Here, There and Everywhere: Covid-19 Travel Ban Effects on the Somali Diaspora

This blog post is part of ongoing research on COVID-19 in Somalia. It is the 4th post of a series of blog posts written by the blogger with the hashtags #COVID19Somalia #DHUM @Diaspora_Hum. The 1st post can be found here, the 2nd one here and 3rd one here.

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On Thursday May 14, 2020, an Ethiopian airline’s special flight landed in Mogadishu Aden Adde International Airport to pick up 160 passengers – mainly Somali diaspora – out of Somalia to their respective destinations in Europe, America and Australia. This happened when the travel ban was at its peak with no international flights coming into the country. Consequently, many people objected to this special treatment. The Somali diaspora came under the limelight for leaving the country amidst the global pandemic of Coronavirus. 

Understanding how this story transpired into a heated debate on social media is important for several reasons. First, doing so gives insight into what is happening in the country in the wake of Coronavirus, travel bans and impact on families and businesses. Secondly, the discussion is relevant for my ongoing PhD research program which focuses on Somali Diaspora Humanitarianism in Complex Crises in Somalia. Finally, just like the other 100s of affected Somalis I happen to know,  I am equally affected by the travel ban. My mobility is affected as I live in Somalia but frequently travel to visit my family abroad. But before we dig deeper into the story and the reactions, let’s first briefly discuss and theorize the Somali diaspora by situating them in academic discourse to better understand the situation.

Background to the Somali Diaspora

By definition, the word ‘diaspora’ is a Greek word which means dispersion; essentially referring to members of ethnic groups who have left their ancestral home or who have been forced out for both economic and political reasons.

The dissertation paper by Osman Hassan on ‘The Impact of the Somali Diaspora on Somalia from the Perspectives of Political Engagement, Economic Development (Remittances) and Humanitarianism’ states that:

When the civil war broke out in Somalia, many people fled to the world seeking better lives. The Somali diasporas are estimated to be around two million spread throughout the world. Some of them are highly educated and are holding high positions in their hosting country while others returned back to their country of origin and are now holding leadership positions in the political institutions of Somali government, many members of the current Parliament, cabinet and senate of the federal government is Somali diaspora. The same is true also for the regional administrations in the north, south and central Somalia. The diaspora have played an important role in the peaceful formation of all of the local administrations, in restoring law and order and also in financing or providing human resources and management in cooperation with the community leaders and the business people in the region in all the member states of the Somali federal government.”

This study highlights how transnational Somalis are willing to help rebuild their homeland to become a better, safer and prosperous place by actively contributing socially, economically and politically.

Here, There and Everywhere 

Another study done by The University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute investigated how the practices of citizenship among emerging diasporas constitute political belonging to the homeland. Strengthening the claim of Somali diaspora that they have motivation to come back, actively participate in local politics and improve the overall conditions of the country, the project paid particular attention to the extent to which the nation-state remains or ceases to remain a decisive arena of aspired citizenship and political belonging.

It states that this belonging is created, performed and contested in everyday practices. As is the case with the Somali diaspora, their dual citizenship and political belonging is often challenged by the local community more often than not. The dual citizenship is locally perceived as a privilege and as increased access to opportunity. The Somali diaspora stand in solidarity with fellow Somalis, so much so that organisations that recognize this sentiment especially the local organisations working for a better future for the country are investing in bringing back the transnational Somali diaspora or making business partnerships with them. The Somali diaspora are present in Somalia and they are also at home abroad. They are here, there and everywhere and many don’t have an issue with it – they consider themselves patriotic everyday transnationals. 

Lockdown in Somalia and its Impact on Travel

Due to the pandemonium created by COVID-19, people throughout the world are strongly advised by their respective governments to stay at home. The lockdown imposed on many countries meant freezing all means of transportation. The shutting down of transportation facilities created fear of being stranded and separated from family members all around the world. Also, the lack of medical facilities and having a shortage of medicinal supplies was a major concern for many. Considering these restrictions, people who stay at multiple localities for work purposes or so had to travel back to places where they have a longer stay term which was not necessarily their ethnic land.

While for some people home actually meant traveling to other destination, such as those visiting relatives or friends, for many including the Somali diaspora these limitations meant flying back to their countries of permanent residence instead of their country of origin. Hence when the Somali diaspora took action and flew away on this particular flight there was an uproar amongst some members of the local community.

The Response from the Local Community

Some of the locals were appalled by the Somali diaspora flying away in this special night flight. They termed the exit of the diaspora as fleeing the country in times of need. They lashed out their disgust and frustration on social media especially on Twitter where a heavy discussion ensued.

For example, this twitter user wrote: ’It is frustrating, they come to #Mogadishu to earn money and profit from positions! 160 #Somali diaspora have left this evening from Mogadishu, returning to countries in #Europe,#USA & #Canada to flee our people & our beloved country for fear of the epidemic of the #COVID19.

