There are many "returned" children in Somali territories, struggling with an extraordinary form of culture shock. Often tricked on to the plane by relatives or sent away in disgrace, they go back to a "home" that many barely remember. Conspicuous as they are to their peers and elders - in the way they talk, and dress, and behave - they are an invisible phenomenon in every other way. Little is known about how these returnee children cope or the special sort of difficulties they face. In the absence of effectively functioning Somali institutions, there are no registers to indicate numbers, and no services to give support. But, according to the children themselves and concerned Somali adults, these diaspora minors face daily bullying and isolation; at worst, they meet with extortion, rape and murder.

Family deportees

Among those returning, unaccompanied children face particular difficulties. When they are sent back, they are likely to be already burdened with emotional and psychological problems from their experiences abroad.

The trauma of being "deported" back to the homeland is, in fact, very similar to that of being sent overseas in the first place: the child arrives precipitously in an unfamiliar environment, faces language problems and culture shock, and is devoid of critical support and guidance. Many also have to suffer "disgrace" because they have failed to thrive overseas or have become an economic or social burden to their extended families.

Once back home, the returnees are taken in by parents or relatives who aim to subject them to a rigorous programme of re-assimilation, more often than not expressed in terms of "discipline" - religious, educational and cultural. In the more extreme cases, minors are sent off to rural areas to work, boys are sent off to religious boarding schools, and girls are married off to older men. Some find their new life consists of hanging around a volatile and decaying urban centre, unwilling to step outside the front door for fear of what they may encounter. Others become marginalized, finding themselves on the fringes of the society they are supposed to "belong" to and resort to drugs and violence.

"There is no modern system that has evolved to support these children, and traditional systems of social support do not exist for them either. While returning adults can choose go back to their villages and depend on their clan and friendship networks, there is no such option for the diaspora youngster," Dr Bulhan of the War Torn Societies project, told IRIN in the Somaliland capital, Hargeysa.

The dangers of peer pressure

Returning diaspora children face an unforgiving - and sometimes brutal - response from their peers. "They get bullied because they just don't 'look right', and because of resentment and jealousies", one mother said. In some cases, the daily teasing and bullying result in the children becoming withdrawn, fearful and depressed. Some refuse to leave the house; others have to get used to living in a very restricted, heavily protected environment.

In the more extreme cases, returnee diaspora children have been attacked, kidnapped and killed. They are targeted because of their clothes, their "foreign" manners, and their apparent affluence. When IRIN was conducting research in Mogadishu25, a Somali boy visiting from the United States was kidnapped for ransom and killed.

The attitude of relatives may compound the children's problems - they jealously protect them and escort them even as they advise the returnees to be "inconspicuous" and dress down to deflect attention. Relatives tend to treat diaspora children as a form of life insurance - or a sort of reservoir of wealth. "When [diaspora] children return to Mogadishu, they are protected, sometimes sent around with an armed escort for fear of kidnappings," Abdirashid Haji Nur from CONCERN Worldwide observed.

[Samatar Sudi, 28, resident in Canada, visiting Mogadishu]
25 June 2002. In the absence of functioning institutions, there is no available date on this sort of incident; but it is a known hazard for returning diaspora children.

Abdullahi Ahmad on how his 17-year-old Canadian nephew, Muhammad, was killed:

They all went after him and chased him. One boy tripped him, and once he was on the ground, one of the boys kicked him, and one used a sword on his head; another was kicking his body, and used a wooden stick with long nails in it like a club. It was night-time, with no moon, in a bushy area in one of those places with abandoned and destroyed houses. It is a well-known gang area, where they rape girls.

Muhammad was left on the ground, bleeding. He tried to walk. He managed to get to nearby shop, where he pleaded for help. [A woman] called us at about 9 p.m. I drove to find him. There were a lot of people gathered around him. I saw he was in danger; the head injury was big. There is no ambulance here, so I put him in the back seat and rushed him to the hospital. When we reached the hospital, there was no doctor, no medicine, no nurse - that is what Hargeysa hospital is like.

Muhammad was still conscious at this stage, but very weak. He told me they tried to take dollars, had taken money. He was screaming with pain, so it was difficult to talk with him. I was asking: Do you know them? What about the girl? Who was with you? He said he was afraid. He said: I am afraid I have a brain injury, I have a lot of pain in my head.

