Young Somalis step in where government fails

  • >>Abdi Latif Dahir, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-02-17 17:54:39 BdST

She had just finished battling the floods, and then the bomb went off.

For a month of 10-hour days, Dr Amina Abdulkadir Isack, 27, tended to anaemic mothers, children with malaria and pregnant women as a volunteer in central Somalia, where record floods had left thousands of people in dire need of help the government could scarcely provide.

But only days after coming home, on a hot Mogadishu morning in late December, terrorists detonated an explosives-laden truck in a busy intersection, killing 82 people and injuring nearly 150, including university students studying to become health specialists and doctors like her.

Isack sprang right back into action, helping a youth-led crisis response team of volunteers who tracked the victims, called their families, collected donations and performed many services the government was too overwhelmed to manage on its own.

“The youth are the ones who build nations,” Isack said. “We have to rely on ourselves.”

Much like the floods before it, the attack in Mogadishu, the deadliest in Somalia in more than two years, underscored the feeble emergency response in a nation that is no stranger to natural and man-made disasters. The Somali government struggles to provide basic public services like health care and education, let alone a comprehensive response to emergencies.

Customers outside of Beydan Pastry coffee house in Mogadishu, Somalia on Jan 2, 2020.  The New York Times

Customers outside of Beydan Pastry coffee house in Mogadishu, Somalia on Jan 2, 2020.  The New York Times

Yet in the face of the country’s mounting challenges — from a changing climate to the indiscriminate violence of terrorism — young Somalis are increasingly getting organised and bootstrapping their way out of crises, rather than waiting on help from their government or its foreign backers.

Government officials say they do respond to the country’s emergencies, including establishing a national committee to aid the victims of the Dec 28 attack. Turkey and Qatar airlifted dozens of the badly injured. But many youth activists in Somalia say that the response from the authorities is often tardy or inadequate, making it all the more essential for citizens like themselves to jump in and help fill the gaps.

Somalia has experienced one degree or another of chaos for almost three decades, bedevilled first by clan infighting and then by violent extremism. But through it all, Somalis have found ways to not only establish thriving businesses, but also take on core state services like building roads and providing health care and education.

A view of Mogadishu, Somalia on Jan 2, 2020. The New York Times

A view of Mogadishu, Somalia on Jan 2, 2020. The New York Times

This independent spirit was amplified after militants with al-Shabab, a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaida, surrendered control of Mogadishu in 2011, effectively leaving the capital in the hands of an internationally-backed but weak government that has often been unable to secure the capital, much less the country.

Since then, young Somalis, including members of the diaspora who have returned home, have taken a leading role in the stabilisation and rebuilding process. They have worked on rehabilitating child soldiers, reviving domestic tourism, responding to humanitarian crises, organising multiple book fairs and even selling Somali camels to customers worldwide using bitcoins.

When a truck bombing in Mogadishu in 2017 killed 587 people and injured 316 others, hundreds of volunteers marshaled to identify victims, launched social media campaigns to appeal for global attention and collected tens of thousands of dollars to assist the operations of Mogadishu’s only free ambulance service, Aamin Ambulance.

Organisers of the response said they collected $3.5 million in donations; the government later contributed $1 million.

The year “2017 was a turning point for us,” Isack said. “Everyone knew someone who was impacted. It showed us we could do something to save lives.”

Despite their efforts, civilians can only do so much when attacks happen. And instead of learning from previous tragedies, the authorities remain disorganised and unprepared for the next one, said Saida Hassan, a Somali-American who previously worked with the ministry of education.

After the big attack on Dec 28, Hassan said, she attended a government crisis meeting in which officials squabbled and didn’t have a plan of action.

“I kept thinking ‘There are people dying every second we keep talking,’” she said. After leaving the meeting “so heartbroken,” Hassan helped form the Gurmad Ex-control rescue initiative — the volunteer group that Isack joined.

“It’s frustrating,” Hassan said. “It often feels like we are crawling when we cannot only walk, but also run if we want.”

A staff member of Aamin Ambulance, who were the first responders after a truck bombing killed 82 people and injured 150, in Mogadishu, Somalia on Jan 1, 2020. The New York Times

A staff member of Aamin Ambulance, who were the first responders after a truck bombing killed 82 people and injured 150, in Mogadishu, Somalia on Jan 1, 2020. The New York Times

Somalia’s government has made some strides toward developing the economy, reforming state institutions and improving security. Yet the country’s progress has been undermined by rampant corruption, the government’s tight resources and limited presence across the country, as well as a political stalemate between the central government and federal member states.

For young people trying to build the nation’s future, the prospects for change sometimes look bleak.

Sami Gabas is the founder of Saamionline, an online retailer that serves thousands of Somalis across the country. While the authorities in the various regions are quick to demand taxes, Gabas said, they barely understand the difficulties of setting up and running a startup, let alone offer help or incentives.

“We just don’t want to do business,” he said. “We want to create and innovate and help move the country forward.”

For those who defy all the odds, insecurity remains a serious impediment. Al-Shabab remains strong and continues to carry out deadly attacks against civilians and the government. Beyond that, activists and business people continue to be killed in mysterious circumstances.

Mohamed Sheik Ali was a serial entrepreneur who opened a number of businesses, including Mogadishu’s first post-war flower store and dry-cleaning service. He also ran a mentoring program for local entrepreneurs, and participated in events and shows that helped turn their ideas into successful businesses.

Six years after he launched his first business in Mogadishu, unknown assailants fatally shot Ali in August 2018. He was 31.

In a country with a young population and high unemployment rates, his philosophy was all about self-reliance, his sister Sagal Sheikh-Ali said in an interview. When engaging with young people like himself, he used to tell them, “‘If you have an idea and a passion, just go ahead and do it,’” she recalled.

Following his death, his sister said she felt angry and didn’t want to stay in Mogadishu. But afterward, she felt that it was her “duty” to step into his shoes and keep the businesses going.

“If I leave, then I guess he died for nothing,” she said. “But if I stay, then it meant something. His name will always continue. His legacy will continue. His drive and passion will continue in others.”

Still, the frequent attacks and at times tepid response from the authorities leave many feeling numb and discouraged, Hassan said. She said some of her friends have derided her for constantly wanting to act, when even the authorities seem resigned.

The attacks from al-Shabab have become so normal that she and her friends try to guess when the next one will happen. Barely an hour after the interview, a suicide car bomb killed three people and injured 11 others near an intersection close to the Parliament building in Mogadishu.

“I don’t think we should wait for the government,” Hassan said. “It’s become our reality and we know these attacks are coming. I just want us to be prepared so that we can save ourselves.”

For volunteers like Isack, there is no option but to rush to the scene of the next disaster. In January, the Somali Medical Association recognised her efforts in saving lives during the floods.

“I myself could face harm tomorrow,” Isack said. “So I am providing support to my people while I can.”

© 2020 New York Times News Service