UNHCR helps reunite Somali mother and son in UK

News Stories, 11 June 2008

© UNHCR/ T.ter Horst
A UNHCR staff member helps Rahma pack a suitcase in preparation for her flight to London.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, June 11 (UNHCR) For nearly two decades, conflict kept a Somali mother and her children apart. But now, with the help of UNHCR staff in Malaysia and the refugee agency's resettlement programme, Rahma has been reunited with her family in the United Kingdom.

The 68-year-old left Kuala Lumpur for London earlier this month, barely a year after a missile slammed into her home in the town of Afgooye, not far from the embattled Somali capital of Mogadishu, and persuaded her that it was finally time to leave. She had sent her two sons away to safety in 1989, knowing that she might never see them again.

"They disappeared for more than a year with no news and I prayed every night for their safety. I thought I would never hear from them again. Then one day I received a phone call from Barre and he told me he was alright," Rahma told UNHCR staff members before leaving Malaysia.

Barre, Rahma's oldest son, had managed to reach the United Kingdom and found a job as a bus driver in London. Her second son, Mohamed, ended up in New Zealand. They kept in touch over the years through occasional phone calls, hoping for a reunion one day.

That possibility came closer to reality and conversely more remote, when Rahma fled Somalia last year, badly traumatized by the destruction of her home and her narrow brush with death.

Leaving Somalia with some United States-bound friends meant that she now had a real chance to reunite with her family. The friends took her to stay with Somali students in Malaysia, but when she got there she realized that she did not know how to get in touch with her offspring.

"My son did not know I had left Somalia and had come to Malaysia. I did not know how I would contact him because I had lost his number in London. I was certain I would never see him again," a tearful Rahma recalled.

Rahma applied for asylum in Malaysia and then contacted the UN refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur for help finding her sons; almost immediately staff began trying to trace Barre, who had simultaneously begun a desperate search for his mother after hearing that she had left Somalia.

"An e-mail came to our office from Barre asking if his mother had come to see us," said Yukiko Iriyama, head of UNHCR's resettlement section in Kuala Lumpur. "We were happy to be able to tell him that his mother had approached our office just a few months before that, and that we had been trying to locate him."

Rahma was placed on UNHCR's resettlement programme and, within a few weeks, received the go-ahead to join her son in London. "We are grateful to the United Kingdom authorities for facilitating Rahma's departure with such expediency," said Iriyama. "We see a lot of tragedies in our work, so it feels very good to be part of a happy ending with Rahma and her family."

UNHCR staff in Kuala Lumpur said Rahma became more and more excited as the day for her departure neared. "When we met her a few weeks ago, she kept complaining of pain in her joints and she was looking rather despondent. Now, there is a bounce to her walk that wasn't there before," said Anne Loh, a senior resettlement clerk.

The thought of a new life in a foreign country did not daunt her. "I am excited to go to London, my son will do everything for me. I think of how different my life will be. Last year, I lived in fear; I could not sleep at night because of the sounds of guns. Now my spirits are high, I am happy," said Rahma, adding: "I am very lucky, my story is different than other refugees who never meet their families again."

By Yante Ismail in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia




UNHCR country pages


An alternative for those who cannot go home, made possible by UNHCR and governments.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Between February and October 2011, more than 1 million people crossed into Tunisia to escape conflict in Libya. Most were migrant workers who made their way home or were repatriated, but the arrivals included refugees and asylum-seekers who could not return home or live freely in Tunisia.

UNHCR has been trying to find solutions for these people, most of whom ended up in the Choucha Transit Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya. Resettlement remains the most viable solution for those registered as refugees at Choucha before a cut-off date of December 1, 2011.

As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden


In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.


Celebrating 10 years of refugee resettlementPlay video

Celebrating 10 years of refugee resettlement

Iraq: Uprooted and living in a warehousePlay video

Iraq: Uprooted and living in a warehouse

An Iraqi man who turned down resettlement to the U.S. in 2006 tells how it feels now to be a "refugee" in his own country, in limbo, hoping to restart life in another Iraqi city.
Emergency Resettlement – One Family's Journey to a New LifePlay video

Emergency Resettlement – One Family's Journey to a New Life

After their family fled Syria, young brothers Mohamed and Youssef still were not safe. Unable to access medical treatment for serious heart and kidney conditions, they and the rest of their family were accepted for emergency resettlement to Norway.