The two men at the hospital tried to stitch him up. Then they said to take him home. When we left hospital he fell into a coma. I was knocking on doors at midnight. I found one doctor. Muhammad's hands had started contracting. The doctor said there was nothing he could do. In the morning, the doctor came back and said take him to the hospital and admit him. While they were doing the paperwork at the hospital, Muhammad died.
Mohammad Hassan

In Hargeysa, a 17-year-old boy with Canadian citizenship was killed by a gang of 14- to 16-year- olds in December 2001, when he failed to hand over money, and tried to protect a girlfriend. The case26 tragically underlines the vulnerabilities of returning children, and aptly illustrates the sort of life children struggle with in post-conflict areas.

Muhammad Hasan lived in Canada with his parents after leaving Somaliland when he was two years old. According to his Hargeysa uncle, Abdullahi Ahmad, it was Muhammad's decision to visit Somaliland, to meet his relatives and see "his culture". "When he first came, he had an accent, he couldn't go out because he couldn't speak Somali well, and he was adjusting. But then he got some friends - mostly returning diaspora children - and they used to gather in a restaurant where he played pool and got his confidence up. He started saying to me that he didn't need to be accompanied any more and that he was now independent."

He befriended a local girl, and started to socialize with her. One evening, on the outskirts of the town, he encountered a notorious gang of 14- to 16-year-olds, who demanded he hand over his girlfriend and money. When he refused and tried to protect the girl, he was severely beaten, and later died of a head injury.

Abdullahi Ahmad, who was with Muhammad when he died, told IRIN that, while he believed that gang-related incidents happen all over the world, Muhammad was in a particularly vulnerable position. "I do think that Mohammed did endanger himself through naivety because he had grown up abroad. He failed to understand how dangerous the situation was, and didn't know how to handle it," Abdullahi told IRIN.

[Somali boy sent back to Mogadishu from Sweden]

Rough path to re-assimilation

In Mogadishu, all the returning children interviewed by IRIN, with few exceptions, expressed a burning desire to return to their adopted countries. While careful not to embarrass or annoy the adults they were with, they did not hesitate to say they were determined to find a way of going back. Many of them claimed they had been tricked into returning to the homeland, and had very similar stories about the ruses used by their relatives to get them back to Mogadishu. Most often they had been told they were going for a brief visit to get reacquainted with a family member.

Once back in the capital, the children described going through a tough readjustment process. They were taunted by other children because they did not speak the language, scorned and humiliated by teachers because they did not know the Koran, denigrated and ridiculed for their "foreign" manners and higher education level. They learned to shed the symbols of their former life - to dress down and acquire local mannerisms. They also had to develop resistance to infection and waterborne diseases.

The returning children, both at home and at school, must also get used to traditional methods of discipline, which include caning and beating. Compared to their previous experience, they must learn to live in a society without institutional and legal protection.

Teachers interviewed by IRIN said that "deported" children generally encountered a basic lack of compassion. During the process of re-assimilation, they were far more likely to encounter hostility and intolerance than guidance. "Maybe in Europe they could share their problems. Here no one cares; the problem is the country itself," said Abdirahman Maalin Muhammad, the principal of the Ablaal School of Primary and Secondary Education in south Mogadishu.

All the children interviewed by IRIN said they had been sent back to relearn their culture and religion; most seemed to have fallen victim to the culture clash between the generations of the Somali diaspora. While there are no figures on the number of "deported" children, teachers and teenagers told IRIN there were now "thousands" of child returnees in the capital alone.
26 Canadian diplomats from neighbouring Kenya have observed the trial in Hargeysa

Children are sent back to Somalia to learn their culture and religion
Not all returnee children suffer in the same way. Diaspora children who arrive back to the homeland with parents and relatives benefit emotionally and practically from the uninterrupted family relationship and support, and benefit psychologically from having shared the experience abroad. In marked contrast to the "deported" unaccompanied child, returning diaspora parents and the children set out together on a path of re-establishment and re-assimilation.

