Somalia's loss, Johannesburg's gain

As part of a series on xenophobia, the M&G presents the Sowda Hussen Mohamud story…

  • Xenophobia: The reality
  • She’s a 22-year-old sports reporter with a passion for football in general, and Wayne Rooney in particular. If she wasn’t a journalist she’d like to be a professional footballer.

    Twenty two-year-old sports reporter Sowda is a refugee from the war in Somalia, having fled her country after threats from extremists who believe women should not be journalists. “They said I should choose between my profession and my life. I chose my profession and I left my home.” She now lives in Mayfair, Johannesburg and shares her concerns about the threat of renewed xenophobia.

    Not so unusual in South Africa perhaps, but what makes this young woman different is that she is a refugee from the war in Somalia, having fled her country after threats from extremists who believe women should not be journalists and should not be seen or heard on the airwaves. “They said I should choose between my profession and my life. I chose my profession and I left my home.”

    She now freelances for Voice of America and Radio Bar Kulan, broadcasting to Somalia.

    Leaving home was difficult, especially as she had to leave her aged mother behind. “I don’t have any choice. I left my country to get peace and to work. If you have a choice your own country is always the best place to be.”

    Her family are scattered and they cannot meet because they cannot travel on their refugee papers. “My brother is in Egypt, my sister is in Kenya and my mum is in Somalia. Our family is divided in many parts.”

    Each time she phones her mother she hears news of fresh fighting, of family members and friends who have been killed.

    “Johannesburg is my city now. When I got here I couldn’t speak English. I have been taking lessons since March and now have a lot of confidence to speak to people. My South African friends help me with that a lot.”

    Covering the World Cup for radio has been a great opportunity for her to indulge her love of both football and journalism. “I was supporting Bafana Bafana in their matches, of course, because now I stay in South Africa I should support them. I went to the stadium for the opening match and I was blowing my vuvuzela,” she says and demonstrates by blowing a deafening blast on the plastic horn. “I really like Steven Pienaar, the midfielder.”

    She has made a real effort to learn about South Africa and make friends outside of her immediate community. A devout Muslim, she feels it is important for people to have friends of other cultures.

    “I am a Muslim, but we can all be friends. My religion does not say I cannot be a friend with other people. My friends don’t tell me to leave my religion, and I don’t tell them to leave theirs, so it’s no problem.”

    Unfortunately not all South Africans are welcoming to refugees, and like many others she has been on the receiving end of threats. ” I was in town and a man said ‘You! Foreigner! You will all go out after the World Cup.’ I replied ‘no, we are not going,’ and he said ‘we will kill you all’. So I stopped and looked at him and said ‘come on then, kill me now’. He just walked away. I have heard what happened in 2008. We are all afraid the same thing will happen again.”

    Like many other Somalis, Sowda lives in Mayfair, or “Little Mogadishu” as it has been dubbed due to the large Somali community. “When I arrived here I asked the driver to take me to a place where there are other Somalis, because we speak the same language and we all help each other.”

    The major differences between South Africa and Somalia is that it is relatively peaceful in Johannesburg: “In Somalia, every night the guns are firing—pow pow pow”. She also misses camel meat and milk, staples of Somali cuisine, and cannot believe how cold it gets here in winter.  “Some nights I can’t sleep here because it is so cold,” she says with a shiver.

    She was surprised to arrive in South Africa and learn that even here, she is under threat, for being a foreigner. “I thought this would be a safe country, so when I heard about the xenophobia I felt sad. But I believe God will protect us. Inshallah.”

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