Long Haul From War, But Here We Call Home

Long Haul From War. But Here We Call Home

Barney Zwartz
The Age
April 14, 2007

IT'S a long way from Mogadishu to Melbourne, and not just in kilometres. Life here is much better than in a Somalia ruined by 17 years of civil war, Nadia Mohamed agrees, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

Somali refugees have three strikes against them for some Australians: they come from a war zone, they're black and they are Muslim. “For me, there's a fourth I'm a woman,” says Nadia, 22, a youth worker who came to Melbourne in 1995.

But the mother-to-be is deeply optimistic about the future for Somalis in this country, provided they are given time and support. That's why she was horrified at claims yesterday that some Somalis are returning home to fight and others are being preyed on by radical Islamists in Melbourne.

Hersi Hilole, an international Islamic scholar and a leader of Sydney's Somali community, warned last night that young Somali men were being drawn in by supporters of terrorism in Somalia and might even be used for attacks in Australia.

Nadia says: “This community is recovering from the war, it doesn't need a negative story. Yes, there are problems, just like all the other communities. Somali people haven't really embraced their new home, and at the back of their head they think they will go back, as most migrants think. Most of them are not at all interested in the war that is why they are here.”

But some are interested, and perhaps 20 have returned to fight. Somalia has been gripped by brutal anarchy since the fall of Siad Barre's socialist government in 1991. Local warlords ruled fiefdoms, then an Islamist movement took much of the country last year until it was defeated by the Government with the help of the Ethiopians. So young men might be tempted to return to fight for religious, tribal or nationalist motives.

“If 10 Somali men left from here to defend Somalia because a foreign country was invading it, what's wrong with that?” asks youth worker Ahmed Ahmed.

“It's like the man who went back to fight for Israel against Lebanon. If I go to Mogadishu to fight Ethiopia I don't represent all Australians.”

University student Ahmed Dini, 19, says that one day he might return to fight. “I'm a dual citizen. As a Muslim, I would fight for Australia if Indonesia invaded. I was born in Somalia and I have the right to fight for Somalia.”

Dini, who came to Australia a decade ago and last year founded youth network Saygo with other African leaders, also concedes that young alienated Somalis might be “led astray” by Islamists.

Older leaders, though, are sceptical. Somalis network intensely, says Sheikh Isse Musse of the Werribee Islamic Centre. “If someone went to fight we would know.”

In turn, he would like politicians to soften their anti-Muslim rhetoric, which leaves Somalis afraid and confused. “When politicians talk about Islam, when John Howard says Muslims will be damaged if the so-called Mufti isn't replaced, they say the PM is threatening us. They fear the Government is planning something against Muslims,” Sheikh Isse says.

“The people are very sensitive to such statements.”

Most migrants retain a loyalty to “home”, and Somalis in particular do because of the appalling situation there and because most still have relatives there to whom they are deeply connected. It also is hard to let go when they face extra hurdles adapting to Australia.

Culture shock is a big problem for Somali refugees. They come from a tribal structure of clans and sub-clans even more fundamental to their identity than their religion. Until recently, they were largely nomadic. The country was formed only in 1960, and their language was not written down until 1971.

Somali society in Melbourne partly reflects the situation at home (without the violence): it is confused and divided, with no central leadership.

According to Issa Farah, the head of Somali broadcasting at SBS, the 10,000 or so Somalis in Melbourne are fragmented along clan lines. “We are the smallest community, and have 53 organisations, all clan-based. They are hopeless, not doing any good for the community.”

But Hass Dellal, executive director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation, is sanguine about this oversupply.

“The Turks used to have 120 organisations, of which about 40 functioned,” he says. “It is a handicap over time they will come together and co-ordinate better, and get better results. But they are integrating well, and the community is very active, especially young people.”

Ashley Dickinson, who runs Victoria's Police Operations Co-ordination Department, also thinks the Somalis are fitting in better. Like other new settlers from the Horn of Africa, they have had problems, but community and police are working well together to reduce these, he says.

Coming from such a hostile environment, they see the police at first as something bad, Commander Dickinson says. So the police helped form a community committee at Flemington with a range of programs, from soccer matches and challenge camps to a planned trip to Kokoda in July.

“They really want to work with us, and they haven't known how to do that, and we haven't. All this proactive work is a new area for us, pushing ahead strongly to break down barriers, and it's working.”

Former Eritrean refugee Berhan Ahmed, organiser of a conference at Melbourne University this week on African resettlement, says the number one need is jobs. Previous migrant groups had factory jobs, which have gone.

Unemployment is a major source of stress and family breakdown for Africans because men are the breadwinners, Dr Ahmed says. If a man is not working, he is ostracised by his family and community. “He becomes a depressed person walking the street and that depression affects the family, and the consequence is family breakdown.

“There is substantial evidence, despite the best intentions of government agencies, that services have fallen sort of meeting the needs of Africans in terms of employment, education and family support. This leaves them open to destructive and hostile media criticism.”

Most Somali men in Melbourne are taxi drivers, but only because they have no choice, Dr Ahmed says. “We are not crazy about the job.”

Gender equality, Australian-style, is sometimes a factor in family stress. Often families fracture once they are here, and single parents with several children may find some get into trouble. Then there are language problems, and all the usual problems new settlers encounter, such as professional qualifications that are not recognised.

The Somalis, though, need educating in their own culture as well as Australia's, Nadia Mohamed believes. Under colonialism, then the horror of war and trauma in refugee camps, many lost their roots.

“Somali was only an oral language until 1971. Our way of keeping history was through poetry and our way of keeping heritage was to learn the grandparents back through the generations. Here, there's no poetry clubs or discussion nights or other cultural stuff.”

Like most Muslims in Australia, Somalis feel the spotlight is on them more strongly. “People ask, are you Muslim-Australian or Australian-Muslim,” complains Ahmed Ahmed. “That's like asking, do you prefer your first or second son. They don't ask are you Christian-Australian or Australian-Christian.”

Nadia Mohamed has asked herself whether she was Australian or Somali, and concluded she could be both.

“When I went overseas, I realised how Australian I am. I went to Kenya, and the Somalis there laughed at me. When you come back, you realise 'this is my home now'.”