But it is not an easy path, according to those who bring their children home. Parents said consideration for children was one of the biggest obstacles the diaspora faced in organizing a return home. "The children initially find they have nothing apart from school and home - it's a big strain on the parents. They try to cope by buying video games and videos," one mother told IRIN. It causes economic and psychological stress for the returning family. "You feel you are not giving the children a quality life. You get frustrated teenagers and terrified youngsters, you have to put them in schools with a poor education [standards] and certificates that no one recognizes."

Somali girl, 14, sent back to Mogadishu

I moved to Ohio, in America, in 1993, and came back to Somalia in 2001. I am here to get my religious education. It should take two years. I want to go back. I want to get my university degree. I'd like to be a teacher or to work with computers.

The worst thing about coming back here was the heat and the dirt. The streets are not clean, and we are not used to the water, which is dirty and makes you sick. I have these scars on my legs from the infection I got when I first came. I didn't know Somali when I arrived, some people made fun of me. In Ohio I did not wear a veil, just a headscarf, and I prefer it that way. I don't really want to wear a veil here, but I have to wear it in my country. My mother tells me "we will go back when you learn your religion." But I don't know when that will be.

The children also benefit from family support while they learn how to defend themselves. According to one diaspora mother, relatives have to appreciate what returnee children will be confronted with. "It's a tough environment and they won't survive if they are docile and quiet. They have to give money for their own safety. My own child used to take money to school - we know it was extortion from the gangs."

"Separated" children in Somali territories

However, some children who have spent most of their lives abroad with their parents get sent back to Somali territories alone. To a great extent, their circumstances mirror those of the "separated" children arriving in European and North American countries. Having brought them up overseas, the parents then decide that the child will be better off back in the homeland.

This decision frequently coincides with the onset of puberty, or early teenage-hood, when the child's attitude and behaviour changes, and identity becomes an issue. Diaspora parents might feel that they have failed to effectively inculcate their culture into their children, or conflict in the household arises from the generation "clash" in the post-war diaspora. When they are sent away, the children may not realize where or why they are going - much like those who are sent out to European countries.

Zeinab, on bringing children back to Somaliland

I decided to return my children back home while they were still young so that they could learn their religion and culture and family values, which is hard to teach them abroad. I used to hate the life being led by Somali children in Canada. I saw many families whose children got spoilt and detested to be even called Somali.

There are problems here for the returning diaspora children - their inability to assimilate, and the lack of suitable education facilities. The children are not used to the existing Somali schools. Many refuse to go to school, or become withdrawn, or just don't leave the house. It's normal for children from abroad to be taunted and teased. They get called names and provoked at school.

There are gangs of youths here who feel resentful of the diaspora children, resentful that [the returnee children] have had a better life while they remained here. Most of the ones remaining lost their fathers in the war and are living with their mothers. They are resentful that [the diaspora children] have material possessions, nice clothes, a good education, so they implement a sort of protection racket, extortion
But sending a bi-cultural child back to an "alien" homeland is replete with problems, IRIN research suggests. Some reject their traditional relatives and rebel in the Somali schools; the social experience that is expected to "straighten them out" proves counterproductive and they end up marginalized in much the same way as they did overseas.

In one case, a young teenager brought up in Sweden had been sent to live with his grandparents in Baidoa, southern Somalia. The father told IRIN that in Sweden the boy had become involved with a group of friends he did not trust, had started thieving, and become difficult to handle. The father said he was worried the boy would be taken into "police care".

Between two worlds

After spending a year in Baidoa, however, the father heard that the boy had moved out of the grandparents' house, rebelled at the local school, and become involved with a local gang of boys. The father told IRIN he was on his way to collect the boy and take him back to Sweden, because he feared his son would join the local militia. Little is known about the effects of this "flip-flopping" between two worlds - characterized by disapproval and identity crises.

The belief by the diaspora that a return to the homeland will automatically "straighten out" children considered delinquent or disobedient is a misconception, says Fatuma Ibrahim, UN Human Rights Officer for Somalia. "There are plenty of hazards - drugs, alcohol, prostitution, violent gangs - all of which are easy to access. It's not true that there are fewer hazards here; that is a myth. Every child who is brought back [to Somali territories] because they have a drug or alcohol problem abroad will find it here, easily."

