Mogadishu, Somalia – In November 2016, when Abdullahi Ali Farah landed in the Somali port city of Kismayo after 22 years of living as a refugee in northeastern Kenya, he was afraid and hopeful at the same time.
“I was excited about the freedom and prospect of finally returning to my motherland but at the same time I was afraid of the danger and insecurity,” he said.
Five months after, those fears faded away as he settled in and started interacting with the locals. “Life was normal,” the 36-year-old man said. “I had not seen all the violence and negative news stories I used to watch in the media.”
Farah was born in a village near the border town of Dobley in Somalia’s lower Jubba region. In 1994, his family fled the country because of the civil war and he grew up in the Dadaab refugee camp in neighbouring Kenya.
Dadaab, a complex settlement consisting of three camps – Ifo, Dagahaley and Hagadera – was first established in 1991 to temporarily host some 90,000 Somali refugees fleeing the civil war which began that year.
But over the years, it has expanded to more than three times its capacity and became one of the world’s largest refugee camps – hosting up to half a million people at one point in 2011.
Currently, the camp is home to more than 200,000 refugees. A vast majority, 96 percent, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), are from Somalia but there are refugees from elsewhere including Ethiopia, Uganda, South Sudan, Burundi and other countries.
Life in the camp is difficult due to a lack of proper shelter as well as inadequate food and water, current and former residents say. And the Kenyan government restricts refugees from leaving the camp.
“Dadaab became our home but I never felt free when I was there,” he told Al Jazeera. “I am grateful that I got an asylum after fleeing my country and got the opportunity to go to school but the camp was just like an open prison with no rights to work and freedom of movement.”
For 30 years, many refugees have lived in camps, unable to integrate into Kenyan society due to Kenya’s strict encampment policy and unable to return to Somalia due to insecurity.
Nevertheless, some decided to risk it all and go back to areas in Somalia that are deemed relatively safe including Kismayo. Since 2014, the UN Refugee Agency has assisted more than 80,000 Somali refugees in returning to Somalia.
Back in Somalia, there is limited access to basic services including healthcare. More than two-thirds of the country’s 15 million people are under the age of 30 but just as many of them are jobless. Somalia has one of the highest youth unemployment rates globally, according to the International Labour Organization.
But many young and educated returnees from Dadaab like Farah have found jobs to fill existing skill gaps and contribute to their country’s development.
“When I first came to Kismayo, I met so many friends and schoolmates from Dadaab,” he said. “Most of them university graduates who came back to find jobs in Somalia.”
A few months after his arrival, Farah says the regional government advertised director-general positions for various state ministries. “Out of 100 applicants, there were 20 successful candidates and half of the 20 were former refugees from Dadaab,” he said.
“Some of the key ministries in Jubbaland state including health, humanitarian, interior and planning are now run by former refugees from Kenyan camps,” he added.
Farah was posted to the Ministry of Livestock where he worked for five years before being transferred to the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources.
In his current role, he says the Ministry is working to encourage people to utilise the country’s unexploited marine resources to fight hunger. The Horn of Africa is facing its worst drought in 40 years, with more than seven million people at risk of food insecurity in Somalia, according to the UN.
While there is no official data on the number of returnee refugees working in Somalia, anecdotal evidence suggests many former refugees from Dadaab and other camps, work with the government and NGOs across the country.
“Dadaab has produced inspiring youths with huge talents who are contributing immensely to the reconstruction of Somalia,” said Ambassador Mohamed Abdi Affey, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. “Young refugees from Kenya return to Somalia, equipped with not only college degrees and experiences but also a burning desire to give back to their community.
“I met some of these amazing youths, they work in every sector and their collective efforts help contribute to finding durable solutions to Somalia’s displacement situation,” he added. “It is therefore important we recognise their contributions and provide them a conducive environment by including them in national development plans.”
Beacon of hope
In parts of the country, returnees formed a network where they connect and support one another.
“There are times when we dominate high-level national meetings; some of us representing the government and others representing UN agencies,” said Farah. It makes me proud to see my fellow returnees making a difference in Somalia.”
One of the most prominent former refugees who served in the government was the late Abbas Abdullahi Siraji who in 2017 became the youngest cabinet minister in Somalia’s history. Unfortunately, he died in May that year after being mistakenly shot dead by a government soldier.
To continue his legacy, his brother Mohamud Siraji, who also grew up in the camp, contested to replace him in the federal parliament – and won. Mohamud was later appointed as the deputy minister for foreign affairs in the immediate past administration.
They inspired young people to return from the camp and help rebuild their country, says one of them, Mohamed Osman Mohamed who returned to Somalia in 2015.
“Abass was an inspiration to Somali youth in general,” said Mohamed who now works as the director-general of the Ministry of Youth and Sports of the South West state. “But he was particularly a beacon of hope for refugees from Dadaab.”
Together with those resettled in the diaspora, former Dadaab refugees in Somalia are contributing money to help those still in Kenya.
“We have a sense of duty to rebuild our country so that those refugees we left behind can come back to their country too,” says Ali Mudey, who returned in 2019 and works with United Nations Children’s Fund in the capital. “I would also encourage those in the diaspora to join us so that together we can support our government to meet the humanitarian and development needs of its citizens.”
For Farah, the goal is to ensure that Somalia becomes a better place to live and that his children have a better chance to succeed in life than he did at their age.
“I don’t want my children to grow up in a refugee camp like me,” he told Al Jazeera. “I want them to live a dignified life in their country where they can access quality education and healthcare.”
“I want to dedicate my life and career to my country and inspire those who are still in Dadaab to come back home,” he said.