June 9, 2014 by Philip Leone-Ganado
At 18 years of age, Somali refugee Farah Abdi has experienced more than some people do in an entire lifetime. He tells Philip Leone-Ganado about fleeing his homeland, coming to terms with his sexuality, and why he believes integration is the only option
In November 2012, a small dinghy carrying 77 migrants arrived in Malta after a three-day journey from Libya. Farah Abdullah Abdi, then just 16 years old, was one of those on board. Nine months earlier, Farah had fled his home in Kenya and set off on a perilous journey into the unknown. In the months that followed, he would be locked up and beaten in South Sudan, cross the Sahara Desert in a pick-up truck, and find himself imprisoned five times while attempting the crossing from Libya.
Arriving in Malta and applying for asylum was the end of that danger for Farah, but it was also the start of another journey: coming to terms with himself and his sexuality, the reason for his flight from family and home, where homosexuality remains illegal, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. “When I arrived, one of the women who helped me realised my difference and said I needed therapy,” he recalls. “I danced around the matter with my psychologist for hours without saying the word.” Even now, it takes him a second to enunciate it. “I am…gay. It doesn’t define me, but it’s part of who I am.”
Eighteen months after his arrival in Malta, Farah has been granted refugee status – the highest level of protection available in Malta – and is working as a translator for NGOs active in the field of migration. Still just 18 years old, he is a regular columnist for MaltaToday and has spoken at conferences on child migration in Malta and in Brussels, where he presented a speech alongside EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström. A self-written book on his experiences – From Chains to Freedom – is due out by the end of the year.
In person, he speaks with an intelligence and breadth of knowledge that belie his young age (“A lot of people say that to me,” he laughs when I observe as much.) He is also completely committed to his goal of shining a positive light on an issue shrouded in fear and negativity. “In Malta people either see immigrants as poor people who need help, or as people who want to invade our country. But I want to tell a different story,” he says. “I am not a victim. I have gone through a lot, but I refuse to see myself as a victim or expect pity from other people. I work as hard as the nationals, and I want to be accorded opportunities to develop myself just like an ordinary person.”
Photography: Jacob Sammut
Farah was born in 1995 in a small town in South-Central Somalia, a region that then – as now – was experiencing armed conflict, widespread human rights abuses, and minimal access to social services. Seeking a better life and an education for the children, the family fled to Kenya. There, they spent three months at the Dadaab refugee camp, where conditions were even worse than in Somalia, before moving to Nairobi, where Farah’s father managed to open a small electronics shop. Farah learnt the language, started school, and settled into – all things considered – a relatively normal, middle-class life.
But from a very early age, he was aware that he was different. “At nursery school, I’d play with the girls more than the boys. The teacher summoned my mother and told her to speak to me: she was very angry; she said I was embarrassing her. I love my mother: she went through so much for me and my brother, and I understand where she’s coming from, being a very religious, culturally-rooted Somali woman, but at the time I hated her.” At 13, he was moved to an all-boys school, at which point he started to slip into depression. “I thought: I’ll never be accepted by my family or my community.”
LGBT life in Kenya remains a dangerous one: according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 96 per cent of Kenyans believe homosexuality is unacceptable; same-sex relationships are punishable by imprisonment of up to 14 years; and gay people are routinely harassed, blackmailed and extorted by the police.
I thought: I’ll never be accepted by my family or my community
It was against this background that Farah made the decision to flee from home in search of a safer future. Legal travel was not an option. “In Kenya, no matter how long you stay, you can never gain refugee status or citizenship,” he explains. “I’ve never known what it’s like to have documents: my country has no government, no birth certificates, no legal channels.” Instead – together with his cousin, who was making the journey with him – he was forced to seek out smugglers to carry him on a journey that sees hundreds lose their lives every year.
“No mother in her right mind would allow her son to embark on such a dangerous journey,” he writes in one of his columns. “I remember my mother persuading me to stay, by vowing to buy me a car and anything else I wanted. She eventually let me go when I stood my ground, and convinced her that buying me material things would not buy me happiness.”
From Kenya, Farah travelled into Uganda and South Sudan. At the border with North Sudan, the group was arrested by local militia on suspicion of being spies. Their money was taken and they were imprisoned in a small room for four days and beaten; one of the girls travelling with the group was sexually abused. In North Sudan, when they finally got out, Farah was forced to grow a beard and wear baggy clothes to hide any external trace of his sexual orientation.
