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Diasporic youth: untapped asset in rebuilding Somalia

There has been little consideration of the possible positive contributions of Somali youth from the diaspora. 

Yasin Ahmed Ismail
25 April 2013

For the last two decades, Somalia has been widely known for famine, anarchy and piracy. Since 1991, the Somali nation has been engulfed in a civil war between various tribes fighting for power and a radical militant group fighting to overthrow the newly elected government. Al-Shabab, the militant group whose name in Arabic means ‘The Youth” have managed to tarnish the image of Somali youths due to their recruitment of Somali youths from North American cities and other Somali diaspora communities. This stigma of radicalization has stuck – especially when it comes to those from the diaspora – who are as a result the subject of numerous academic studies and controversies. However, there has been little consideration of the possible positive contributions of Somali youth from the diaspora. 

Somali diaspora

During the last 22 years of Somalia’s civil war, thousands of Somalis fled to neighbouring countries as refugees, and those who were best educated resettled in the western world and in the Middle East. Throughout the civil war, the Somali diaspora population has kept the Somali nation alive, remitting more than $1 billion a year. Today, educated Somalis from the diaspora serve or have served in the highest positions of government; including the former Prime Minister who is a Harvard graduate and a former Professor of Economics at Niagara University. This diasporic population is today estimated at around a million, or 14% of Somalia’s population, making it one of the largest such populations in the world.

Based on literature reviews, the issues surrounding the involvement of the diaspora in their home countries have been studied extensively. These studies have covered everything from the financial remittances sent from abroad to the contribution to development undertaken by the members of the diaspora. In general, the diaspora population is today gradually revealing itself to the international community as a significant player in the affairs of their homeland. This is true, especially given recent examples of members of the various diasporas participating in reconciliation efforts, reconstruction and peace building in Afghanistan, Liberia, Somalia and other countries that are in or emerging from conflict. However, the missing aspect from this study is what contribution the young people living in the diaspora can play in these rebuilding efforts.

I conducted a survey of Somali diasporic youths to fill this missing data on the diaspora. The aim of the research was to find the percentage of educated youths amongst this cohort, the level of education, language fluency and their willingness to return to Somalia. These factors are crucial to identifying the involvement of the Somali diaspora in rebuilding Somalia. Around 700 Somali youths from 38 countries responded to the survey. The data collected shows an untapped resource that the Somali nation could take advantage of as it strives to rebuild itself.

For the purpose of this survey, I defined ‘youths’ as those who are between the ages of 18-28 years old. The average age of those who participated in the survey was 22 years. 52% of the respondents were male and 48% female. 61% of the respondents were born in Somalia, and 19% of them once lived in a refugee camp. 37% of the respondents have been back to Somalia in the last five years. 64% of the respondents are citizens of the countries they currently reside in. Of all the respondents, 41% are fluent in three languages, while 17% are fluent in more than four. 90% of the respondents are fluent in the Somali language.

As pointed out earlier, the level of education of these young people is one crucial factor, if they are to be considered an asset not only by the Somali government but also by the international community during this rebuilding phase. Human capital is a scarce resource greatly needed in all aspects of institution-building and the physical reconstruction of Somalia, but at the same time it is the important variable that is missing. Of all the diaspora youths surveyed, 13% are either still in high school or possess a high school/GED diploma; 30% are still in college; 7% possess an associate degree; 38% have a Bachelor’s degree and the remaining 1% have obtained a doctorate.

Based on this data, 87% of the respondents are either working on a degree or already possess a degree. In addition, since a significant amount of the respondents are still in college, I further surveyed their field of study. From the survey; medicine, engineering, international relations, political science and business were the popular fields of study, even though majors ranging from aviation management, women’s studies and graphic design are also being studied by Somali youths.

“As a young person who has only known of a Somalia in turmoil and famine, rebuilding it has always been at the forefront of my mind. Somali youths today who live in rich countries like the US and the UK have the unique opportunity to go to university, specialize in something and bring it back to Somalia. I feel as though the future of Somalia lies not in the hands of the people there, but in our hands. We’re given so many opportunities and we need to utilize them. Education is key. My family came to the United States long before the civil war in 1991, for the sole purpose of getting a higher education. Although the war destroyed Somalia, it brought us the opportunity to better it. Knowledge is power.” – a respondent to the survey.

Another important factor that the survey was designed to discover was the language fluency of Somali diasporic youth. No matter how educated they are; lack of fluency in the Somali language will significantly hinder the role they can play in the current and future affairs of the Somali nation. In addition, many of the older generation have accused the younger generation, especially those born in the diaspora of forgetting their culture and language. What I found is that Somali youths living in the diaspora are fluent in many languages, since they are scattered all over the globe. According to the survey, they were fluent in thirty different languages in total, with the majority of the respondents being fluent in Somali, Arabic, English and Swahili. But what was surprising was the percentage of youths fluent in the Somali language: 90% of all the respondents are fluent in the Somali language; of these, 70% categorized themselves to be very fluent and the other 30% estimated their fluency to be in the intermediate level. Based on the above results, the Somali language should not pose a hindrance to the role Somali youths in the diaspora can play.

Finally the most important criterion of all: the willingness to return back to Somalia:

“I believe that the instability that created this mass Somali migration has also benefited the country in that so many Somalis in the diaspora were able to receive first world university educations. There is now a Somali professional in perhaps every field. The responsibility and golden opportunity we now have as Somali youths is to pour these skills back into the country that gave birth to us. This very unique and pivotal point in our nation's history can be likened to the state of the British colonies during the time of the founding fathers of the United States. We literally are building a country from scratch.  Let's get to it!” – A respondent to the survey.

In this section of the research, the aim was to find the percentage of those willing to return to Somalia. To find this percentage, I divided the respondents into two categories; those who have degrees and those who are still in college. For those who possess a degree—whether an Associate’s, Bachelor’s or a Doctorate—54% said they were willing to go back any time, 46% said they are willing to go back when the security improves. In other words, all of the degree holders’ are planning to one day return to Somalia.

In the second category—those who are still in college—I surveyed their willingness to go back to Somalia after completing their education: 61% said they are willing to go back, 32% said they are willing when security improves, and 6% said they were not willing to return. In addition, in this section I also surveyed their willingness to temporarily return to work and volunteer in Somalia. I asked how willing were they to participate in a programme similar to the United States Peace Corps, whereby Somalis from the diaspora could volunteer and work in Somalia for either a month, a summer, a semester or a full year in a chosen field, depending on their schedule and availability—95% said they are willing to participate in such a programme. Furthermore, I surveyed their interest in running for public office and/or working for the Somali government; 61% responded as interested and 39% as not interested.

Conclusion

All of the above results point in one direction: Somali youths in the diaspora are educated, capable and more than willing to return and partake in the current rebuilding efforts for the future of the Somali nation. However, throughout the survey, the young people did show frustration at not being given a chance and not being taken seriously, even though most think they have something to offer. With the security of the country improving and the diaspora community returning, the new government and the international community need to start establishing direct channels and thereby include the diaspora youths in all facets of nation-building.

Moreover, with the majority of Somali diasporic youth being citizens of their respective countries, this demographic block could potentially act as a powerful lobby group on behalf of the Somali nation. It is now up to the Somali government and the international community to tap into this untapped asset, not only for reconstruction purposes but also  in order to modernize the economic, political and social structures that are already in place.

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