• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Q&A: Somali advocate represents refugee community at UNHCR ministerial meeting

Telling the Human Story, 4 January 2012

© UNHCR/J.M. Ferré
Fatuma Elmi in Geneva's Palais des Nations during last month's UNHCR ministerial conference

Washington D.C., January 4 (UNHCR) Fatuma Elmi, a resettled refugee from Somalia, recently attended an international conference on the world's forcibly displaced and stateless organized the UN refugee agency.The meeting took place last month at the organization's headquarters in Geneva. For the past 15 years, Elmi has worked at Lutheran Social Services in Minnesota, helping new refugees find jobs and education opportunities in the United States. She recently spoke to UNHCR Washington's public information intern Priscilla Yoon about the meeting, her work with resettled refugees, and her own experiences of starting a new life in the U.S. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about your role at the UNHCR ministerial meeting.

I was very surprised, humbled and excited to be sent there as a refugee delegate from the U.S. I attended a round table discussion on refugee issues and human rights. It was a very educational experience as I met and talked to many interesting and influential people and had the chance to express my opinions and suggestions to them.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned you in her speech at the meeting. How do you think this elevated the personal story of a refugee?

It's always a plus to see an immigrant make it in this country and improve his life. I was very proud, but I wouldn't say that I started with zero like many refugees who come to me for help. Still, when I came to the United States I started at the bottom. I could speak four languages, had a degree in accounting, and 12 years of experience in a high position at an oil company. Despite thinking that it would be easy to find a good job, I started out in housekeeping. I cleaned hotel rooms for nine months, then moved up and stayed with that hotel company for five years. At the same time, I volunteered at the Lutheran Social Services as a refugee counsellor, which led to a full-time position as a refugee employment counsellor.

As you began your new life in the U.S. what were your greatest challenges and successes?

My expectation for the kind of job I would find when I first arrived was a challenge. Refugees with professional experience come to me with high expectations but I'm able to tell them that I was in their position once. I tell them that they are new and they have to show what they can do. Then, when they prove themselves, doors will open. Refugees with professional backgrounds come with a mentality that finding a job comparable to their experience is easy. But when reality hits you, you say, ok, let's start somewhere.

What about your successes?

Doing the kind of work that I do is not for money. For me it's the satisfaction I get from placing women, single mothers, widows, in a good job so they can take care of themselves. That is the greatest reward for me. And when they come back and thank me I always say, "We just helped you prepare yourself and the rest was you." They are the ones sitting in front of the employer so it's they who are earning that position, not me.

How do you think the international community can address the humanitarian crisis in your former homeland, Somalia?

As much as all of us want to do something, it's a real challenge. We are one people but in the last 20 years, we keep having the same problems coming back: famine, killing, the continuation of the civil war, and so on. So as much as the UN, U.S., and other countries try to do something about Somalia, it is Somalia itself that needs to do something. We need to take care of our own problem.

In what ways do you think more can be done for the refugees you work with?

I would say refugees should be better prepared before they get resettled. Many resettled refugees think that they left all their problems in the refugee camp, so when they get here they are unprepared. If refugees could be prepared in basic English before being resettled, that would make finding work for them much easier. One thing that helps us is that my community is so generous. Despite the civil war and fighting, when we come here we support each other.




UNHCR country pages

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.


Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

Posted in December 2006

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Return to SomaliaPlay video

Return to Somalia

Ali and his family are ready to return to Somalia after living in Dadaab refugee camp for the past five years. We follow their journey from packing up their home in the camp to settling into their new life back in Somalia.
Somalia: UN High Commissioner For Refugees In MogadishuPlay video

Somalia: UN High Commissioner For Refugees In Mogadishu

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visits Mogadishu, expresses solidarity with Somali people on eve of Ramadan.
Somalia: Solutions For Somali RefugeesPlay video

Somalia: Solutions For Somali Refugees

In Kenya, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres discusses solutions for Somali refugees.