Somalis still searching for peace

Somali nationals demonstrate outside the Parliament in Cape Town against recent xenophobic attacks, and call for the United Nations High Commission on refugees to take over the running of relief centres

Somali nationals demonstrate outside the Parliament in Cape Town against recent xenophobic attacks, and call for the United Nations High Commission on refugees to take over the running of relief centres

Faith stays with them despite all hardships

THE first thing Mohamed Sharif Noor grabbed as looters stormed his Motherwell shop last Wednesday was his Koran. The 26-year-old father of five is one of about 143 Somalis displaced when vandals struck nearly a week ago, looting and burning shops.

Less than 48 hours later, Noor sat on a mattress in the Motherwell police station yard – head bowed, reading his Koran.

Asked why he salvaged this holy book, he replied simply: “This is my religion, I need it. I read my Koran every day.”

Noor, like so many other Somalis in South Africa – there are about 9000 in the Eastern Cape – came here to escape the “everyday” fighting in his country.

He does not speak much of the horrors in the war-torn country, but becomes sad when speaking of the wife, five children, mother and father he left behind in Marka.

“I`m alone … I speak to them and I send them money. I had two shops but the one was burnt and the other looted. I don`t know what to do … It`s better to stay here, I don`t have money to go back. I`m afraid…”

About 60 men have sought refuge at the police station while others are being accommodated with family and friends in Korsten.

By 1pm most of them had left for Friday prayers while about a dozen guarded what they were able to take from their shops – crates of cooldrink, fresh fruit and washing powder.

As Noor read his Koran, a few metres away a young Somali washed his hair using a 2l plastic bottle.

There are no facilities for the men – no toilets, no bathrooms and nowhere to cook.

What little they do have, they share – as is the Somali way of life – even offering crumbs to birds.

A human rights official, who does not want to be named and does not want to comment, looks on, nods his head disapprovingly and says quietly: “These are human beings…”

Minutes later, the men start washing their feet at a nearby tap and soon they are lining up next to each other, all facing the same direction, for Friday afternoon prayers.

Among them is Suleiman Hussein, a 26-year-old who has lived here for 10 years and has become the voice of Somalis in the Eastern Cape.

He, too, fled Somalia because of the war, leaving behind his father, mother and 30 siblings. His father has four wives and he has 13 siblings on his mother`s side. “I left school, but to go to school was also trouble. You can get killed on your way to school by a stray bullet. It`s easy to die there.

“Somalia is the worst place in the world.”

Fluent in Somali, English and Xhosa – he is adamant he will learn Afrikaans – Hussein has become a vital link between his community and South Africans, even serving as court interpreter.

He owns two shops in Uitenhage but his role as spokesperson for the Somali Association of South Africa in the Eastern Cape keeps him busy.

As we travelled across town to meet another family in Korsten, Hussein mentioned how families here were safer than those in the townships, partly because they were protected by local Muslims.

Bashir Sheikh told his story through Hussein. Sitting on a bed in a tiny room he recalled his journey to South Africa, which spanned 20 years.

He explained how, when civil war broke out in 1991, regions were ruled by warlords. Those who did not belong to tribes governed by the warlords were killed. “We were in the minority and so we ran. My elder brother was killed there, they murdered him. I saw his body on the ground. Those who shot him took everything. At the time, I fled to Ethiopia.”

As his wife, Fatima Mohamud, did laundry for other Somalis, the family`s only income, Sheikh continued his story. His journey took him to Saudi Arabia next, but he was soon deported back home.

“When I came back to Somalia, everything was demolished, everything was destroyed because of that civil war.”

Sheikh then travelled to Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia and finally came to South Africa in 1999. In 2004, his wife and child joined him. Three more children were born in South Africa. In 2008, they arrived in the Eastern Cape, settled in Addo and later moved to Port Elizabeth.

In his time in South Africa he has been robbed several times and shot at once.

With the help of his brother, Sheikh`s wife was able to set up the small laundromat business – two washing machines in a tiny bedroom. He tells us how, just minutes before, they were discussing going back to Somalia.

“My family is in Kismayo and when they heard the news that Somalis are being killed and robbed in South Africa, they asked why we didn`t come back,” Sheikh said. “I miss it, especially when people say Kismayo is a peaceful place.”

When we asked Hussein why he would not rather join his family in New Zealand, Australia or Canada, he became a bit more pensive, almost sad.

“I`m proud that I`m African.
“This is my second country. I want to stay here although sometimes it`s a risk.”

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