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Farah Abdi's blog: An introduction

Farah Abdi's blog: An introduction

“We are not going to other countries because we want to invade cultures and change identities”

In his first blog, 2016 Queen's Young Leader and winner of the Leading Change Journalism Bursary for Europe, Farah Abdi, explains why he writes about – and works to improve – the lives of refugees.

As I sit down to write this, the refugee debate is trending somewhere in the world. It is being discussed in the corridors of power at the European Parliament, Washington, in the legal systems of many countries, the media and in communities.

I have taken a keen interest in the discussion from an intellect perspective, forgetting that I am a refugee myself. I've had to do this not because I am ashamed of being a refugee, but because I have come to understand that to write objective features, I have to reason with both sides of the debate.

On one end, I've had to examine the real fear that most host communities have when it comes to refugees. “They want to change our culture!” is a common phrase used by refugee and immigration sceptics. “They’ve come to steal our jobs!” is another.

It's hard for me to imagine that I had risked my life to cross this same sea a few years ago.

One way of addressing these legitimate fears is to go back to the root cause of the contention – by talking to refugees, understanding their struggles, telling their stories honestly and giving a human face to the debate. This is what I set out to do when I decided to meet up with Abbas, a 19-year-old Somali refugee in Malta.

Abbas like me, had found his way to the island by boat from Libya. We agreed to meet on a beach near my house on a Wednesday afternoon. I arrived a few minutes before him, eager to listen to his story. The sea was like a rippling blanket of brochure-blue. Squabbling seagulls flew overhead, harassing beachgoers in their endless hunger. It's hard for me to imagine that I had risked my life to cross this same sea a few years ago. I guess the old saying, that time heals all wounds, is true after all.

Abbas emerged from the sunbathing crowd that had gathered on the sand. He was perfection in coffee hues; his hair and eyes were the colour of dark roasted beans but his skin was all latte. He had that shy look about him teens often get when they've grown too much too fast, like they aren't really sure about being a man just yet. He was skinny, but the way his clothes hung gave away the muscle beneath. We exchanged pleasantries in our native Somali before I ushered him for a walk.

“Why did you leave Somalia?” I began in a bid to understand what drove him to flee from home.

I immediately noticed the change in his posture as he tried to recall the tribulations that forced him to become a refugee. His shoulders hunched together like he was trying to disappear inside himself. Even his dark eyes seemed to be attempting to retreat inside his head. “My father was murdered by the Al-Shabaab, the Somali affiliate of Al-Qaeda, because he worked for the transitional Somali government as a police officer!”

As he delved deeper into his testimony, his face fell faster than a corpse in cement boots. His skin became greyed, his mouth hung with lips slightly parted and his eyes were as wide as they could stretch.

“As the eldest son of my father, they wanted me to join the group after killing him! This was their way of cautioning other families in the community who were affiliated with the government. I did not want anything to do with this bloody group that was responsible for the death of my dad and many other innocent civilians. I had to flee, because refusing their request to join them would lead to me being executed.”

Refugees' belongings, washed up on Delimara Bay, Malta

Delimara Bay, Malta. The items on the image have been washed up to the shore by currents. Their identity is unknown.

Abbas left when he was only 15-years-old. He arrived in Malta one year later. His story, although unique, is not an isolated case. The number of unaccompanied refugee minors is on the rise. According to Save the Children, an estimated 26,000 unaccompanied children entered Europe last year.

Until 2013, when I celebrated my 18th birthday, I was also a part of this statistic. I had travelled the same dangerous journey, across the seas to Europe, that millions of refugees attempt each year. I was searching for freedom to be myself in terms of my sexuality – a struggle that I had been dealing with since the age of five, having my roots in a conservative Islamic family where one of the worst sins someone can commit is to be Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT).

My love for writing and reading is what kept me sane as I lived in hiding growing up. Daydreaming was another escape for me. I would find myself sitting in silence in my room in Eastleigh, Nairobi, listening to Beyoncé and creating fashion illustrations. I would run out of paper, and end up drawing on the beech wood frame of my bed. These drawings would quickly mushroom into full-blown graffiti on my bedroom wall.

I naively thought that Mum and Dad would willingly embrace the art in me, even though they would never accept my sexuality. At least, I imagined it was their obligation as parents to forgive this and many other infractions. I knew deep in my heart that a time would come when we would detest each other, and then, driven apart by our differences, we would become indifferent and stop speaking altogether. But at the time I was cocooned by the comforts of childhood.

As I drew, I imagined myself in places like London and Lisbon, listening to my beloved Beyoncé, and shopping in the exotic boutiques of renowned French fashion house, Balmain, a handsome man by my side, and the world in my palms.

I knew that life would try to crack me like an egg, and my silence would eventually break. Someday I would spill some of my painful secrets and taste freedom. I would lose a great deal as a result, but the gains would outweigh every loss. I would love and be loved by a beautiful man in a place where my mutual passion would be a marker not of shame but of pride.

By sharing mine and Abbas’s story, I hope people get to see that we are not going to other countries because we want to invade cultures and change identities. When all is said and done, we are just like John and Joanna – trying to live in dignity, respect and freedom as we pursue our dreams and ambitions.