Young castaways from Somali strife face uncertain future on Nairobi's streets
(Rick Wayne photo)
A street in Eastleigh, the Somali quarter of Nairobi.
Sasha Chanoff, a resident of Somerville, is the founder and executive director of the humanitarian agency Mapendo International, which protects and cares for forgotten and at-risk refugees in Africa. He has been in Kenya for the past week.
By Sasha Chanoff
NAIROBI -- When I was working in Boston to help resettle refugees in the 1990s, a Somali friend of mine told me about life back home. He grew up playing soccer on the wide beaches of Kismayo, a coastal town in southern Somalia. He would sprint, barefoot, down to the beach and join the throngs of boys running around as the sun beat down on the hot Indian Ocean shore.
Clan militias started fighting in earnest in the early 1990s and delivered what has proved to be unending havoc to this anarchic nation. On Saturday, the New York Times quoted Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia economist and UN adviser, saying that Somalia and the region are facing a “perfect storm” of problems; escalating violence, clan militias committing rape and murder with impunity, rising food prices, dying livestock, and disastrous harvests are displacing more and more people.
Kenya bears the brunt of Somalia’s dispossessed. Yesterday here in Nairobi I met Mohammed, a fifteen-year-old boy who is also from Kismayo. His face broke out into an exuberant smile when he described how he used to play soccer on the beach with his four younger brothers. But his eyes turned down when he explains why he’s alone in Kenya.
Last year militiamen came to Mohammed’s home. His father cradled a baby in his arms, to show he wasn’t armed or dangerous, and met the gunmen at the outer courtyard door. Time went into slow motion for Mohammed as he watched one of the men place a gun to his father’s forehead and pull the trigger.
People act in different ways in a crisis situation. One personality type, let’s call it Personality A, will keep a cool head and think instantly about how best to survive; Personality B will panic, shut down, or take some action that might endanger him or herself or others; Personality C will flee, possibly leaving others behind.
Luckily, Mohammed’s mother was a personality A. (Somalia’s ongoing violence has probably selected these people for survival.) Mothering instincts to safeguard her children took hold before the murder of her husband could fully register. Knowing that Mohammed was big enough to be perceived as a threat to these killers, she opened the back window and yelled for him to jump out, run and go to Kenya.
She herself stayed to take care of Mohammed’s four younger brothers, who were not yet old enough to be considered dangerous to the militias that had started targeting all men of the wrong clans. At 14, with adolescence stretching his body and coaxing thin wisps of a mustache, Mohammed was a perfect target.
His two-week trek to Kenya’s border was hot and harrowing. His feet cracked. He had no money. But benevolent strangers helped him along the way. (Incongruous as it may be, even with all the extreme violence, Somalis regularly demonstrate great care for each other and their communities.) He slept on the street during the day, afraid of lion attacks at night if he stopped in the desolate and arid region through which the road wound.
One advantage of being young is that you are often unremarkable. When he reached the border, Mohammed spoke English to the police and walked right in to Kenya. He asked a man in a truck if he could hitch a ride to Nairobi. “Do you know anyone there?” the man asked. “No,” said Mohammed, “but I have my aunt in the US and I’ll call her when I get there.”
For over a year in the unpaved, garbage- and thief-ridden streets of Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Somali quarter, he’s dealt with homesickness, loneliness, fear and a range of emotions that a 14-year-old boy should never have to face. But there are many others just like him.
A few days ago I met with six Somali orphans, the oldest of whom is sixteen and caring for his younger brother and four cousins. The youngest, six-years-old, asked me if she’ll ever see her grandmother again, who now lives in Ohio. There are also the two orphaned 16-year-old Somali sisters whom militias captured in Kismayo and raped for three days. They live on their own in Nairobi, caring for the baby who was born nine months after they got out. They have cousins in Minnesota.
Many unaccompanied refugee children struggle to survive in the streets of Nairobi. They often fall prey to urban violence, or to those who press them into service -- cooking, cleaning, or, in the worst-case scenarios, sexual bondage. They often don’t know how to ask for help. They learn to keep their heads down and out of sight.
Mohammed has certainly kept a low profile. He doesn’t go to school. He doesn’t play outside. He does maintain a boyish smile, even though the beach and soccer childhood he eked out in Somalia during intervals of relative peace is a long way off.
As Somalia’s perfect storm batters and splinters that lawless and largely forgotten nation, the castaways are flung far and wide. Mohammed will make it to Boston soon, he hopes, where he will become a lifeline -- a conduit for money and information to his surviving family, shouldering a burden far too weighty for any adult, let alone an adolescent boy.
For more information about Mapendo, which assists these and other forgotten refugees and is a partner of the Tufts University Institute for Global Leadership, please visit its website, at www.mapendo.org. For information on how you can contribute to the Passport blog, please contact the Globe's assistant foreign editor, Kenneth Kaplan, at K_Kaplan@globe.com.