To the esteemed participants in today’s workshops, let me take the opportunity to thank you for this invitation as it is an honour to speak to you on this topic ‘Somalia Towards 2020’.
My name is Hassan Shire Sheikh, and I am the Executive Director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. I am from Somalia and since leaving my country I have lived in Canada and Uganda over the last 11 years. Throughout this time I had not been able to return to Mogadishu, but I have constantly been connected to it, of course through my family, friends, colleagues, but also through my work where I have committed myself to the protection of those individuals who devote themselves to the cause of human rights. The East and Horn of 1Africa Human Rights Defenders Project works in 10 countries and 2 special territories across East Africa and the Horn of Africa and through this work I have maintained an active engagement with Somalia.
Human rights defenders are those people who take up the call to act as witnesses and advocates for internationally recognized human rights around the world. Because the work of a human rights defender often threatens the status quo, they can become the victims of harassment, intimidation, or worse.
Human rights defenders throughout the East and Horn of Africa face these challenges but they shouldn’t have to face them alone. At EHAHRDP we have helped create protection mechanisms for human rights defenders, giving them a phone number to call when they face threats and giving them the expertise to reduce the number and severity of those threats.
Human rights defenders face different challenges in every country but in Somalia the ability to do any human rights work is severely limited. Those men and women who bravely defy the threats posed by Al-Shabaab and the other militias marauding across South-Central Somalia need special attention to support their work. EHAHRDP provides security training to activists, helping them assess their own situation and develop policies to reduce and respond to the threats around them. We have assisted in the replacement of stolen equipment, built security fences, provided psychosocial counselling and family support so these activists can continue their work. In cases of extreme danger we have supported relocation within and outside of Somalia and liaised with the UNHCR in support of their refugee applications.
We continue to do advocacy at every opportunity, and we have communicated with the UN Independent Expert on Somalia, and more recently with the International Contact Group and the UN Security Council, urging them to develop policies to protect both the general public as well as the special needs of human rights defenders.
This has been the work EHAHRDP does in support of Somali human rights defenders but I urge you to also consider how you can support these people, for they are the ones fighting for a new Somalia with political stability, a free press, respect and safety for women, and security for all citizens. Don’t look to militias and sectarians to advance the interests and development of a free and stable Somalia. Support the organizations and the individuals creating political space for all Somalis to enjoy their rights, and support and contribute to fair elections as well as those professional candidates who stand for this goal in the 2012 Somali Federal Election.
I told you that over the last 11 years I haven’t been able to return to my hometown but that changed last month when I was invited by the Transitional Federal Government to participate in consultations in Mogadishu. It was a whirlwind trip but it was extremely gratifying to be able to return to Mogadishu and see that life was continuing for her citizens and that within the TFG controlled area people were relatively secure.
It was an important moment for me to stand on Somali ground and walk through Mogadishu once again but over the last 11 years I haven’t put my life on hold in anticipation of that moment. All of us here today have become refugees because of the war in our country. Whether you yourself fled Somalia or you were born abroad, I know for many in the diaspora there is a feeling of being ‘in-between’ and of being ‘temporary’. When you are forced to leave your home it is understandable that ‘going back’ becomes part of your identity. This identity leaves many people with a foot in two worlds – you live your life in your host country but you look back at Somalia as your home. Nevertheless I know that we all want to contribute to a better future of our home country. We all send remittances for example. The challenge is to speak with one voice where possible and necessary, to make sure that the ownership on Somalia’s future lies in our own hands. On those conditions Diaspora are extremely important to reshape Somalia towards democracy, peace and development. Through our own individual experience it seems sometimes that we all lost trust in the country and in each other, but what is man made can also be change by men.
Now I want to advise to you to change your thinking and take that step with both feet over the line to become full citizens in the country where you now live. These are countries that have taken you in and offered you a new home free from the gunfire and the conflict that made us flee in the first instance.
Your host country is a large and complex community, and while these communities may feel difficult at times, they can still embrace you and nurture you if given the chance. Live your life fully wherever you are – learn the language of the people around you, learn from the education system and contribute to the local economy through your work and your investments. Create a financial future here, where you live, to create a space to make a full life and a family.
Integrating with the community where you live does not mean losing a part of yourself or turning your back on your heritage. You cannot lose your identity. You can embrace the Somali identity – we have such a rich culture and history – our language, clothing, our song, they come from Somalia and they grew from who we are as a people. The world is richer for having the Somali identity a part of it, and now as refugees we serve as ambassadors to the world to show them our cultural richness and also the value of a future with a stable Somalia. Being well integrated means as well that you can have a more valuable contribution to a better future of Somalia because you are linked to both worlds: the Dutch and the Somali world.
On these lines I commend you for convening this meeting and these workshops, I get hope and I get energy when I see the Somali youth taking proactive roles for themselves and asking key questions about the history and future of Somalia. It is also important for the youth to dialogue with the older generation. Projects such as this and the newly launched Diaspora Platform for Development are mechanisms through which a new European multiculturalism is born – one which will advance the European society you live in while supporting the development of your home communities. In this way you, and your children, will have a fully, secure and viable future whether you live here in Europe or in a new, reborn Somalia.
I thank you again for your interest, your dedication, and your spirit. I now have the honour of declaring this forum officially open.