggling to make it on our own. And amid the U.S.-sponsored anti-terrorism “war,” traveling as a Somali can be risky and complicated, even before you consider that Somalia has not issued valid passports since the government collapsed in 1991.
After leaving Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, my first stop was Djibouti, a tiny country just to the north. Early last year, I had relocated my wife and family there for their safety and it seemed a convenient place to settle.
But immigration officials did not agree, limiting me to a two-month visa. They reminded me that Djibouti has no free media, only state-run television and radio. So the last thing they wanted was a nosy reporter stirring things up. The message was clear: Don’t work.
Unable to make other arrangements and enjoying a reunion with my family, I exceeded the authorities’ time limit. But even before my 60-day visa had expired, the daily phone calls started. At first the callers were sympathetic. But soon their patience wore thin. Finally I was given 10 days to leave or face arrest. My family could stay, but I, as a journalist, had to go.
My next stop was Hargeisa, capital of the northern breakaway region known as Somaliland. I assumed I would be accepted there. After all, many still consider the region to be part of Somalia.
But due to the violence in Mogadishu, about two dozen other journalists had the same idea. We quickly became pawns in the political struggle over Somaliland’s independence. Authorities would only allow us to remain if the U.N. formally recognized us as refugees living in a “foreign” country. The U.N., which does not formally recognize Somaliland as a separate country, would only classify us as “internally displaced” people. So Somaliland gave us two days to leave.
Authorities there also appeared to be concerned that hosting journalists from Mogadishu might anger Somaliland’s powerful neighbor Ethiopia, which is backing Somalia’s transitional government and tightening relations with Somaliland.
Kenya was my next goal, but a visa was proving difficult to obtain. So I ended up in Uganda. The flight to Uganda was simple. The government was cooperative. The people were friendly. But as I arrived at the airport, officials informed me that the country was in the midst of a deadly Ebola outbreak, which ultimately killed 37 people and sickened more than 100 others.
So along with my visa at the airport came this friendly advice: Don’t shake hands with anyone. Avoid certain animals and food products. Stay away from public places. Don’t use public restrooms.
I thought living in Mogadishu was stressful, but I only lasted a week in Uganda. Most days I spent holed up in my hotel room, nursing a headache and glued to the television, watching coverage of the deadly virus.
I was relieved to hear that my Kenyan visa had been approved. The catch? It would cost $700 for one month. By contrast, Americans pay $50. To extend the visa would cost an additional $500 a month.
With no options, I dipped into my meager savings, said goodbye to Ebola and arrived in Kenya on Christmas Day, two days before the presidential poll.
While in Nairobi, the capital, I contacted the U.N. Commission on Human Rights office, hoping the agency would help me qualify for refugee status. If I could receive a letter from it certifying that I was forced to flee Somalia for my safety, I might be able to remain in Kenya without a visa.
The commission referred me back to the refugee camps near the Kenya-Somalia border, saying it would be easier to process my application there. I worried about the security risks of being so close to the border. And I had no desire to live in the camps, where I would be unable to find work and have to survive on food handouts from aid groups.
Meanwhile, I watched with dismay as Kenya, which I’d hoped would be a haven, descended into chaos. My front-row seat on the postelection violence and ethnic clashes stirred painful memories of my own nation’s struggles.
Somalia’s civil war began as early as 1988, when political disputes between President Mohamed Siad Barre and his political opponents began to take on a clan-based dimension, pitting the president’s Darod clan against the opposition’s Hawiye clan. It was like Kenya’s friction between President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe and opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Luo tribe.
One important difference, however, was that Somalia’s police and army took sides in the conflict, joining their clans and participating in the civil war. Security forces in Kenya have, for the most part, steered clear of the political struggles.
I was relieved when Kenya’s leaders resolved their standoff and agreed to share power. I know firsthand what happens when political leaders put their own ambitions and greed ahead of their country.
But for me, the next step is unclear. I’ll keep paying the $500 monthly visa fee, but my money will soon run out. Perhaps I’ll try Somaliland again, but I’d like to find a place where my family can be reunited. And I’m eager, sometimes desperate, to return to work.
As a journalist, there are so many stories about Somalia that I want to write. But returning to work in Mogadishu seems impossible given the ongoing pressure on journalists. This month, the government raided three local radio stations.
For now, my only assignment is finding a new home.
Albadri has worked as a journalist for several Western media outlets, including The Times.