“We never had peace in my country, I was born in war,” says Ahmed Ali, one among multitudes of Somali refugees in Kenya turned businessmen living and working in Eastleigh, home to probably half (if not more) of Nairobi’s economy. He owns and manages a textiles shop located at the grandiose Bangkok business plaza that houses a majority of Somali retailers, who mean nothing but business, and will ruthlessly throw ‘Take or Leave’ at you as soon as you start bargaining.
While shopping, a rich jungle green colored silky fabric draws me to Ahmed’s store. I also notice that he is friendly and speaks fluent English/Swahili unlike most of his counterparts. He looks a little older than 23, probably a side effect of tough life. He smiles so gracefully and genuinely, definitely portraying a different man from the one in his past. After the purchase, he also sews the fabric into a curtain for me (at an extra fee). As I wait for completion, small talk leads into a conversation that would later become this story about his story.
The two-decade-old war has torn Somalia apart not withstanding Ahmed’s family. Born in a family of 13 siblings, the 23-year-old has since lost three siblings to the war. “My sister was killed after a grenade blew up our house in 2005. I had just left about five minutes before that. If I hadn’t, I would probably be dead now,” he says. Soon after, Ahmed’s parents coerced him (their youngest surviving child) to flee Somalia into Kenya for safety. “If you have money there are people who can get you through the boarder at a fee.”
Ahmed arrived in Kenya in 2006 with no baggage other than the load of having to start over his life. “I first went to Kenyan officials to get an alien ID card. Then came here (Bangkok plaza), started doing odd jobs and slowly learnt the trade that got me here,” says the self-taught tailor who runs the business alongside his father (based in Dubai) responsible for sending the textiles from Dubai and China via shipment.
According to Al Jazeera, Human Rights Watch and other agencies accuse Kenyan officials of ‘stigmatization’, and have documented 300 cases of police harassing Somali refugees in 2012 only, also adding that there is little evidence to connect the bombings and shootings in Kenya with Somali refugees. Ahmed says he is happy in Kenya because of the booming business in Eastleigh but doesn’t know how long that will last, citing police brutality, political unrest and insecurity. “We don’t know if a new government will allow us to stay here, we are already suffering the blame of being allied to Al-Shabab. And if you meet police or happen to be on the wrong side of the law, they ask for bribes of up to 80,000 Ksh. That’s crazy.”
Ahmed’s childhood dream was to become “educated and have a good job”. It still is. The war also cut short his education making the Eastleigh business his single accomplishment. On a good day he says he can collect anything between 30,000-45,000 Ksh. According to a 2011 study by the UK think tank Chatham House, Eastleigh’s shopping malls make about $7m a year. However, to Ahmed that’s just a tip of the iceberg. “I was never cut out to be a tailor. I want to become better and do business in bigger markets like China.”
For immigrants, every day is literally a chance to mend their past anew. Ahmed doesn’t take that for granted as everyday, he stitches his path towards reuniting with his family and country. “I have no time for dating or anything other than work. I work every day all week. I only get time off to the mosque [which is in the same building where he works].” He’s optimistic that his country will rise above the rubble. “Somalia is changing. People are now tired of the war. It’s been 21 years of fighting for nothing. Other countries including USA are starting to recognize that we are a country. People will stop saying that Somalia is not in Africa, that doesn’t make sense—it’s just like MRC saying Pwani si Kenya.”
The endless war in Somalia has left many families broken, lives lost and memories forgotten but Ahmed weathered the storm and still manages to stitch pretty well (the curtains came out lovely). His mother fled to Ethiopia and has since been trying to get herself to USA to reunite with some of Ahmed’s siblings living in Colorado. “In the mean time, we all communicate via the internet, but it’s never enough.” One of his brothers was killed in Somalia after stepping on a landmine while playing—an unfortunate event among a series that inexplicably and paradoxically continue to liberate Ahmed’s spirit. “I must one day return to my country to play where I used to when I was a kid and also see my friends and relatives who still live there. There’s no sea in Nairobi; I really miss Somalia,” sums up a nostalgic Ahmed.
BONUS: Thanks to the chance meet-up, I am now friends with Ahmed. When we first met in town (he was bringing me my notebook that I forgot in his shop), he said he didn’t know any places in the city apart from Posta, where Eastleigh mats stop. My mission is to one day show him around, not because it’s so amazing out here and not to absolutely discredit the awesomeness out here but so that Ahmed can have just one day without working to chill and take a look at everything he’s solely achieved for himself at only 23 and in a foreign country. His life story inspires me loads to be better at what I do and to appreciate my country.