Islamabad's little Somalia

Updated 01 Dec, 2016 03:09pm
A young Somali man at a store in Islamabad | Taveer Shahzad, White Star
A young Somali man at a store in Islamabad | Taveer Shahzad, White Star

Laughing and chattering teenagers walk past Somali Specialist, a nondescript hair salon in a nondescript neighbourhood in Islamabad. Their raucous cackle earns them a glaring look from an elderly man walking by. This is ‘Somalistan’ or ‘Somali Street’ in the federal capital’s G-10 sector.

The street’s unofficial name has an exotic ring to it. In reality, it is like any other collection of mostly small two-storey houses in this lower middle-class area. Its only distinctive feature is the nationality of its residents — they are all from Somalia, a small country in the Horn of Africa, where a civil war has been going on since the late 1980s.

Most of the inhabitants of ‘Somalistan’, are students who have come to Pakistan on valid study visas, and are enrolled in public and private educational institutions in Islamabad. The main reason why they choose to live in this particular street is that it is close to a number of universities and colleges in the city.

Many more living here are asylum seekers — mostly young people who have escaped the war back in Somalia and are awaiting relocation to some country in the West. ‘Somali Street’ is a purgatory for them, a transit lounge for further travel to a safe place. It is not home.

‘Somali Street’ is a purgatory for them, a transit lounge for further travel to a safe place. It is not home.

After Afghans, Somalis form the largest refugee population in Pakistan. There are 411 registered Somali asylum seekers in Islamabad and Karachi, according to the data collected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A few hundred more are said to be living in Lahore, though their exact number is hard to come by. The role of the Somali Students Union is central in providing these refugees temporary shelter and food, in the same small flats where the students themselves live as tenants.

Abdi Fataah, a former general secretary of the union, tells the Herald in a telephone interview that the original purpose of creating this organisation was to facilitate and help Somalis studying in Pakistan. Gradually, as the refugees started pouring in, the Union also became their primary caregiver, offering them all possible help — most crucially giving them information to navigate the refugee registration process and negotiate their presence within a society that they know little about, says Fataah who spent seven years in Islamabad and now lives in the United States.

Unless Somali asylum seekers get the Proof of Registrations from the UNHCR, they are not eligible to receive any money from anywhere, even from their relatives living elsewhere in the world. This makes them totally dependent on the help from students, explains Fataah.

These refugees usually belong to some minority tribe in Somalia which has been facing persistent hostility and discrimination at the hands of the majority tribe in the deeply-tribal Somali society. Many of them have seen a lot of bloodshed during their young lives.

Ahmed Mukhtar emerges from the shadows of multistorey buildings in F-10 Markaz, a commercial neighbourhood in a posh part of Islamabad. He heads straight to a nearby mosque to offer his prayers before heading out for a meeting with journalists. His calm demeanour betrays little of the horrors he has been through.

Mukhtar was only 16 when he fled Somalia via Kenya and landed in Pakistan in 1996. Four years before that, Islamic Courts Union – an informal coalition of local clerics who decided disputes within and among clans under the Islamic laws – had started recruiting young men to organise them into a militia, which eventually became Al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia. “They came to our house looking for recruits. My father refused to let his sons join the militants. They killed him along with three of my brothers. They also raped my ten-year-old sister and killed her,” says Mukhtar.

Having somehow survived this massacre, he decided to run away along with his mother, who was suffering from multiple health problems, and his younger brother. They were lucky to land in Pakistan on valid visas.

Somali refugees playing football in a community ground | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Somali refugees playing football in a community ground | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Ahmed Farah, the head of the Somali Forum | Taveer Shahzad White Star
Ahmed Farah, the head of the Somali Forum | Taveer Shahzad White Star

A year later, Mukhtar’s brother went back to his native country but was killed there soon afterwards. He also lost his mother in the subsequent years. “Now I have no family at all.”

When he had first landed in Pakistan, Mukhtar neither understood the local language nor did he know anyone here. All he could do was to have himself and his family registered with the UNHCR, and find out Somali students living in the city so that he could get some place to stay.

Over the years, he has learnt some Urdu and has become quite familiar with Pakistani customs and culture. Yet, he does not know what to do with his life. He cannot attend a college or university because his status as a refugee does not allow him to do that; he cannot do a job because of the same reason. If he ever goes around looking for employment as a labourer, he gets the same response everywhere. “Our own people can’t get jobs. Who will employ a foreigner like you?”

Dressed in a neatly** ironed kameez over jeans, Ahmed Farah lights up as he talks about his plans to make the most of his stay in Pakistan. As the head of the Somali Forum – an informal network of his compatriots living in Islamabad – he has been at the forefront of many protest demonstrations in front of the local UNHCR office.

