Voices of Young Somali Refugees

Children's stories symbolize the plight - and tenacity - of millions of displaced persons. HORN OF AFRICA TURMOIL

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SIX-YEAR-OLD Suhuru's lively brown eyes open wide as she tells of her narrow escape and her new life as one of the world's 17 million refugees.Recently, UNICEF brought together more than 100 refugee children from the East African coastal nation of Somalia to speak and sing pleas for peace and for international help to refugees from their homeland tattered by war and drought. Suhuru Mahamed Mohamod, one of the youngest Somalis at the conference, was not on the program. But everywhere you looked, there she was, usually in the arms of, or hand in hand with, Somali adults. Someone had even printed Suhuru's full name on her left palm. It was as if no one wanted to lose her, the way she had lost much of her family the night her refugee boat capsized off the coast of Kenya. Africa has more than 5 million refugees, nearly a third of the world's total. Roughly half of Africa's refugees are children, estimates the US Committee on Refugees, a private organization. There are now about 700,000 Somali refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Most of them are in Ethiopia, where food relief has been sporadic because of anarchy in the region of the camps after rebels seized power in Ethiopia in late May. Most Somali refugees in Kenya get help, either in the homes of relatives or in UN camps. Camp conditions have ranged from sticks and plastic sheeting in the early stages, to buildings in the capital. But even in Nairobi, one child complained, many refugees sleep on the floor. The children miss school - and home. Suhuru describes fighting between rebel groups in central Somalia, the region of the capital. In January, rebels finally defeated dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, only to fall into conflict among themselves over who would rule. In May, northern rebels declared independence from the rest of the country - and things have been fairly peaceful there in recent weeks. But the years of war and this year's clashes among rebels have sent hundreds of thousands of Somalis fleeing to the neighboring countries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Suhuru's story, which she told the Monitor calmly, clearly, and energetically through a Somali translator, began earlier this year, with her sudden awakening in bed at her former home in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. "We were fast asleep when all the problems, the fighting started," says Suhuru, her short legs dangling from the chair, sometimes swinging, or kicking a chair leg. She wore tiny gold earrings, a green skirt, and a natty orange blouse which the woman translator occasionally gently tugged into place. 'WE moved from our house and went to a place called Medina," another section of Mogadishu, she continues. "I came with my father and grandmother from Medina to Afgoi, from Afgoi to Kismayo." Somewhere along the way, she saw someone shot, Suhuru says. The family split up in Kismayo. Her father went overland, and is now, she says, at a camp just inside Somalia, on the border with Kenya. The grandfather flew to Nairobi. The mother, who Suhuru said left her when she was a baby, lives in Italy. Suhuru was put on a boat with her brothers and sisters and some family adults. The boat was jammed with Somalis fleeing the fighting and growing hunger. Nearly at the end of the journey, within sight of the Kenyan coast, the boat capsized. Suhuru picks up the story : "Before the boat turned over, water came in. I saw a dead person [in the water]. I held on to a woman's neck and the woman swam with me and that is how I was saved. I know how to swim," she says confidently, moving her arms in swimming strokes to make her point. But more than 150 Somalis reportedly drowned that day, including four of Suhuru's brothers and sisters. Most refugees are now in camps - ranging from makeshift stick shelters to regular buildings, like the one in Nairobi where Suhuru now lives. Others double up with relatives. A refugee camp is not where she wants to be. "I want to go back to Somalia. That's home," she says, echoing what is the most common desire among the world's refugees. Fawzia Y. Adam, a Somali woman working for a private Somali relief and development organization, lives in Nairobi and has worked with some of the Somali refugee children here. She says they suffer in many ways. "First of all, they are very frustrated," she says. "They don't go to schools. Some of them lost their parents; some lost everything they had. They're just here in camps, or taken care of by some families. Mostly they would like to go back to Somalia." But that requires peace. And peace remains elusive. At the UNICEF conference for Somali refugee children, some displayed artwork - often portrayals of tanks, bombers, and people being shot; scenes blazoned in the memories of children, some of them from eyewitness experiences. The children called on Somali rebel factions to settle their differences through talk and save "what is left of our nation and country." They urged the disarming of child rebels (a phenomenon of the Somali and some other African rebellions, such as those in Uganda and Liberia). They also called for a world embargo on arms sales to Somalia and formation of a representative unity government. UNICEF'S Saleh Dabbakeh, who helped organize the conference, says Somalia has not gotten the financial support for relief it deserves. Regarding peace, he says Somali adults "had better be listening" to their children. "The future is on their [the childrens'] backs. I think they are very smart, and they know exactly what to do to stop the war in Somalia between brothers." 'ON a Friday, the soldiers [of former Somali dictator Barre] came and called the elders and tied each two of them with one rope," says another young Somali refugee, Beshir Ali, 14. "They fired machine guns. My father was one of those killed. I ran away over wet sand and thorns that hurt my feet." He and the survivors of his family - his grandfather was also killed - came to Kenya last October. "One way it feels to be a refugee is - you don't get that much food, you don't get that much medicine, and you don't get that much water," says Filsan Yusuf, 15. Filsan's father and aunt drowned, but she, a brother, and a cousin were helped ashore in Kenya when their boat sank. Concerned individuals in the United States, says Hiram Ruiz of the US Committee for Refugees, can write their representatives in Congress or to the State Department to spur more aid to the Somali refugees. Somalia is largely ignored in a world with more publicized problems, says Mr. Ruiz. "There's such a lack of interest by the American public, it doesn't encourage much attention to be paid at government level."

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