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London model's return to see Somali roots

Monday, April 30, 2012

Samira was signed by a modelling agency when she was 17 years old

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For the first time since the age of three, successful London fashion model, Samira Hashi, has returned to the country where she was born, Somalia - one of the most troubled regions in the world. She writes about what she found:

Growing up in a city like London I almost never saw extreme poverty.

All I knew of Somalia was from the media - the malnutrition, famine, drought, terrorists, pirates and bloodshed.

When I was born in 1990, the civil war had just broken out, which has been present in Somalia ever since. My family fled the country when I was three and moved into the UK to settle and we began our new lives here.

As I've grown older I've started to realise that there is a part of me that's missing. I've often wondered what my life would have been like if my mother had not fled and brought me up in London.

But returning to Somalia after 18 years was one of the hardest and most shocking experiences I've ever had.

I couldn't go anywhere without extreme security, and the severity of the situation there hit home when I was introduced to a Somali girl the same age as me called Shukri.

Unfortunately she wasn't given the opportunity to escape like us, so she has spent all her life knowing nothing but war, violence, destruction and bloodshed.

Three of her children - aged just three, two and seven months - died in 2010 because of a mortar attack by Islamist group al-Shabab. I could see she was heartbroken and the trauma of the war was written all over her face.

I thought of how my life would be if my family had stayed in Somalia and whether I would be alive or dead.

Devastating conditions

I was lucky enough a few years ago to be scouted by a modelling agency, which is where I began my career in modelling.

The creativity and artistic part of fashion excites me, as well as connecting and conversing with a wide range of people from different backgrounds.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to be able to travel with my work. But travelling to Somalia was very different. I spent my first day in the Dolo Ado refugee camp crying as I couldn't bear to sleep in the tents provided.

The camp in Ethiopia was overcrowded and had become home to more than 120,000 Somali refugees, but that is less than half the number of Somali refugees in Kenya's Dadaab camp, which hosts more than 300,000.

I found it extremely embarrassing to later on realise Somali refugees have no choice but to share the same tent with 20 other people.

The conditions of the camps were devastating to see. Inadequate shelter meant that Somali refugees would wait weeks, sometimes months, for basic accommodation.

Shocked at sexual abuse

Millions of Somali lives have been lost and millions more are in danger as a result of poor health care, insufficient distribution of food and lack of clean water.

I was shocked when Somali women told me of the sexual abuse they have endured. During my visit to the refugee camp, two women were raped after they went to collect firewood.

"The rape went on for several hours. We feared that we could have died," one victim told me.

"We used to feel safe here in the past. But now, every time we go to the woods we get raped. The same could happen to our children."

I was appalled to discover the endemic nature of rape in the camps. This was the fourth incident of rape in a month. The number of sexual abuse that take place is extraordinarily high.

My trip ended in Hargeisa in Somaliland, an area that is seen as safer than the rest of the region, but where female genital mutilation remains so common that 98% of women have had the procedure done to them. It's one part of my Somali culture that I refuse to accept.

My journey back to Somalia was mind-blowing as it fulfilled all my desires in gaining a connection with my motherland and understanding its current state.

I come away from my trip with the utmost respect for Somali refugees; they have humbled me with how amazingly they cope in their sometimes unbearable situations.

With the punitive conditions and a daily battle for survival, Somali refugees have no break or gap in their lives to complain, they have no choice but to deal with it.

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