The first time I met Somalia Olympian Samia Yusuf Omar was two years ago in Hargeisa, Somaliland, where she had agreed to be interviewed. I remember she stepped off the plane from Mogadishu in a new royal-blue dress and headscarf, track trousers tucked underneath.
In April, a boat carrying Omar from Libya to Italy ran out of petrol and the Italian navy ship which came to rescue passengers threw ropes over the side. Omar tried to grab the rope, missed, fell into the water and drowned. News about her death emerged during the London Olympics and was later picked up by Italian newspapers. She made the trip to Italy to search for a coach.
The first week I spent with Omar, back in 2010, she was noticeably reserved, yet stubborn. She ran the 200 meters race at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and was still shy when speaking to reporters. She would respond to my constant inquiries into how she was doing with a simple, “fine”. And then, frustratingly, refuse to answer too many personal questions about herself.
Not that she was ever a fan of speaking to the media. The BBC had called her in 2008 soon after she arrived in Beijing for the Olympics, in hopes that she would share her experience with them. But Omar wasn’t interested in being interviewed, so she pretended she couldn’t hear the journalist and hung up.
"I love Somalia, but there is no peace. If Somalia had peace, it would be the best place to live in the world. I prefer to live in Somalia instead of other places"
Samia Yusuf Omar
But slowly, toward the end of the week, her personality began to reveal itself. In the evenings she would avoid talking about herself by inquiring into intimate details of my life. As Omar listened to our translator repeat each question to me, she would fixate her gaze on me, one eyebrow raised and a smug grin on her face as she waited for the end of the delivery. Her questions were mostly about boys.
When the answers came, she would laugh.
A year later, she greeted me eagerly in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Her English had improved enough to have small conversation. She was frustrated when she couldn’t express herself properly, but I was thrilled to hear her speak the same language as me – in almost perfect grammar.
She was still on her quest to find a coach – somewhere, anywhere.
But at least she was in an environment where she was visibly more relaxed. Where she didn’t have to worry about death visiting her every time she walked outside. She could be more casual in her dress if she liked, and she could be open about the fact that she was an athlete.
Omar had always defended Somalia. It was her home, where her friends and family lived.
“I love Somalia, but there is no peace. If Somalia had peace, it would be the best place to live in the world. I prefer to live in Somalia instead of other places,” she told me that first week I met her.
Now she was now talking about how she could move her mother and younger siblings to Ethiopia as well.
She invited me to stay at her aunt’s home, and together we worked out steps that included her passion, running, but also could transition her into becoming an adult.
We parted with every intention of meeting up again.
Then, in mid-August, I found out that Omar had died. In a video passed to me, I watched as the legendary Somali athlete Abdi Bile became emotional as he explained the details “... a boat headed for Italy... an unsuccessful rescue”.
Hoping Bile was mistaken – Omar had gone missing on more than one occasion – I tweeted the news to my very small number of followers and went to bed.
My cousin, bless her, retweeted it.
And that was it for several days.
I kept the news quiet – even from mutual friends – until her sister gave me confirmation. I went a little numb, not sure how to process the information.
At just 21 years of age, after all Omar had pushed through and over, she was gone.
Not only had she died, but she had died last April. I couldn’t fight the feeling that I had been robbed of a last goodbye and chance for a eulogy and funeral. I was expected to just deal with the news thousands of miles away and months later.
No more would I watch her call or text her mother and younger siblings more often in one day than I did in weeks. (She had assumed “mom” responsibilities at the age of 15 when her mother had needed to become a produce seller following the death of Omar’s father.)
I would no longer catch her playing football or basketball with teenage boys – a big taboo at a local Hargeisa boarding school.
Nor would she ever loop her arm through mine, call me Teresa Waalo – which translates into “Crazy Teresa”, a reference to my insistence that we maintain an interview schedule – and then tilt her head to the side and laugh. Or sing the name a few more times, much to her delight.
Omar loved giving nicknames to people.
All her siblings had at least one.
She had six.
My intention when meeting her was to use her narrative to walk people through the last two decades in Somalia. Give people a personal account of what it was like for Mogadishu-based Somalis to lose a parent at an early age, have to drop out of school, be displaced and develop an increasing amount of fear as warring “authorities” took it out on your neighbours and family.
But because she had gone to the Olympics, maybe people would care.
I let the story fall to the side as Omar continued to live – travelling through the Sudans up to Libya, from where she had told me she wanted to eventually reach Italy, where she believed she might find a coach.
Her family and I both tried to dissuade her from going. The Somali Olympic Committee was planning to develop a camp in Addis – where Omar was at that time – and there was no guarantee of a better athletic life elsewhere.
Eventually, when she had “settled,” I planned to see whether she was ready to share her life with more people.
Sadly, she never had that chance. But the world did.
A few days after I learned of her death, the news hit the Italian newspapers and lit a spark across western Europe, then the rest of the world.
Media requests came in and people began tweeting their shock. A Youtube video posted in 2010 of her 200-metre race in the 2008 Beijing Olympics jumped from a couple hundred views to a quarter of a million in less than a week. People from around the globe commented about the sadness of her passing.
People were recognising what I and others in her life had known all along. Omar was nothing short of amazing.
More family and friends, many who had met and come to love her, stumbled upon reports about her death and asked how I was.
And I was, and still am. I have my life. A job. Opportunities.
But I wasn’t really. I was moving through different emotions: denial that I’d never see her again, anger that I hadn’t done more to help her, or that the media –members of my profession – only cared now that she was gone... until I finally broke down and cried the other night.
Work distracted me during the day, but in quiet moments I focused on her childhood stories—of her sprinting away from madrasa to surprisingly end up at a stranger’s wedding down the street. Or of beating up girls with too much make-up or throwing small rockets at older kids she thought she could outrun.
I also conjured up an image of fear she would have had when she realised that this risk, finally, was the one that did her in. This would be the end.
And I realised I was haunted. I was full of the stories she had entrusted to me. There was tremendous pressure to give her life dignity, to allow others to picture her as truthfully as possible. To not just honour, but protect every precise detail, as she would no longer be able to defend herself.
And so I sat down and began writing this.
But as I dug through my notes, I realised that preserving each moment exactly as it happened was something that mattered to me. This was never something that Omar really worried about.
And most likely it wouldn’t concern her that much now.
What mattered to her was being able to run. Through it, she had hoped to find success for herself, help for her family and pride for her country.