A young Somali woman decides to adopt a baby abandoned on her doorstep, despite her family’s objections. A grandmother works in construction to support her family. A blind girl wants the world to know that she knows what it feels like to fall in love. These are just some of the people that two young Somalis have encountered while compiling the project “Somali Faces”. They want to show that Somalis are not all “pirates, terrorists and refugees”, like they feel they are represented in the media.
If you scan a list of the most recent articles written about Somalia by the Reuters news agency, this is what you’d read about.
- A people-smuggling ring in Italy taking advantage of Somali migrants
- A Somali immigrant in the US accused of supporting the Islamic State jihadist group
- A deadly attack in the Somali capital Mogadishu by militants from the al-Qaeda-aligned Al Shabaab group
- A Kenyan refugee camp full of Somalis that may be closed
- The risk of famine when food aid runs out
“We want to both challenge the narrative in the media and bring Somalis across the world closer together”
I fled Somalia with my family in 1991 when I was five [Editor’s note: That’s when the military regime was overthrown and Somalia first descended into chaos]. I grew up in the Netherlands. Donia lives in the US. As members of the diaspora, we’ve both struggled with what it means to be Somali.
When I was 16, I started rediscovering my Somali identity. When you research Somalia, the first things you come across are negative: it’s like we are all terrorists, pirates or refugees. So I started reading books about Somali history and interviewing members of the older generation. These stories gave me a window into Somalia that I didn't have before. I’ve been collecting stories ever since.
“The Somali romance of old was quite different than what you youngsters are used to now. Love and marriage was found in the movements of Somali cultural dances... At first there is lots of playful jest and humour... but the ones that usually succeeded were those who possessed eloquence of speech, no matter how penniless they were..” (London, United Kingdom)
Donia and I have been seriously working on this project for about a year. We are travellers, so when we meet interesting Somalis, we interview them and ask some questions and take pictures. We have collected about 500 stories, and we now post one a day on our website.
We want to use these stories to dispel misconceptions of Somalis and get past old stereotypes. “Somali Faces” is a platform where Somalis can share their aspirations, their hopes, and their regrets -- essentially, it’s a space where they can show the world that they are human.
But this project is also directed at Somalis themselves. Within the community, there is a lot of tribalism.
We are such a widely scattered community. People from the Somali ethnic group live in Somalia and Somaliland, but they also live in Kenya and Ethiopia and Tanzania [Editor’s note: Somaliland lies in northwestern Somalia. It broke away in 1991 and has an autonomous government and money system, but it isn’t recognised internationally]. Many others live in Europe, America, Asia or Australia.
There’s also a rift between Somalis back home and those who grew up in the west. We are one ethnic group, but we have different experiences. We want to both highlight our similarities as a people and minimize our differences.
The Somali civil war greatly increased the size of the Somali diaspora. Over a million Somalis are estimated to live outside of traditional Somali countries.
A lot of people compare us to Humans of New York. We use a similar platform with pictures and written words, but I think our goals are different. Brandon Stanton tries to capture the human side of strangers in NYC [Stanton founded Humans of New York. He takes photos and interviews people on the street]. Ultimately with “Somali Faces”, we are trying to create a shared narrative for the Somali people… to both challenge the narrative in the media and bring Somalis across the world closer together.
“We always start by asking a person to tell us about his or her background”
Once we enter the city, we ask our friends and contacts if they know of any inspirational stories in the city. Sometimes, we just stumble upon someone doing something interesting. That was the case with the grandmother working in construction. We saw this old woman working on a building site, and we knew she’d have a story.
Somalis are natural talkers, so we have to really work to keep our interviews relatively short and to keep people on topic. First we ask the person to tell us a bit about his or her background. Then, we listen carefully and we pick out our questions from there. We don’t shy away from sensitive, personal questions. Most people seem like they’ve been waiting for someone to ask them about their story. Sometimes, people are uncomfortable with us taking pictures of them, but that happens rarely.
“So many people wanted to help this young mother”
One of the most powerful stories we told was of a young Somali mother, living in an IDP camp [Editor’s note: IDP stands for internally displaced persons]. She was a single mother of eight children and she faced a lot of discrimination because she came from a minority group.
A lot of people in the diaspora told us that they didn’t know this kind of discrimination existed, and as a result many people wanted to help. We received around £3,000 [3,795 euros] in donations in less than a day.
The money came out of the blue -- we are storytellers, not a charity! But it made us think that we might want to work out a system to raise funds properly for other Somalis who might need our help.
“People live normal lives despite raging war and insecurity”
When I was a teenager, I thought I’d never go back to Somalia. But when I started interviewing people, it made me more hopeful and more willing to invest in things back home. It’s made both of us feel more emotionally connected to the Somali community.
When I do these interviews, the thing that I see the most is resilience. People live normal lives despite raging war and insecurity. They also still manage to move forward with their lives. Sometimes, I don’t think I would have the same resilience that they show, day in and day out.
Currently, Somalia's Western-backed government is struggling to rebuild the Horn of Africa nation after more than two decades of conflict. The al-Qaeda-linked group Al Shabaab controlled large swathes of Somalia until 2011 and still launch frequent attacks. Many people have fled during these past twenty years. More than a million people are estimated to make up the Somali diaspora [or 14% of the population, according to 2009 figures].