Photography: Jacob Sammut
He arrived in Libya a few weeks later. “When I saw the chaos, I knew I had to get out as soon as possible. The first time I tried, I was caught and taken to prison. I stayed for 25 days before I managed to escape.” Over the next seven months, more prisons followed. The last time, it took $800 to secure his release – in total, he had spent about $12,000 to get this far. “My mother wanted me to go home; she said I was killing her with worry. But I couldn’t go back and start from scratch again after all that suffering.”
On his final attempt, the boat Farah was on was picked up by the AFM about 80 nautical miles from Malta. “When they heard people speaking Maltese, a lot of the people on the boat were scared, because it sounded Arabic, and they thought we were being taken back to Libya. But I recognised the flag and said: no, it’s Malta. That night, I slept like I had never slept in my life. I remember feeling free.”
Due to his age, Farah spent just six days in detention, before being moved to the open centre for minors, Dar is-Sliem. He is grateful for being spared an extended stay in the “despicable” conditions of detention, but at the same time, this meant that he was immediately thrust into a new environment with no idea what to expect – and although he was finally free from the need to hide his sexuality from the world, that environment was not always welcoming.
Racism was an utterly alien concept to Farah before he experienced it here. Working in construction shortly after his arrival, he was once refused entry to a home where he was contracted to do a job because the owner did not want a black person in his house. Another time, he was physically thrown off a bus after a minor disagreement with the driver – again, the colour of his skin was the issue. “I thought: I’m fed up of this country. They don’t know what I’ve gone through. I’m not a burden to them; I work hard, I’ve never asked for anything from anyone, and they treat me like this?”
There was also support. Farah speaks passionately about the many people who helped him on his arrival, especially Maria Pisani, the director of Integra Foundation, who he describes as an inspiration and role-model to him. And in time, he came to find friendship also among the rest of the population. “In therapy, my psychologist challenged me to walk into a shop and just start a conversation with someone, and I was shocked at how many friends I managed to make in the community,” he says. “As soon as you have a conversation with someone, and they understand where you’re coming from, they just open up.”
Farah with Integra Foundation director Maria Pisani Photography: Jacob Sammut
“Migrants are looked at as an issue, not as people. Moreover, the government sees us as transitory: it’s always calling for bigger countries to share the burden, but some migrants are here to stay, and build a foundation for themselves. That’s why there needs to be an integration policy. We need to break the language barrier, and we need to stop looking at migrants as victims. Migrants just need to be given a level playing field, and they can contribute just as much as anyone else.”
Having been granted asylum on the basis of his sexuality, Farah’s story is not a typical one. And even today, he settles ever more into life in Malta, it throws up some unique challenges. His relationship with the Somali community in Malta, for example, is sometimes strained. “I write my columns to put migration in a positive light, to tell our stories,” he says. He has at this point got used to the negative responses his writing sometimes gets from Maltese people – some of whom seem offended by the simple thought of a migrant sharing his opinions – but that of his countrymen is harder to bear. “I’m putting myself out there so much, to bring out their stories and put their points of view across, so when I hear them speaking negatively about gays, I feel very hurt.”
Interestingly, he feels a similar disconnect when it comes to the Maltese gay community. “They have gone through so much: they’ve been put down by the government and society. But the only struggle they know is sexuality, and some of them – not all – don’t take a second to link that struggle to other struggles. I was very happy to see the civil unions bill passed, but I was torn. I thought: am I a part of this celebration?”
So what comes next for Farah? It is sometimes easy to forget that he is still a teenager, and his dreams are not too different to those of any other teenager. “I want to continue writing, I want to travel the world, I want to go into fashion, and music, and business, and just try different ideas,” he says with a broad smile.
Having left secondary school when he left Kenya, Farah is also keen to continue his education, and is going back to school to study for his A-levels in September, with plans to read for a degree in International Relations after that. “One of my biggest role models is Amina Mohammed, Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister,” he says. “She’s in government, she’s worked in Brussels, Geneva, New York – as a woman, breaking that stereotype, and being where she is today…I want that.”
Now free at last to fully express himself, and with so much to contribute, you wouldn’t bet against him getting it.