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.
Read the rest here:
The plight of Somali asylum seekers living in Pakistan