Sunday July 29, 2018
From the day a young Mohamud Siraji landed in Dadaab after fleeing war-torn Somalia in 1992, his only goal was to make it out of the massive refugee camp, no matter what it took.
A scholarship to come to Canada to study at York University in 2009 finally gave him a ticket out after 17 years of living with no hope and the constant fear of being forced to go back to the conflict zones he fled as a toddler and barely knew.
Almost a decade after arriving in Toronto, Siraji, now a Canadian citizen, has left behind his comfortable life, young family and a successful career as an accounting analyst and returned to Somalia with a new goal — to help rebuild his embattled homeland.The MP for the district of Jubbaland, close to the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya, spoke to the Star during a recent visit to see his wife, Sarah Hassan, and their 11-month-old daughter, Fowzia, in Toronto.
“I always knew I would go back to Somalia. That’s where I came from,” said the now 30-year-old Siraji, who became a member of Parliament in Somalia in February.
“It was a very tough decision. Somalia is not the safest place,” continued Siraji, who has four armed security guards as escorts in Jubbaland. “So many men and women have died, but I feel the responsibility to go back to rebuild the country. Someone has to make the sacrifice.”
Born in the port city of Kismayo, Siraji and his 10 siblings followed their parents to Kenya in 1992 after Somalia’s clan-based civil war broke out and the military regime under Siad Barre was overthrown.
He and other children in the camps gathered “under trees” to attend classes run by the United Nations and CARE International, a major humanitarian agency.
“There were no classrooms, no chairs, no textbooks. Hundreds of kids all just learned outdoors, but it didn’t matter because we all knew education was the best option out,” recalled Siraji, who was among a minority of students who got to complete his studies at one of the three high schools because of his good grades.
Although he was admitted to an American university program designed for refugee students abroad in 2008, the scholarship was rescinded as a result of the U.S. financial crisis.
Canadian expatriates working at the Dadaab camp recommended Siraji apply for the World University Service of Canada’s Student Refugee Program, which offered him a scholarship at York, where he began his bachelor of commerce degree in 2009.
Since the scholarship covered only his first year of tuition and living expenses, he had to work multiple jobs to support himself to complete his education, while sending money to his family and paying for the university education of two brothers in Kenya. After he finished at York in 2014, he got a job as an analyst at an accounting software company and later married Hassan, who studied social work at York.
Siraji’s older brother Abbas, with whom he grew up in Dadaab, was a rising star and a cabinet minister in President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s government in May 2017, when the 31-year-old was shot dead by soldiers in Mogadishu. Tensions in the capital remain high between the fragile government and the terror group Al Shabab. Just this month, Al Shabab fighters killed 27 soldiers in a raid in Kismayo by detonating a suicide car bomb.
“I was in the U.S. on a business trip when Abbas was killed. I couldn’t believe what happened to him. The pictures of the attack were so graphic to look at,” recalled Siraji, who immediately flew to Nairobi to be with his family. “I didn’t have enough time to think straight. I was just overwhelmed by the news.”
With a baby on the way, it was hard for the young couple to talk about Siraji’s return to Somalia and his run to replace his brother for the same Jubbaland federal seat, but Hassan knew she couldn’t stop her husband. For safety reasons, they decided Siraji would go alone. He returned to campaign to replace his brother in a byelection last August and won the seat in February. His term will end in 2021.
“It was the toughest to leave my wife and girl behind when I went back to Somalia last August for the election campaign,” said a still emotional Siraji. “We were all literally crying.”
As an MP in Somalia, Siraji is paid $3,700 (U.S.) a month, but a good portion of his wages goes to paying his personal guards — all government officials are Al Shabab targets, he says — and airfare to visit his wife and child in Toronto three to four times a year.
“If none of us would go back to Somalia, the country would never have a chance to rebuild,” noted Siraji, who has made education for young people a priority of his mandate and uses his connections in Canada to find resources for classrooms back home.
“When my daughter grows up and asks me, ‘What did you do for Somalia?’ I would like to tell her I have helped rebuild Somalia and make it a better place,” he said. “Yes, I still fear for my safety every day but someone has to do it. It’s worth the sacrifice.”