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

Somali woman forced into exile by her love of the beautiful game

Telling the Human Story, 15 March 2012

© UNHCR/G.Beals
Refugee and mother Maymun shows off her football skills in a Djibouti camp.

ALI ADDEH REFUGEE CAMP, Djibouti, March 15 (UNHCR) Maymun Muhyadine Mohamed loved to run and play football in the streets of Mogadishu. Her skills won her a medal and a cap at a local competition.

But Somalia's Al Shabaab militia saw her enjoyment as an act of defiance. "They said 'women are not allowed to play sports. You have to stop playing and put on your hijab [modest Islamic clothing and head covering],'" Maymun said, recounting her story at the Ali Addeh Refiugee Camp in Djibouti.

It wasn't as if Maymun was un-Islamic. She wore Islamic dress when she wasn't playing football. It was just that when she was running and manoeuvering on the field of play, the long garments impeded her movement. She was told that if she continued to play sports, she would be executed.

Last year, the militants instructed Maymun's husband to control his wife. But Abdi Abu Bakar, 23, saw the joy his wife received from football. He told them to mind their own business. And so, as happens all too often in Somalia, one night their house was attacked and her husband was murdered.

"When my husband died. I was four months pregnant," she said. Maymun waited in Mogadishu until her daughter, Fahima, was born before she decided to escape. She sold her medal and her cap for US$30 to get the money to leave Somalia it was as if she was selling a piece of her soul.

Maymun had a choice: either flee towards the refugee camps at Dadaab in Kenya or take the longer trip north to Djibouti. "There was a lot of fighting on the way to Dadaab," she said. "But the road to Djibouti is safe." She caught a lorry with her baby, but the $30 was not enough to make it to the border.

She found herself begging for help and fearful of what might happen to her and her child. But there was more kindness along the road than she expected. Trucks filled with vegetables were making their way towards Somaliland and Djibouti. The drivers were kind enough to give rides to other survivors of conflict trying to flee Somalia.

She reached the border with Djibouti and was surprised by another phenomenon. Many of those who were leaving Somalia had plans to travel across the Red Sea to work in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

"We were 38 people crossing the border," she said, adding that 31 of the group opted to continue by boat to Yemen. Maymun refused to take the risk of such a dangerous crossing. She was the mother of a young child and had found something approaching normalcy. "I was assisted by the refugee agencies of this country [Djibouti]," she said. "I don't want die at sea."

In the Ali Addeh camp, Maymun attends primary school during the morning and plays football with the boys in the afternoon. Smugglers have come to the camp, trying to lure refugees to journey to Yemen or the Persian Gulf with promises of well-paid jobs as servants. But Maymun continues to refuse. Like most refugees who flee Somalia, she would like to be resettled in a third country. She wants to go about the process legally and safely.

But above all she never wants to lose the joy in her life. She still remembers the day that her husband was killed and the moment when she had to sell her precious sports trophies to escape the violence and the shelling. "Inshallah, if I ever win a medal or a cap again I will never sell them," she says. "I will keep them in a safe place and show them to my child when she grows up."

For Maymun, the perfect future is not about conflict, or power or even financial security. "I don't want money. I don't need money," she says. "I only want the chance to continue playing football and feeling joy."

By Greg Beals and Charlemagne Kekou Akan in Ali Addeh Refugee Camp, Djibouti




UNHCR country pages

East Africans continue to flood into the Arabian Peninsula

Every month, thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia cross the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea to reach Yemen, fleeing drought, poverty, conflict or persecution. And although this year's numbers are, so far, lower than in 2012 - about 62,200 in the first 10 months compared to 88,533 for the same period last year - the Gulf of Aden remains one of the world's most travelled sea routes for irregular migration (asylum-seekers and migrants). UNHCR and its local partners monitor the coast to provide assistance to the new arrivals and transport them to reception centres. Those who make it to Yemen face many challenges and risks. The government regards Somalis as prima facie refugees and automatically grants them asylum, but other nationals such as the growing number of Ethiopians can face detention. Some of the Somalis make their own way to cities like Aden, but about 50 a day arrive at Kharaz Refugee Camp, which is located in the desert in southern Yemen. Photographer Jacob Zocherman recently visited the Yemen coast where arrivals land, and the camp where many end up.

East Africans continue to flood into the Arabian Peninsula

A Family of Somali Artists Continue to Create in Exile

During two decades of conflict and chaos in Somalia, Mohammed Ousman stayed in Mogadishu and taught art as others fled the country. But life became impossible after Al Shabaab militants killed his brother for continuing to practise art. Four of the man's nine children were also murdered. Mohammed closed his own "Picasso Art School" and married his brother's widow, in accordance with Somali custom. But without a job, the 57-year-old struggled to support two families and eventually this cost him his first family. Mohammed decided to leave, flying to Berbera in Somaliland in late 2011 and then crossing to Aw-Barre refugee camp in Ethiopia, where he joined his second wife and her five children. UNHCR transferred Mohammed and his family to Addis Ababa on protection grounds, and in the belief that he could make a living there from his art. But he's discovering that selling paintings and drawings can be tough - he relies on UNHCR support. The following images of the artist and his family were taken by UNHCR's Kisut Gebre Egziabher.

A Family of Somali Artists Continue to Create in Exile

Nansen Refugee Award Presentation Ceremony

More than 400 people attended the annual presentation in Geneva in October 1, 2012 of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award. This year's inspirational winner from Somalia, Hawa Aden Mohamed, was unable to attend for health reasons, but she sent a video message. In the former refugee's absence, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented the award and Nansen medal to her sister, Shukri Aden Mohamed.

The 63-year-old humanitarian, educator and women's rights advocate, widely known as "Mama" Hawa, was honoured for her extraordinary service - under extremely difficult conditions - on behalf of refugees and the internally displaced, mainly women and girls but also including boys.

Above all she has been recognized for her work - as founder and director of the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development in Somalia's Puntland region - in helping to empower thousands of displaced Somali women and girls, many of whom are victims of rape. The centre provides secondary education as well as life skills training.

The packed event also included an address by Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, co-winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, and a video tribute to Mama Hawa as well as performances from UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador and classical singer, Barbara Hendricks, and up and coming Swiss musician Bastian Baker.

Nansen Refugee Award Presentation Ceremony

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.