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Thoughts on Storytelling for Somalia Retreat and Adventures in Wales and London

Photo Credit: Mohamed Yusuf

Hodan Ibrahim
Friday, October 3, 2014

It has felt like 1 years worth of growing has been done in just one week.

I was selected to be a part of a groundbreaking project run by the  United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and UK-based partner Radical Middle Way with The Institute of Narrative Growth  called “Storytelling for Somalia”, A retreat for journalists, change makers and creatives from the Somali diaspora on September 15th-19th.

It was a co-lab on journalism and story with 30 creative change makers from across the Somali diaspora ranging from writers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, creatives, journalists and it was designed to facilitate collaborations and conversations amongst its members.There were trainings on investigative journalism, story as a global health strategy, evening fire side chats with the great Dr. Fuad Nahdi, field trips to visit key communities and community figures and learn about the history of the Somali diaspora within Cardiff, Wales and United Kingdom in general.

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It was held at the historical Buckland Hall, a beautifully isolated mansion tucked away in the gorgeous hills in Wales in Brecons Beacons Park.

Waking up every morning to grab some tea(no it was actually copious amounts of hot chocolate) to take a walk on the beautiful landscape of lush greenery, and gaze at the mountains and small homes covered in a haze of clouds before sessions was something I will never forget. It was a quiet that forced you to reckon with your own soul. It brought about an introspection that either made you reaffirm your path in life or completely reconsider everything.

The first thing we did was sit in a circle, as an entire group, and introduce ourselves by way of our ancestry. It was a lovely break from the common question: “What do you do?” Behind that question is the assumption of the importance of economics, status and social positioning. Asking us where we came from poses another assumption: you are here because of where your ancestors were decades ago. Let’s explore that.

We had 8-9 hour day sessions – very content-focused. I wanted to highlight three different sessions that provide a bird-eye view on what we explored.

Healing as a global health strategy. Mark Gonzales led us through many introspective discussions on the psychology of healing and the anatomy of storytelling and nation. He described nations as a collection of narratives and took us through a series of activities that allowed us to explore the positive and negative effects of how stories are able to both heal and harm a nation.

Be Another Lab was a collective between Daanish Masooud, Christian Cherene and Arthur Pointreau, to create a machine that allows others to virtually interact with themselves. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to try it out because there was always a huge line to try it. Click on the link to learn more.

Fireside Chats – These were the last sessions of our day and a chance to regroup and debrief on what happened during the day and sit with our elders, share stories and ask questions. The great Dr. Fuad Nahdi lead these sessions through insightful and hilarious stories on life and his remarkable life experiences. These sessions were a way for us to bond. I wish they happened every night of my life – it was beautiful. These fireside chats planted the seed that allowed me to open up to this group.

*Note: Thanks to Hassan Ghedi Santur and Mohamud Yussuf for these beautiful photos.

What made this retreat ground-breaking was the initial assumption of creating a space to bring members of the Somali diaspora together to exchange ideas and experiences. It’s was a daring project to bring together Somalis of the diaspora worldwide to meet and collaborate together for 1 week – which, to my knowledge, has never been done. I spent most of my life living in a multicultural community, with very little emphasis on my cultural identity.

As a young women of the diaspora, I have never had the space, as many other retreat members will confidently say, to sit in a room full of my people and people my age. I never had the chance to work with them, collaborate ideas, speak my language and feel a communal connection that was ripped from us due to colonialism. These are the people, had I been in my homeland, the same people I would have grown up with, lived with and worked with.

But life had other plans.

What does it mean to be an urban Muslim entrepreneur and artist from Canada?

For the first time, I was forced to answer that question.

25 + years ago, Somalia was ripped apart by civil war and spread its citizens across the world and this created probably the most fragmented nation on earth. The consequences of this were bound to create chaos – and it did.

By the third day, pent up feelings started to emerge during one morning session. People had mentioned everything from suspicions, to concerns and frustrations. Was the United Nations doing this to collect data on Somalis? How come Somalis weren’t part of the design of the retreat? Were we being used as experiment?

Whether any of these concerns where valid or not is beside the point. The point is that the reactions were symptoms of a legitimately larger issue – lack of trust. A lack of trust that can only come from a community suffering from traumas – both personal and collective – that had not been addressed for 25 + years.

As Muslims, we’ve been put under the radar and are constantly under suspicion from people around us. As colored people, we don’t benefit from social privileges that bring the social and financial capital with it. And as Somalis, many of us have faced socio-economic pressures that have caused many of our parents to walk out on us, our families being ripped apart, and many of us never having truly connected with our country of origin, perpetually living in a nomadic state – not belonging anywhere but where we are at the moment. All these of these tensions have then built up for decades. Therefore reactions weren’t so much of a surprise but predictable.

