Survival first, safety second: Somalia drought overshadows travel ban

Somali Americans gathered in SeaTac in early March for an emergency fundraiser to provide relief for the ongoing drought Somalia (Photo by Damme Getachew)
Somali Americans gathered in SeaTac in early March for an emergency fundraiser to provide relief for the ongoing drought Somalia (Photo by Damme Getachew)

When Trump’s first travel ban disrupted the nation back in late January, long-time community organizer Abdullahi Jama said Seattle Somalis didn’t know what to do.

“A lot of people panicked, they were confused,” Jama said. “Many were expecting their relatives through the refugee program. [After the ban,] all of those were ceased.”

Within hours of hearing the news on Jan. 28, hundreds spilled into Sea-Tac Airport to demand that their local voices be heard above the executive order.

As a result of the ban, one Somali man, Isahaq Ahmed Rabi, was denied entry to the U.S. and sent back to Vienna where he had been living as a refugee for years. He was unable to greet his wife in the airport, who had sponsored his trip to the States. Immediately, community members including Jama, spoke to elected officials to advocate for Rabi’s case. Once the judge overruled the ban several days later, Rabi returned to Seattle, a crowd waiting to greet him.

Somalis have lived in King County for decades now. Refugees from the country’s 25-year civil war have been resettled here in large numbers. Many became U.S. citizens and then sponsored other relatives to join them on family visas. If the new travel ban issued last Monday is upheld, these paths to safety will be cut off, at least temporarily.

Others have taken a more circuitous route to get to the U.S., crossing the Atlantic ocean, journeying northward to the U.S.-Mexico border and filing for asylum in the States. Language in the travel ban executive order appears to offer a path to admit asylum-seekers like these, but so far it’s unclear how it will be applied.

“We’re part of the American fabric,” Jama attests. “I’m an immigrant. Immigrants are the backbone of this country. We are a contributive element to the American society and that needs to be recognized.”

Drought: A greater concern

Sahra Fara, director of Somali Community Services of Seattle, points out that the travel ban is not the only important matter for Somalis right now. The drought back home, which reportedly killed 110 people in just 48 hours, is of even greater concern.

Amidst tremendous political noise, more than half of Somalia’s population are facing overwhelming food shortages and dealing with its consequences — children suffering acute malnourishment, a sweeping livestock loss, and internal displacement as thousands travel for three or four days in search of food in the next village, only to find others in the same situation.

Internally displaced Somali children at the Al-cadaala camp in Mogadishu. The WHO estimates half of Somalia's population need urgent humanitarian aid because of the drought. (Photo from Reuters / Feisal Omar)
Internally displaced Somali children at the Al-cadaala camp in Mogadishu. The WHO estimates half of Somalia’s population need urgent humanitarian aid because of the drought. (Photo from Reuters / Feisal Omar)

Farah says she couldn’t watch the videos anymore, the ones that show mothers weeping for their children. She joined six other community leaders to organize an emergency gathering and fundraising campaign on the evening of March 4th at the Doubletree Hotel in SeaTac, WA. The event also celebrated Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, a former prime minister and dual U.S.-Somali citizen.

Unlike at typically festive Somali events, there wasn’t any music playing. Young children held the flag of a country they’ve never visited, letting it dance in the air with the twist of their wrists. People continued to pour in late into the evening, filling the 1,000-seat conference space to capacity. SeaTac’s mayor and a city council member also turned up to show their support.

“Here is home. It’s been home for us for a long time. I want to fight for what is right, fight for people’s rights and stand up for my own rights too,” explained community organizer Mohamed Shidane, referring back to the travel ban. This is as much a fight for me as it is for all other Americans.”

Shidane expected a big turnout. “For the first time, Somalis believe that we have something that everyone can be proud of. It’s not just Seattle. It’s Minnesota, Toronto, Mogadishu, it’s everywhere,” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to this kind of feeling for a long time.”

Abdirahman Hassan, known by friends as O.J., was elected by the Somali community to help lead the event. He believes in the new president’s potential. “He’s straightforward, willing to make change and correct the previously corrupted government. Its hope for the country, that’s why we’re expecting a lot of people to show up.”

“Somalis, one thing they’re good at, once they see something wrong, they stand up together.”

And they did. The event was bigger than anything Sahra Farah has ever seen in her 20+ years of living in the U.S.

“Somalis, one thing they’re good at,” Farah told me, “once they see something wrong, they stand up together. It doesn’t matter if they’re fighting. They still eat together, they still come together, they’re always supporting one another when it matters most. If we didn’t have that, our country would’ve been gone a long time ago.”

On the night of the event, the original Executive Order had already been halted by a federal judge, so there was a temporary sense of relief. But with a new travel ban set to go into effect this Thursday, huge questions still remain for the Somali community.

Will the new ban be upheld? Will long-awaited relatives still be able to come to Seattle? Will the new Somali president be able to rise to the challenge of unifying his country? Will much needed emergency relief be enough to stave off famine?

At least one question, “Why these six countries?” has a pretty clear answer for Jama.

“It’s obvious,” he declares. “Because they are Muslim. It’s clearly religious discrimination even if they took that detail out in the new travel ban.”

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