World Refugees Day

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Returnees and Refugees

We thought we were running late. Friday is the only non-working day in a week here in Somaliland. At the back of our house is Sheikh Mader Primary School, the venue of the World Refugee Day celebration here in Hargeisa. Groups of children, all returnees and refugees gathered, Ethiopian youngsters wore their tradition clothes, the Somali returnees their usual traditional long dresses.

I saw familiar faces, most of them the girls we played volleyball with, they ran towards me with their excited faces, “Farah kale!” they said, “Come here Farah” today is their big day, it’s the day of the volleyball competition for girls.

We witnessed the program where children performed drama, songs and dances. It was quite evident that the people were enjoying the affair, after all the celebration was organized for them. The theme evolved around protecting the rights of refugees, children’s right to play.

SONYO leaders were there to support SOCSA (SONYO member) the main local NGO who was UNHCR’s counterpart local organizer. Khadra was beaming seeing her girls at their best clothes and best performance.

I positioned myself at the back; most of the guests from other international organizations were in front. I wish I could vanish in the crowd and survive unnoticed. Unfortunately my skin hinders me from doing so. Just the same, I enjoyed the morning standing beside Ramha, Muna, Ulmeyster and Yurup, Somali returnees with ages 6-12. We clapped and swayed as the Oromo dances were performed.

Seeing Ethiopian children in their costumes beaming with pride was quite a sight. Seeing them sing and dance their music, their bodies swaying in the rhythm as natural as their blood flowing in their veins was really something. As Ismail (a young boy who practiced volleyball with us and the Ethiopian girls) puts it “Its their day.”

Walayta

Office hours stop at 2pm. My afternoons are usually spent at home, tapping my keyboard. Yesterday, I spent it at SOCSA (Somaliland Culture and Sports Association, it’s a youth local NGO that gives the opportunity for girls to play volleyball, basketball and table tennis. In Somaliland context, girls cannot play sports in public, its against Islam they said. Founders of this NGO were formerly part of Somalia’s basketball team for women. After the fall of the dictatorship, they continued their passion and struggled to keep this organization alive.

Khadra is the vibrant leader of SOCSA, the last time she visited my house, she and the girls were on their way to Erigavo to play. It is very seldom that this kind of competition for girls are organized, she rapidly takes the opportunity and found ways to fund the trip.

Khadra represented SOCSA during SONYO’s founding congress, she was part of the determined preparatory committee that organized the first youth umbrella organization in Somaliland. She’s one feisty woman,

I found the girls playing at the center, in the middle of the meeting with members of SONYO’s National Council, (Khadra was nice enough to host the meeting)I had to get out when I heard the girls singing and clapping “bole bole bolale…” its an Ethiopian song from Walyata tribe (one of Ethiopia’s 120 tribes). “They are Ethiopian refugees” Khadra explained. The girls aged 12-17 were singing and clapping in between the volleyball game. I was surprised to see Danilo from UNHCR (who drove me to the place) coaching and teaching the girls about the rules and rudiments of volleyball. Yes, he also joined in clapping and poured his might singing the bolale song to the amazement of the girls.

“They are practicing for the competition on Friday, June 20, its World Refugees Day.”Khadra explain. I watched the game, after doing my share in the meeting. You should see their faces and hear their laughter. They were in their traditional Somali dress, minus the shalma, although their hair was still wrapped. They ran and jumped so comfortably in the sand, their feet mingling with every grain, one could feel the sense of freedom in their every step, in every leap.

“Women couldn’t play in public, people throw stones at us, young boys specially those who were born after the war, have not seen girls playing sports, they usually ridicule and throw stones at girls who play.” Khadra added. “This is their home, this is the home of girls and women who wish to play sports, I know that someday the time will come that our society will accept that women, like men can play too.” Khadra added.

SONYO has a lot of members who are into promoting sports in Somaliland. This is their way to encourage the youth to do recreation activities and divert their attention from chewing qat, they do not want the future generation to become idle citizens of this country. Within SONYO, they are united in the belief that girls like boys have the right to be involve in sports.

Playing sports maybe natural for most of the people across the globe.It may not be a big deal. For the girls in Somaliland, it is indeed a big fight.

Comfort Zone

Somaliland is peaceful. One of the reasons why there has been an influx of refugees and returnees from neighbouring Ethiopia. They seek asylum or refugee status here in Somaliland. Some refugees are fighters of Oromo Liberation Front. They would be arrested, worse killed when they go back, that’s why they opt to settle here.

Maxamed Mogue is one of those refugee/returnee resettlement areas. Two to three years ago this area was occupied by the military. “This used to be a vacant lot” our driver Ali was quick to explain. “No houses, no nothing, only a military camp” he added.

International organizations and UN agencies have been responsible in assisting communities like Maxamed Mogue, now rows of houses stand in this vast land. Their houses are being transformed from a nomadic-like houses into structures made of wood/alumininum. Refugees have also managed to form organizations. Like the Somalis, women are the most active in the community.

“In refugee camps we had food ration, free medicines and clothes donated by agencies” Fadumo explained. “Now we have to work, everything is paid for, we have to work” she added. Safia, one of the leaders of UMMO umbrella organization, a coalition of small community organizations in Maxamed Mogue. “We pooled our money, we had 200,000 shillings ($26.00) to buy raw materials so we could make handicrafts, we had to increase it to 500,000 ($66.00) shillings for this is not enough” Safia narrated

Refugees are one of the more vulnerable sectors in Somaliland society. They don’t belong to any clan, therefore do not have any clan protection. Among civil society organizations, they are the least organized. The more vocal among NGOs are those that have received support from international organizations. Many of them cannot read of write, they organize themselves and hire teachers to conduct literacy classes.