Thursday, March 29, 2012
Saber has his future mapped out. "It's clear to me I'm going to be a
big star," says the budding hip hop artist. But then he adds, "Without
my family, my dream is nothing," and it hits you that however confident
he may be, he's still a vulnerable teenager who needs help.
17-year-old refugee has been stuck at the Choucha transit centre near
the Tunisian-Libya border crossing for a year and now waits anxiously to
hear if the United States - the home of hip hop - has accepted him for
resettlement. It's a slow process, but as an unaccompanied minor he is
regarded by the UN refugee agency as particularly vulnerable.
Misic, a senior UNHCR protection officer, said unaccompanied minors
"not only face the hardship of staying in another country as children,
but they are also at risk of abuse and exploitation in the absence of
their parents." UNHCR closely monitors the situation of children in
Choucha and has helped establish community networks to support some 100
unaccompanied minors still in the camp, in addition to providing
schooling, sport and recreational activities through the Danish Refugee
Saber fled the war in his native Somalia five years ago,
ending up in Libya before fleeing to Tunisia in March last year after
anti-government protests that led to the eventual downfall of Muammar
Gaddafi's regime. He clearly wants to get out of Choucha. "It's too
cold, or too hot. It's windy. I dont feel happy in this place." Seeing
other unaccompanied children leave for resettlement in Europe recently
has been difficult.
But the teenager has been making the most of
his time, gathering a loyal following among the more than 3,000 refugees
and asylum-seekers - mainly single young males from sub-Saharan Africa -
for his hip hop wizardry. The young man, as "S'Joe," performs once a
week at a community centre run at the site by the Danish Refugee
Council. When UNHCR visited, he was entertaining dozens of young
children at a party held to keep spirits up for those awaiting news on
resettlement to third countries.
Saber has clearly never suffered
from a lack of self-belief. When he was just 12 he decided to leave
Mogadishu without telling his family, as "I was afraid they would say I
couldn't go because I was too young," and headed off with a neighbouring
family to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.
"There was a security problem
in my country," he told UNHCR, understating the bitter conflict that
began ravaging Somalia four years before he was even born. "Also, I
never had any opportunity to get a proper education in Mogadishu," added
Saber, the eldest of nine children, citing his other key reason for
leaving the Somali capital.
After two months in Ethiopia, his
Mogadishu neighbours left for Europe, leaving the youngster on his own.
He fell in with a group of young Somali men who agreed to take him with
them to the Sudan capital, Khartoum. "I stayed in Khartoum for eight
months and I tried to get work, but employers said I was too young." So
he joined another group who were going to Libya. "I didn't have to pay.
We entered Libya at Kufra [in the south-east]."
His luck ran out
near the eastern town of Ajdabiya, where he and his guardians were
arrested and detained for six months, only being released after paying
money. Saber's next stop was Tripoli, at the end of 2008, where his
musical career began.
"I liked music so I created a group called
'Oncod Again' [Thunder Again]," he said. The teen rapped in Somali,
while his older bandmates - three girls and one guy - provided backing.
He also learned "from Libyan friends, who bought me a guitar" and says
now that, "When people saw me, I said I was trying to be a musician and
they supported me."
The band performed mostly in people's homes,
but were ready to move to the next level. "On March 17, we were planning
to do a big concert," Saber recalled, "But the war intervened." Nine
days before the gig, he had joined the tens of thousands of other
foreigners streaming across the border into Tunisia at Ras Adjir, just
seven kilometres from Choucha. "I was afraid about the war and sought
safety," he explained.
There's not a lot to do in Choucha, but
Saber has been pursuing his dream here. And he's found a mentor and
teacher, a 30-year-old rapper who introduced himself as "SD." The
Nigerian has been teaching "S'Joe" how to rap and write lyrics. SD saw
his pupil performing at the Danish Refugee Council's community centre.
thought this guy is good," but lacked musical training and decent
equipment, said SD, who has been sharing his knowledge. For starters,
they have to use a mobile phone to download backing music because they
don't have a computer that would allow them to create their own sounds.
look for beats and then do whatever we want," SD said, adding: "We sing
about the things around us." Saber also regularly watches MTV on a
neighbour's set for inspiration. And the two have already created a
portfolio of work, with titles like "Tears of Pain," "Disguise my
Limits," "Choucha Gospel" and "Don't Go Back," which is a message to
those in Choucha who think of returning to Libya to make the dangerous
sea crossing to Europe.
And aside from fuelling his ambition and
optimism, hip hop is also helping with Saber's education. He sings
mostly in Somali, but notes that for real success "there is something
missing - English." So he's been attending language classes, determined
to add another string to his hip hop bow.
Meanwhile, two things
prey on his mind - his family and resettlement, following referral of
his case to the United States for consideration. With the help of the
International Committee of the Red Cross he talks to his kin every
Friday by telephone. He hopes that one day they will be reunited in a
new country, where they can all follow their dreams.
By Leo Dobbs in Choucha Transit Centre, Tunisia