But it is effective in other ways, she agrees. The general absence of institutions and legislation combined with traditional aspects of Somali culture does give relatives and parents freedom to control and discipline a child without restraint. "You can discipline the child how you wish, lock them in a room, beat them - no one is going to stop you here. Some children get sent out to nomadic relatives as a sort of shock treatment, or get married off," one returnee diaspora mother told IRIN.

One of the things all the returnee minors have to cope with, regardless of their circumstances, are the gangs of local children who operate in the urban centres.

Child gangs

Child gangs are the result of the breakdown of the family structure in Somaliland, Zamzam Abdi, head of Community of Concerned Somalis, a local NGO in Hargeysa working with war widows, told IRIN. Although a now relatively peaceful post-conflict society, the traditional family structure in Somaliland has suffered as a result of war and the exodus to the refugee camps. 

Parents try to keep their children out of 'gun-school'
"These children have known more violence than anything else in their lives - their fathers have been killed, they have joined the militia, they have quit school, they deal in qat [Catha edulis], they are the children of mothers who are forced to be the family breadwinner," she said. War widows had to "fill the vacuum" left by men who had either died or left for the refugee camps; or who were supported by men later adversely affected as ex-combatants, Zamzam Abdi explained.

Often working women have to discontinue their daughters' education so that the girls can take on household responsibilities. Poverty, parental absence, and exposure to violence and trauma have been critical causes in the formation of the gangs - which often include children as young as 10, as well as young teenagers. "These gangs are very feared, and have declared some parts of the town no-go-zones as they wreak havoc at night - they extort money, and rape girls." According to Zamzam Abdi, there is urgent need for the children to be rehabilitated, educated and given opportunities to earn a living

But at present, there are no rehabilitation opportunities for such children - no social workers, juvenile courts or institutional care. Fatuma Ibrahim told IRIN that delinquent or violent children were taken to the adult prisons, where they were likely to be abused. "They are the victims of sexual, mental and physical abuse. The guards tell me they literally pull the older men off the children at night when they hear them screaming. There are a very small number of girls, but they are there - they are put in the women's quarters with prostitutes and thieves and are vulnerable to abuse by the guards."

Imprisoning children

When IRIN visited the main Hargeysa prison,27 about 25 to 30 children were being held there, according to the prison staff. A group of about 12 boys were held in an outhouse made of iron sheets near the main prison yard. The children had no bedding, and were confined in the sweltering heat, near an open sewage pit.

According to a prison guard, most of the group had been brought in by parents for drug abuse and violence, and would be kept for about two months - or until the parents told the prison authorities to release them. They are known as asewaladine - children who have disobeyed. In most cases, it is the parents who decide the duration of their incarceration. Young girls were visible in the women's quarter, peering out of the bars.

"Some of the children are very violent to the mothers - they beat them for money, and for qat. I've seen them in the prisons at all ages. They stay for about three to five months at a time, and some for as long as 11 months. They are even more traumatized when they get out, so there is a high chance of them returning back to prison again," Fatuma Ibrahim said.

The plight of Somali children

According to humanitarian workers and human rights organisations, conflict and neglect have meant that children have suffered in all the Somali territories - some in the extreme. In Mogadishu, children suffer the consequences of continued conflict and lawlessness as well as the general breakdown of government and society.

The Mogadishu-based Dr Ismail Jimaale Human Rights Centre has tried to draw attention to the particular plight of children - including killings, forcible recruitment, and imprisonment. Other concerns include the many street children, whose numbers in the urban centres increase with repatriation and migration movements.

In Hargeysa, young homeless girls - who are easy prey for gangs - sleep in among the petrol containers in the hope that the smell and the danger of the petrol will keep away potential attackers. Having to live on the streets of the large urban centres is one of the most dangerous prospects for Somali children in all territories. IRIN was told that street children were in some cases forced to beg for gangs after being raped and beaten, or they are killed and abused by militia in areas of continuing conflict. In the rural, nomadic areas and refugee camps, life is no better for these most vulnerable members of society: where poverty is acute, some children were sold by their parents as labourers and domestic servants, humanitarian workers told IRIN.

"So you can see why, for some, sending a child away on a plane is considered the biggest favour you can do," Fatuma Ibrahim observed.
27 February 2002
Lead Features
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