In a decrepit Bossasi camp where 108,000 internally displaced people live, Hijar Ali saves youth from falling prey to human trafficking and gives hope to his children and fellow migrants that one day they will all return home.
Hijar Ali arrived in Bossaso, a port town in eastern Somalia, when he was in his mid-20s. He was among hundreds of thousands of Somalis who fled from conflicts in Somalia in the early 1990s. He is now 51 years old and a father to 25 children from his marriage of four wives— all his children were born in an internally displaced people’s camp in Bossaso.
Today, he is the chairman of one of the IDP camps in Bossaso, where thousands of Somalis displaced by the conflicts in the southern part of the country live.
The conflicts in Somalia started as a rebellion to overthrow the government of Siyad Barre, but it turned into a bloody, prolonged civil war that prevented Hijar from returning to his home near Jowhar, a rural town about 90 kilometres away from Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia.
“From the day I left my home, I have been hoping to return. Unfortunately, I have now lost count of the number of years that I lived here,” Hijar says.
Thirty years later, Hijar became one of the leaders in the internally displaced (IDP) communities in Bossaso. He closely works with youth who face multiple social issues like the risks of being recruited by armed groups and human trafficking.
“When I came to Bossaso, I was a very young man, and I had experienced many challenges. I didn’t have relatives in the town, and it was a challenging situation.
“There were many families who also fled from the conflict in the south — the opportunities were very few and far apart. But things have gradually improved, and at least now I have family and children.”
While sitting with his family at their home, he chats with his children. Fatima, Ahmed, Nasra, Suleiman and Sabri are from his last marriage. He tells them stories from the days he lived in Jowhar.
“I tell them about these stories, so they know about my dream to return one day. Also, I want them to learn about their relatives and their roots. We know Bossaso is still part of Somalia, but also, we have our origin where we have family members and land.”
Hijar’s efforts to help youth in the IDP camp extend beyond his family. For instance, a youngster like Hussein, who is 33 years old, is part of the youth group that closely worked with Hijar to raise awareness on issues that affects young men and women in the camp.
Hussein came to Bossaso while he was only three years old. Today, he is a father of five children and runs a small business in the camp.
“Without a father figure like Hijar, many youths would have migrated to gulf countries or joined armed groups. He advises youth in the camp, and together we mobilize the community to combat issues like human trafficking,” Hussein says.
Hijar’s home is made of sticks and clothes, a temporary shelter he built when he arrived here. Close to 108,000 people live in a number of IDP camps in Bossaso. In this camp, there are about 9,000 people. The majority of them were born in Bossaso, including Hijar’s children.
He says he did not build a proper shelter for his family because he hoped to return to his home in southern Somalia. But the political uncertainty in the country has prevented him from returning home.
Fatima is one of Hijar’s daughters. She is now 15 years old and in grade eight in the school. She has not seen Jowhar, where her father was born.
“The most difficult is telling my children where their real home is. They have grown up here, and they don’t know a lot about the southern part of the country. So they call Bossaso home,” Hijar says.
“Traditionally, when children grow up in places that are far from their relatives, we send them back when they are about 9-10 years in the hope that they meet their relative and have that connection.
“But many of my children have struggled to adapt life back in Jowhar. They have not lived there, and they find it challenging to integrate with society.
Fatima, like many other children in this camp, faces many challenges, including access to education. In this region, only 13 percent of school-age girls have access to secondary education. Children in the IDPs have some of the highest dropouts from schooling. But Fatima dreams to beat the odds and finish school. She hopes to educate children in the camp.
“I choose to teach because in our school we don’t have enough teachers. So sometimes I go to school, and we stay in the classes without a teacher. I also want that children learn and work.
The Somali government admits that forced displacement is among the biggest obstacles that Somalia faces. As a result, the government has established a strategy to find a durable solution for displaced people. Across the country, over 1.1 million are displaced, many of them due to internal conflicts. However, in recent years droughts have also significantly forced displacement in the country.
Osman Mohamed Ali from a local charity in Puntland that works closely with IDPs says that many families would hope to return to their homes in southern Somalia. But due to the security situation and political turmoil in the country, many families do not wish to return.
“It’s clear that people don’t want to stay in the IDP camps forever. They want to return to their homes. Still, two main factors are keeping families in this place are apart from the security situation in the country,” Osman says.
“First, it’s because the younger generation who were born in this IDP camps did not have a home other than Bossaso, and secondly, the older generation who hope to return their homes one day. The younger generation wants to stay because Bossaso to them is home,” he continued.
For Hijar, returning home will be a dream come true. For Fatima and her siblings, home is Bossaso, but whether they will call home this makeshift house or find a permanent shelter outside the camp remains to be seen. ”