When Mohamed Omar fled the threats that came with the insurgency in Somalia, a lot came with him. The Mint heard his story.
Mohamed Omar took a flight from his hometown in Somalia in the summer of 1990 to attend a training course for his job. He’s never been back.
Soon after his arrival in Frankfurt where the course was being held, he called his father to tell him he would not be returning. Omar says his father understood but also would have preferred to have his son at home. And memories of that conversation clearly still cause Omar some pain: “I phoned him and I say: Dad, I think the country’s condition is not really good. I am not sure, if I come back, what future will lie. At least I will able to assist you when I’m here in Europe. I decided not to come back, what do you think?
“He says, ‘That’s fine by me if you think you can make some contribution or even if you think you can get a future in your own country, it’s okay by me. But I always prefer if you stay in your own country.’”
And that was Omar’s last conversation with his father. Three months later a heart attack took his father’s life.
Omar was 19 and he had hurled himself into the unknown in the hope of finding a more assured and prosperous future. And very early in his venture he had to face up to how distance can intervene in our experiences of life’s pivotal moments – like the loss of a parent. In this instance, the final such loss as his mother was already dead. “You know you have to become an adult practically when you are outside where you were born.”
Omar didn’t stay long in Germany. He came to the UK before the end of 1990 to begin his new life. But what had driven him away from his homeland in the “breadbasket of Somalia” where his family were farmers? Omar’s answer is emphatic: “There are no economic prospects, no jobs, no health service, no public service at all, no freedom of speech. The people they have no clear future. There is not any future for the young people when they finish their education.
The military government, Omar reminds us, received international advice to make changes around the beginning of 1989. “The IMF and the World Bank together, I think, advised Somalia that things have to be changed on a political level and also in the economic direction.
“The wages were bad, sometimes they’re not on time, the hospitals started collapsing and the education is becoming stagnated. And the IMF says, ‘Okay, everything is in freefall – you have to spend only what you can afford.’ ”
Following the introduction of these austerity measures, Somalia sought international loans, but Omar says they had little of no effect and a rebellion emerged. Neighbouring Ethiopia trained and armed Somali rebels who captured the barracks of the, by then, demoralised Somali military. At the time Omar was an officer in the army – a compelling option he says when he left school at about 16.
“Being part of the military was seen as the way to success.”
While Somalia may have been on a downward trajectory in almost every sense, Omar had for some time been in a relatively good position.
After two years in officer training he emerged at 18 as a first lieutenant. But his father – who had held a senior post in the Somali government before the military administration of Siad Barre took control in a coup in 1969 – was not entirely happy with his son’s membership of the military.
At the time – in the mid 1980s – Omar says that despite the military control, the leaning of the Barre administration was socialist and the economy was largely run by often Western-educated, qualified people.
And the army was well paid and it opened doors Omar says: “[I joined the army] first of all on economic reasons, the second point was also those close to the military or who have a military background were the dominant sector to the government. Being part of the military was seen as the way to success. The core elite who ruled the country most of them have a military background, they are either military or they have a military background.”
“Security in general I think it has a special clout.”
His father however favoured democracy and had never welcomed Barre’s military dictatorship. “I have to admit my dad was against the government but not in public. He cannot speak on public because the government, if they discover that, they will arrest him straight away. However, he encouraged me to go, if I wanted, to the military. The reason for that is he himself was an old patriot during the colonial era. At one time he saw the military as an asset. But later he wanted the old western multiparty system and freedom of expression including the public criticism of the government.”
Unusually Omar’s father had been educated in Italy (much of what is now Somalia had been partly under Italian jurisdiction). He had been invited to go to Italy says Omar to be part of the preparations for independence. “According to my father they were preparing people who will be able to run the government you know,” says Omar. And he had a significant role in the Somali government before Barre.
“He was a senior person in the government before the military come to power. The military took over the country in 1969 – before that he was the first minister for the Ministry of Agriculture. Then later he was become a first minister for the Transport section as well.”
Omar says that after the coup his father left government and lived under the threat of arrest were he to be in any way outspoken against the government. “He could have been in danger if he did not become silent.” Nevertheless Omar says his father remained a critic of the government in private. He was however in favour of a secular regime says Omar and considered the military regime to be better than an Islamist one. And Omar too favoured secularity and supported the government in its suppression of the Islamists even though it was at times “very, very harsh” and drew condemnation.
“When I go back now historically, the way the government were, I think they’ve done an excellent job to be honest with you,” says Omar.
Omar quit the military when insurgency began to escalate and approach civil war. “That is where it started – the disintegration of the government. Luckily I was able to leave the military and work for the finance ministry, even though my role was not an economist. But I was able at least to get some work.” And that was when he took up the opportunity to go to Germany to attend two weeks of training in income tax. That was when he decided to not return to Somalia.
“I have to admit my dad was against the government but not in public.”
He says he maintains a sense of guilt over leaving his father. He believes his father didn’t fully approve of his departure at least in part out of worry that he was embarking on a risky venture. Nevertheless Omar senses still that his dad was measuring his words to not make things still more difficult for him.
“I remember he says: ‘I would prefer you stay your country rather than living in a difficult condition. But if you find yourself you will be okay and that’s fine. You have my agreement with you.” It was a diplomatic language but I knew he was saying indirectly to me, ‘It’s better you stay where you belong to.’
“He offered me some advice: ‘The Europeans they are very sophisticated countries, they were very educated countries. There will be lot of challenges to you. It won’t be easy but you will be able to do it.’ That’s what he was roughly telling me.”
And so Omar arrived in the UK looking for opportunity and security. And he has worked in security since his arrival. “I’m studying at the moment for a masters degree on intelligence and security which soon will go to dissertation. My ambition is to join the United Nations in Africa in the security field.”
Omar is clearly proud of his work in the security sector and he accepts that pride is a reflection of his experiences of the collapse of stability in Somalia. “Let’s say the social aspect, for example, or economic development; what is the driving engine? The driving engine obviously is stability.
“Security in general I think it has a special clout, because it’s essential for any development. Whether it’s economy, whether it’s infrastructure, whether it’s personal ownership, the society as a whole. The security is highly connected to the wellbeing of any society.”
“My ambition is to join the United Nations in Africa in the security field.”
He is also palpably moved by the greater horizon of experiences and encounters life in the UK has brought him: “I think I was lucky to have such nice people in a different multinational society. It was English, it was Hindu, it was African, it was Arab, it was South American… So diverse. I would never have been able to learn or develop such skills if I were back. Today what I experience is extensively different on theoretical, on practical on every level.”
And through his life in the UK, Omar has, as he had hoped to do for his father, been able to help his family in Somalia albeit through tragic circumstances.
“Security in general I think it has a special clout, because it’s essential for any development.”
He lives in London with his wife and his brother’s three children. He arranged for the children to be brought to England some 15 years ago after his brother died in Mogadishu in a mortar attack by Islamist rebels.
He says he was able to get the children into the UK by sending money to get them into Ethiopia where he was able to explain the situation to the British Embassy in Addis Ababa and acquire a visa to bring them to the UK.
He has raised the children with the support of his wife who is Somali by birth and an American citizen. “She assisted me although often she is with family in America. But she assists me very greatly. We adopted and now they are well established so everything is in the right direction.
“Now the older one, he’s in the sixth form and soon he will go to university. So he will be in a success story.”
A success story, we surely hope, like Omar’s own.