Another twitter user tweeted; “Special aircraft took back 150+ Somali diaspora working in various sectors, including the govt, to their real home countries. State minister of foreign affairs also reportedly was one of these people who abandoned Somalia in its time of need. This is exactly why AS is winning.”

Some of the inhabitants of Somalia believe that the diaspora fled the country for selfish motives. They argue that even before the global pandemic of Coronavirus, the Somali diaspora left their homeland for a luxurious life and better facilities abroad which is why they abandoned the motherland in times of chaos.

One twitter user said, “This is one of the reasons why I will always root for locals over diaspora. What is more intriguing is the argument “we came to rebuild our country.” What is the point of rebuilding a country if you aren’t bold enough to endure its hardships. NB. Not all diasporas are like that.” @AbdiweliYahye

The Response from The Somali Diaspora

The Somali diaspora also responded to the negative comments from fellow Somalis on  social media. Using both English and Somali, they expressed their views and lived realities. They shared how emotionally invested they are in the motherland and how happy they are to participate in its betterment to see a progressive and peacefull Somalia. They also expressed how they left behind beloved ones abroad where they have lived previously and regularly traveled back.

One diaspora twitter user pointed out how young Somali diaspora youth are coming back, uninterested in clan politics, but bringing in much needed creativity and innovation: “This generation of Somali diaspora is taking over in the next 10-15 years. Tech, healthcare, sport, journalism, you name it. And we’re not gunna be sorry either”

There was an outpour of responses by people who spoke in favour of diasporas asking the critiques to take the transnationals’ circumstances and responsibilities into consideration. For instance, a twitter user defended the diaspora in an accusing tweet like this one;

Also this comment: Every year, 2 million #Somalis living in the diaspora send approximately $1.4 billion back home, according to the World Bank. The remittances contribute to 23% of Somalia’s gross domestic product and surpass any amount of aid given to the country. Proud of our #Somali #diaspora.

And yet another one: “Such a misleading and irresponsible tweet. Most of the evacuated folks are those who had original plans of coming back to the countries they came from, but got stuck in Mogadishu due to Covid-19. Also, many of them are older adults with underlying conditions.” @abdirizakmdahir.

The Hashtag #Iamdualcitizen 

In response to the accusations by locals calling diaspora opportunists and asking them to not return back, one Somali young diaspora woman created the hashtag #iamdualcitizen and sent her message in the below tweet:

#Iamdualcitizen & I love both my countries, but my safety is my priority. Please dont undermine my loyalty nor ask me to prove loyalty to #Somalia if I dont take care of myself who will take care of #Somalia Check urself before you blame diaspora!”

Different Somali diaspora and sympathizers expressed how unashamed they are of their dual citizenship which has brought benefits to them and their families and provided safety, protection and better living standards. They argued that being a dual citizen has only made them more patriotic, saying that educated and financially strong diaspora are assets to Somalia instead of fleeing opportunists.

Going back to their places of residence is nothing out of the ordinary since everyone around the world is doing the same amidst this bedlam. Because everyone has either family bindings or health issues and staying at home is the safest thing to do in present circumstances. In fact, it is safer for local Somalis as well that people visiting from around the world return back to their homes because it decreases the rate at which the virus can spread.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has created chaos and confusion, it has brought fear and uncertainty all around the globe. Somali diaspora flying back to their homes and following their government’s orders is nothing out of the blue. It has happened before and is still happening worldwide because this is the safest thing to do in these troubled times.

Therefore, labeling such actions as selfish or unpatriotic seems unfair and simply unreasonable. Worthy of consideration is the fact that many Somali diaspora have passed away as a result of Covid-19. 

On a different note, I myself am a diaspora person. I am a Somali, but I also have a Dutch Citizenship and I call Zambia home. I have lived in Somalia the past 10+ years with alot of pride, patriotism and passion. I came back to the country in 2008 within the framework of a EU-funded Diaspora Partnership Program that enabled many highly educated Somalis to come back and contribute to the country’s rebuilding. 

My daughter, mother and family live in Lusaka, Zambia. Home is the first place one goes to in hard and stressful times. If it hadn’t been for the travel ban, home would have been the first option for me.

Home is where the heart is. Home is where family is. Home is where familiar sounds, scents are found. The place one craves and yearns for. As I am feeling right now!

For many Somali diaspora, this home can be in Tokyo, Ottawa, London, Blantyre, or a small village in remote Somalia.

We are all everyday nomads and transnationals. 

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Sahra Ahmed Koshin is an author, a poet and a PhD Candidate following a dual program at the University of Copenhagen and at the University of Nairobi. She blogs regularly about Somali society, gender issues, culture and Somali diaspora in and out of the country. 

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