Can Europe Make It?

Meet the Somalis: choose a story

These are little stories, vignettes that offer unique insights into the every day struggles of Somali migrants living in the cities of Europe.

Nazia Hussain
13 November 2013

How does it feel to be a displaced Somali living in Europe? How does it feel to be a migrant who has successfully escaped a brutal war, violence by Islamic and clan extremists, economic hardship, and a paucity of prospects for the future and who has, despite high expectations, encountered alienation in foreign lands where so many people accept migrants grudgingly, if at all?

What experiences do legal and illegal Somali migrants have as they live among Dutch, English, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish people who have been inundated by news stories about Islamic terrorists attacking buses, train stations, and airports in Europe? How do migrants feel under the constant gaze of the police and the nagging drumbeat of rejection for jobs and places in schools? How do Somali kids in Europe feel when commonplace kid-on-kid callousness is trained upon the Somalis’ physical and cultural differences? How do Somali and other migrants experience the process of Europeans coming to grips emotionally with the fact that, during an economic downturn exacerbated and prolonged by austerity policies, the flow of African and Asian migrants into their countries is continuing to add new ethnic and religious threads into the woof and weft of the societal fabric they have come to know growing up?

Meet the Somalis, a series of illustrated narratives commissioned by the Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe Project, captures the experiences of Somalis of many backgrounds living in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Leicester, London, Malmo, and Oslo. These are little stories, vignettes that offer unique insights into the every day struggles of Somali migrants. The stories are based upon interviews and what Somali migrants say.

Here are the experiences of Jamilah, who was born in Finland to a woman who had escaped war-torn Somalia while pregnant. Jamilah endures rejection after rejection as she and her mother attempt to persevere in their Islamic faith and work to succeed. Jamilah eventually finds her way into a fashion school in London, only to find herself feeling a new layer of alienation and the strains of her emotional bond with the country of her birth: Finland.

Baashi felt the sting of alienation when he arrived as a migrant in Amsterdam with false papers. He was consigned to a series of detention centres before his asylum request was rejected. He flees detention in order to avoid an expulsion order and joins an underground of illegal migrants on the run, including an Iranian. They share their fears of what would become of them if the authorities in Holland apprehended them and deported them. The Iranian commits suicide. Baashi entertains thoughts of killing himself.

On the night of her exams in Denmark, Sagal is ready to blow off steam by dancing with her friends - Somali and Danish - only to be refused admission into a club because she is wearing a headscarf. “I was born here,” Sagal erupts in frustration. “I speak Danish. I pay taxes. Yet somehow because I’m a Muslim I’m second class. No! Worse! I’m offensive!” A friend comes to the rescue, with Beyoncé tickets.

Magool in Malmo, Sweden, recalls the life she led in a grass hut, a life torn apart by the war-related deaths of her first husband, her daughter, and her parents, by injuries sustained in an artillery attack, by the nagging, hope-eroding routine of life in a refugee camp, and by separation from her second husband after she and a new daughter were granted asylum in Sweden. Magool feels her life constrict around her, cut off from the Swedes by an inability to speak Swedish and afraid to venture out of her small neighborhood because she cannot ask directions. She gets help from a counsellor, who helps her come to grips with the loss of her first daughter, buried so far away. She learns to throw snowballs with her young daughter coming of age with a father she knows only through Skype conversation.

Amiir and his wife and children made it to Norway after violence ripped through Mogadishu in 1991. They dream of returning to Somalia to live and after two decades of life in Norway, they take their children back to Somalia for a visit. They arrive in their home village only to find that the kids have developed expectations and assumptions about life that are more Norwegian than Somali, and that for them, from now on, Norway is home.

Musta tells his story of trying to make ends meet in Europe while sending home enough money to Somalia to keep his family members there alive. “For 10 years I was burdened with constant guilt. I love my family,” he explains. “My responsibility is to them but their needs are so great. I could never earn enough to lessen their suffering.”

Faaid flees his home when the Islamic militia, al-Shabaab, comes looking for young men to  pressgang into their ranks. His mother sells land to help him escape and after a grinding wait, he ends up in Oslo on the dole, living with his mother, taking Norwegian lessons, and searching without luck for a job. “How I wish the violence would end,” he tells a friend. “How I wish I could go back. This is no life here. No job, no wife, no money, no house, no respect … It is no home where you are not wanted.”

These are voices of people whose experiences are unknown to so many other Europeans, voices of a people who are hungry to reach out, filled with desire for contact and acceptance, and who yearn to fit in and earn their way in this one precious life, to establish and strengthen a sense of community among themselves, and to enrich, not diminish the countries that have become their homes.

Visit Meet the Somalis to read all 14 stories in the collection.

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