Many complaints were made about Somalis being involved in the creation of this retreat and with all due respect, the Somali community has very little capacity to pull off a retreat like this– we don’t have the social and/or financial capital to put together what the UN, Mark, Daanish and Abdurahman had done. The organization, the accountability, the vision and the execution of the retreat was incredible, to say the least.

They, quite simply, made history.

I’m not trying to knock on my Somalis but let’s be real. It’s not that Somalis can’t, but we won’t. There are too many internal politics, ego, and lack of organization for the Somali community to have pulled this retreat off. Sorry. Not Sorry.

I’m grateful that someone thought of us – not in the common narrative of the white saviour thrusting himself upon the black man – but that someone cared. Because very few people care for Somalia.

Even Somalis at times, I’m afraid.

The truth is, we are afraid of ourselves. We are afraid of our light, our own success, our own ability to move forward in unity as a nation capable of accomplishing great things. Fear of success manifested itself so many times during this retreat – through chaos, through argument, through discontent and through tears.

One person said during a session that very few of us had been in a room with so many talented people of our nation and are actually reacting to the immense power that was in that room- albeit negatively- but nonetheless, it drew attention to the strong elements that were at large. It was absolutely incredible how accomplished and successful people were but there were few mentions of personal successes. I’m not sure if it’s because we have been so used to silencing our talents as a result of years of conditioning or it’s was simply because we didn’t feel comfortable using that space to do so.

While there may have been moments where we all collectively did share in happiness, by far the most intense is when we all sat and shared in our pain through a session lead by Mark Gonzales. He asked us to bring photos of our families and write a letter to them. Overwhelmingly, everyone wrote a letter to their mother, everyone spoke of their mother and there were enough tears to fill the Gulf of Aden 10 times.

Our mother have been and always will be the bedrock of our communities. So much pain they have suffered through yet they are the pillars – standing tall and gloriously – regardless of what elements they have faced.

I also did write to my mother but had to stop writing it. It was too painful. That session made me leave the room twice. I could only imagine what my parents had to go through to give me a chance at life. They were their own people, with their own dreams and aspirations until life derailed them and sent them on another path.

It also made me realize that my suffering wasn’t unique – it was all too common.

Everyone in that room had a story as painful as mine.

For a long time, we’ve never had a chance to just say: “I’m hurt.”

Or to say this is who I am and it’s okay. Regardless of the baggage. This is what I went through, and it’s okay. Regardless of what I feel. This is what happened to my family and I can work through it. This is what the older generations did, but I am willing to forgive, let go and start anew. That I don’t need to carry the burden of Somalia on me. I can let go of this invisible responsibility to save a country whose problems started long before I was born.

And truly, this is what the retreat was all about: forgiveness. As much as many people came in with expectations to change a lot, forgiveness is by far the best thing to start with and the most impact thing that will bring Somalis together. The willingness to forgive ourselves – an entire generation- of our grievances, allow ourselves to move and say that it will be okay.

And beautifully, this is how the retreat ended. We were asked to give two words: one to our past and one to our future, with, as Mark said, the acknowledgement that we are the pivot point between the two. Mine was to offer forgiveness to my ancestors and to offer limitlessness to my future.

What was made painfully aware to me is that Somalia is still a country a long way from resolving our collective trauma. I walked out of a session and ended up breaking down thinking: Will we ever get it together? Were we doomed to a downward spiral of decline? Maybe these were the reasons I’ve failed to engage with the Somali community – the process of healing was the first battle we had to face before any political, social or economic changes could be implemented.

A long road to real freedom, indeed.

But was it useful to even ask such questions? Did it matter? Should I go back to being the nomad I’ve always been- wandering without a thought and reverting to the only philosophy that has given me solace over the grievances I witness around me: be the best you can be,and walk your own path.

I’ve chosen to walk my own path for so long, but now my path was colliding with so many other paths and forcing me to reckon with them and face what a Somali elder once told me:

“If you want to go fast, go by yourself. If you want to go far, go with the people.”

Overall, the number one thing I learned about myself was that I’ve been playing small with myself, not dreaming big enough and not allowing myself to embrace the endless opportunities and wonders the world can bring to you. I come from a small town, whose only real significance is that it was were I was born but the journey towards understanding myself and expanding my own doesn’t need to end in one place. As Mark says, I will apologize to my ancestors and apologize to myself for thinking that playing small was ever an acceptable thing.

And as uncomfortable as it is, Somalis with their diverse needes and directions, will need to attempt to walk with one another.

There is no use fighting a million battles if it’s not to win the war.

To my fellow readers and Somalis, don’t limit yourself- the endless possibilities are always around you, opportunities are always there.There are so many tiers of reality that we can penetrate – high consciousness, higher levels of energy- pursue them with rigour.

At the end of the retreat, I spent a few days in London hanging out with someone of the most beautiful people I’ve met so far in my life – talented, creative and smart people with a collective hope to change th world for the better.

And for the first time in my life, I feel there is hope for us.

You can follow Hodan Ibrahim through her website at http://hodansibrahim.com/

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