Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Fall of Barre Government Welcomed by Somalis in Washington, DC

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Fall of Barre Government Welcomed by Somalis in Washington, DC

Article excerpt

Adams Morgan, the colorful "ethnic" center of the national capital, is a gathering place for the city's 3,000 Somali refugees. In January, many spent their time exchanging bits of news from their war-torn homeland. Telephone lines had been severed as fighting between soldiers loyal to Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre and soldiers from a coalition of rebel groups spread to the capital city of Mogadishu. The fighting finally ended on January 27, as Barre fled the capital in a tank convoy headed south towards Kenya.

Despite the lack of direct contact between the refugee community and their homeland, Somalis in Washington have a remarkable information network for gathering news. It includes a pay phone in Adams Morgan used for telephone calls to and from Italy, where there is a large Somali community, facsimile messages from opposition groups and, of course, word-of-mouth.

"If one of my relatives flees (from Somalia) to Ethiopia in the morning, he will call me that afternoon to tell me about the situation," explained 31-year-old cab driver Ibrahim Warsane. "As soon as I hear, I circulate the news. We all do the same."

Warsane, like most Somalis, came to the US as a student before hostilities broke out between the Barre regime and opposition forces six years ago. As the economic situation in Somalia deteriorated, many Somali students were forced to leave school to support themselves. This accounts for the visibly large number of Somali cab drivers in Washington.

The Somali community in Washington is predominantly male. Due to the limited funds of Somali families, most chose to send only their male children abroad for a college education. Warsane also explained that, in Somali society, it was not acceptable for women to leave their families unless they were married. Many more women are found in Toronto's Somali community of 40,000 immigrants, mainly families and married couples.

Before Barre's ouster, most local Somalis did not feel his embassy in Washington, located in one of DC's elegant Watergate buildings, represented them. In fact, a group of Somalis were arrested when they quietly protested the embassy's legitimacy. It is unclear whom the embassy in Washington, DC represents today, as Somali diplomats could not be reached for comment.

To fill the void, members of the Adams Morgan-based community developed their own support system.

"If somebody dies, we collect money from the community for a funeral. If some body loses a job, we help him or her find another one, or collect money to pay the rent," explained Omar Haj Suleiman, a construction worker.

While the Somali clan system is at the heart of political rivalries in the African country, which is roughly the size of Texas, abroad it is not so divisive. In fact, the system also serves a support function for Somalis when they emigrate from one country to another.

Warsane explained how the system works: "If one of my cousins moves to Washington from Germany or Italy, he will look me up and tell me he needs help finding a job or a place to live. I may not even know him, but because we are related, I help him out until he can stand on his own."

"Here all Somalis act like one big clan," said Warsane. "We are all one ethnic group. We have one religion and speak one language."

Inter-clan rivalry was exacerbated when Barre, a member of the Marehan clan, which accounts for one percent of Somalia's eight million people, took power in a 1969 military coup. …

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