Farah left the southern part of his native country back in 2008 as a wiry 19-year-old just out of school. Coming from war-wrecked Somalia, Pakistan looked peaceful to him, even when it had, by then, acquired the dubious distinction of being the second-most dangerous country in the world according to some international surveys.

The number of Somalis landing in Pakistan spiked in 2001 when another round of violence broke out between the Islamic Courts Union and the Somali government of the time. The numbers have been rising every year since then, mainly because of the proliferation of death and destruction in Somalia in the wake of violence perpetrated by the highly-radicalised extremist members of the Al-Shabaab militia.

Somalis living in Pakistan have limited rights mainly because Pakistan has not ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. They are not eligible to take up permanent residence here; they cannot do any business or move around the country freely. Unless they are registered as refugees with UNHCR, their stay in Pakistan remains illegal and could invite immediate repatriation — though so far this has happened in rare cases, if at all.

Ahmed Farah working from home | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Ahmed Farah working from home | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

The Pakistani government takes no responsibility for arranging boarding, lodging and other amenities, including food and education, for these Somali refugees. Only a few local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) work along with UNHCR for their welfare.

“Due to my status as a refugee, I was not allowed to join any university when I first came to Pakistan,” says soft-spoken Farah. “So, I started to make space for my studies away from universities.” But then he wrote an article on the Somali education system that brought him to the notice of some Pakistani academics. Thereafter, a private university in Islamabad allowed him to attend classes without having to properly enroll there, and also without having to pay any tuition fee. After he passed his graduation examination, International Islamic University admitted him in its master’s programme, giving him some legal exemptions to pursue his studies and providing him a scholarship.

Others are not as fortunate and face much greater hardships while trying to survive in Pakistan. But almost everyone of them accuses the local UNHCR officials of creating hurdles in the way of financial aid and other assistance they deem themselves eligible to receive. They also allege that UNHCR creates unnecessary hurdles in their resettlements. In the last few months alone, Somali refugees have held several protest demonstrations to press for their demands.

The office of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) in Islamabad is empty after Eid holidays in July this year. A residential building converted into an office, it houses a pharmacy and a medical centre where two doctors provide medical treatment to any ailing refugees. The organisation provides a monthly stipend, health care, primary education and other basic amenities to refugees who are awaiting resettlement. It is part of an alliance of NGOs which have been affiliated with UNHCR since 1998 for providing emergency aid to refugees.

Nergis Ameer Khan, a case manager at ICMC, says UNHCR means everything to the refugees since Somali embassy in Islamabad and Pakistani authorities do not want to have anything to do with them. She says her organisation, therefore, understands the struggles and challenges the refugees faces during their stay in Pakistan.

Yet there is palpable tension between the Somalis and ICMC. For one, Khan says the refugees develop a dependency syndrome due to the regular financial assistance that they receive from the UNHCR and they refuse to learn any skills which may help their case for resettlement. “At times, they become aggressive,” she says, “especially when their demands for financial assistance get turned down for some reason”. She talks about a Somali woman who used to sit outside the ICMC office in protest for days after she lost the right to receive subsistence allowance due to the fact that her two adult sons were also receiving the assistance. “I told the guards to ignore her,” says Khan.

Coming from war-wrecked Somalia, Pakistan looked peaceful to him, even when it had, by then, acquired the dubious distinction of being the second-most dangerous country in the world.

She claims that her organisation does not prefer one set of refugees over others. “We try to give equal attention to all the refugees but sometimes they lodge complaints to UNHCR against us, accusing us of mistreating them,” she says and then adds: “These complaints are unwarranted.”

Officials at UNHCR say some complaints arise because the refugees want exemptions from certain rules and a speedier processing of their resettlement applications. Many of them insist that their applications be processed under the old rules which allowed whole families, including all those under the age of 21, to be resettled. These rules, however, have been changed after 2012 as authorities in countries like the US realised that mass resettlements were becoming a pull factor for creating more young and adult refugees from places such as Somalia.

With the changed rules, a large number of young refugees cannot be resettled elsewhere and have been left stranded in Pakistan. Farah is one such stranded Somali. “My wife has been resettled to the US. I am now waiting for my turn,” he says, uncertain if that will ever happen.

He has been leading protests to get the rules changed back to what they were a couple of years ago. Some of his fellow protesters, however, feel that demonstrations are not helpful any longer so they must take some other steps. People such as Mukhtar are now planning a hunger strike in front of the National Press Club in Islamabad. Their objective is straightforward — something must be done to speed up the process of their resettlement.

“We are tired of waiting,” says Mukhtar angrily.

This article was originally published in the Herald's August 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.