After crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean at the age of 17, Farah has charmed the European Parliament, many NGOs and international organizations, and is about to publish a book. In their suitcase, migrants also bring optimism, ambition and a great potential to be discovered.
He says he does not want any pity. His guiding principle is ‘go after your dreams’ and it seems he has already achieved a few: magazines feature him on their cover, European politicians request his presence and NGOs are fighting over him. This is Farah Abdullahi Abdi, 20, stylized Afro hairstyle, capri pants and wine coloured leather jacket. Distinguishing feature: he crossed the Mediterranean in one of those boats loaded with refugees which often make the headlines. The Mediterranean is the shortest, but most dangerous stretch of an uncertain migration route. He has also been imprisoned five times in Libya, and tortured. This happened in 2012, he was only 17 (1). But, again, he doesn’t want any pity, he just wants to live his life and his dreams, to write and to talk.
This charming activist and blogger was facilitating a youth session at a UNHCR conference in Geneva in early July, during which he even managed to make the audience laugh. Invited from event to event, he is no longer a master of his time. But what drives this amazing young man? “I do all this so that I can have a sense of belonging,” he says.
“I was in this very, very dark place, and I knew that it was either going to be me leaving, or killing myself”
It’s difficult for Farah to determine where his home is, as he is twice a refugee. First in Kenya, then in Malta. Born in Somalia, one of three countries in the world from where most refugees originate, he fled the civil war ravaging his country at the age of three, with his family. “As she could see no solution to the conflict,” he says, “my mother decided to leave, so she could give us an education.” First refugee camp: Kakuma, in northwest Kenya. The family stayed there for three months. “The living conditions were unbearable, worse than Somalia. It was really hot during the day and there were no sanitary facilities.” So the family moved to Nairobi, where Farah grew up and learned Swahili and English. He did not have any integration difficulties in Kenya, unlike Malta, where his blog, reputation and origins are often criticized. “When I made the cover of the Sunday Circle [a Maltese lifestyle magazine], the reaction was fierce, some people were outraged: ‘So now you dress refugees in Armani? They are no longer poor?'” says Farah, mimicking their offended attitude. As far as he is concerned, he just loved “being a diva for a day.”
Cautious, the magazine preferred not to reveal the reason that made Farah leave his cocoon in Nairobi to venture on a journey that many people pay with their life (2). His own mother was not aware either: “You want to get yourself killed?” she asked, “you want to die in the Mediterranean? Why do you want leave?” Farah remembers: “I was very depressed, so she gave me $ 400 a week to buy clothes, hoping it would make me happy.” He left without being able to tell her the truth.” I was in this very, very dark place, and I knew that it was either going to be me leaving, or killing myself.” How could he talk to his mother about his sexual orientation, which he had hidden from everyone, when in Somalia, his home country, homosexuals are considered “a danger to society”, and in Kenya, his host country, they face up to 14 years in prison? In Africa, at least 35 countries, Christian or Muslim, punish homosexual acts legally (3).
“I don’t believe there is a problem with migrants or refugees in Europe, it’s just a problem of skin colour”
Farah kept his secret across the desert and the Mediterranean. Before embarking for Europe, he did not know his destination. “From Libya, some ships arrive in Lampedusa, others in Malta, no one knows in advance where they are going,” he says. By chance, he reached the English speaking island. As he knew the language, he was able to stand out immediately. After an X-ray scan determined his age, he was quickly taken out of the detention center where refugees are confined to join an open center for minors. There he was able to confide in a psychotherapist. “Your story is very important”, she told him, “If you do not talk, your asylum request will be rejected.” It took him three months before he felt ready to tell the reasons for his migration to the authorities. Recognizing the risk of persecution linked to his sexual orientation, Malta quickly granted him refugee status.
The young man found work on a construction site, and then in a restaurant. “In Malta”, we learn, “asylum seekers can work legally from the age of 16.” He sums up the needs of young refugees in three words: integration, therapy, employment. For him, learning the language of the host country is a requisite for integration: he was able manage because he spoke English. “A lot of girls and boys”, he adds, “were beaten and raped during their journey, they need psychological counselling”. As for employment, it is the best way not to be a burden to the host country. “I work, I pay my taxes, I study, I am just part of the society.” Contrary to popular belief, in most countries migrants pay more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in aid. Particularly in Switzerland, where they bring to the state a net profit estimated at 2% of the GDP (4).
Safe and comfortable today, he is not afraid to testify. “Yes, human trafficking is a lucrative business, especially in Libya.” He reveals the total cost of his journey: 12 000 US dollars from Nairobi to Malta, paid in instalments by his mother, to accounts in Doha and Dubai. “The traffickers would give us instructions: ‘Call your loved ones, tell them to deposit the money in this account, and once we have your money, you will be able to move forward with your journey'” (5).
“No, I don’t believe there is a problem with migrants or refugees in Europe, it’s just a problem of skin colour.” For Farah, the world faces more pressing issues, such as climate change and corruption. “For politicians”, he asserts, “migrants are an easy scapegoat. They don’t have a voice, they don’t have the voting power, so if you blame them, if you make them look like a burden, if you make them look like the bad guys, then at the end of the day they don’t vote for you, so you are just convincing your public to hate them, in the hope of you getting votes.”
Farah remembers the time he spent in the minor center. “Some of the staff were very xenophobic, they would said: ‘Go back to your country, you are wasting our resources.'” Poorly paid, probably victims of the crisis with their families, “they could not stand the way the government was taking care of us, giving us seven euros pocket money per week, three meals a day, everything we needed”. He can understand them. “I have gone through it too”, he admits. “Whenever I was very angry, whenever I was very depressed and very sad, I would look at the nearest targets I could find to put them down so they would suffer with me.”
Farah wants to continue living his dreams. He has the potential and the ambition for that. As a refugee and homosexual, he wants to continue his double fight against exclusion. Publish his book. Become a stylist. Complete his studies in international relations (to work in the UN, his plan B). Abolish frontiers. “I am a citizen of the world,” he declares, “my country is condemned since my birth, am I doomed because my country is doomed? No,” he insists, “I am a citizen of the world.”
- 1. According to UNHCR, more than 50% of refugees are minors.
- 2. In 2012, the year Farah arrived in Malta, 500 migrants lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean.
- 3. http://www.loc.gov/law/help/criminal-laws-on-homosexuality/african-nations-laws.php
- 4. www.oecd.org
- 5. Farah travelled with his cousin by public bus from Nairobi to Juba, in southern Sudan, where he was taken in charge by the first group of traffickers. He was then tossed around between Juba and Khartoum, from stopover to stopover, from trafficker to trafficker, joining a new group of refugees every time. He crossed the Sahara packed at the back of a pick-up truck with 33 other people before arriving in Libya. There he was arrested 5 times by militia, and his family had to pay each time for his release. It took him seven months to cross the country before reaching the Mediterranean.
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