Feature: Take a punt on Puntland, urge Somali returnees
GALKAYO, Somalia (UNHCR) - Carpenter Mohammad Gas Dunkal received a gift when he returned to his homeland of Somalia in 1995, after four years as a refugee in Kenya: the UN refugee agency gave him one radial saw. From that humble beginning, he has built a booming carpentry and metal-working workshop, now employing five master carpenters and 10 assistants.
"Puntland is a land of great opportunity," he says with satisfaction. "I would advise all refugees to come back to their country and work to make their fortune."
Mohammad, 47, the father of 10 children, is representative of the many former refugees who have sparked an economic revival in north-eastern Somalia, also known as Puntland. Returnees - some came directly from Kenyan refugee camps, while others have achieved professional success in Canada, the United States or Sweden - are contributing their money and know-how to Puntland's development.
They have opened everything from small tailor shops to private hospitals and telecommunications companies. A drive through the streets of Puntland's two main cities, Bossaso and Galkayo, quickly reveals there is a construction boom going on. Bossaso, Puntland's economic capital on the shores of the Gulf of Aden, is home to a busy port that forms the gateway to lucrative trade with Arab countries.
"Often people think of returnees as a burden to the societies and economies they come back to," says Simone Wolken, UNHCR Representative for Somalia. While it is true that some returnees are vulnerable and need the community's support to build a new life, Wolken adds, "UNHCR finds that returnees from exile quickly and successfully take advantage of the opportunities on offer in the peaceful areas of Somalia."
Through their own initiative, many successful business people are creating jobs and reintegration, recovery and peaceful co-existence in Puntland. "The UN therefore liaises closely with the business community and counts on the constructive role it can play in Somalia," says Wolken.
Twelve years after the outbreak of Somalia's civil war, Puntland and Somaliland, the self-declared independent state in the north-west of the country, are peaceful, while the Somali capital, Mogadishu, remains wracked by violence. Many Somalis have abandoned hopes of ever going back to Mogadishu, and have chosen instead to settle in Puntland, whether they have ancestral ties here or not.
"I did not have any hope to go back to Mogadishu," says Osman Salat Fogase, a 34-year-old pharmacist in Galkayo, explaining his decision to leave Kenya after eight years in a refugee camp there. "No one would try to go back to Mogadishu. Here I am helping to build my country."
While in Kenya, he says, UNHCR paid for the medical training that enabled him to open his pharmacy, where he now dispenses basic medical care as well as selling medicines. He had never even been to Galkayo before he settled here, but now he has built a house for his father, his wife and his five children.
Entrepreneur Mohamed Jama Mohamed, 45, also had no ties to Bossaso before he decided to settle there in 1994 - after losing his $450,000 investment in a chain of photo shops in Mogadishu to the civil war. Friends and relatives who had known him as a successful businessman in the capital backed his new business ventures in Bossaso. Today he is deputy director of Dalsan remittance bank, which he says handles millions of dollars a month in personal and business transfers.
"Any refugee who has any skill or any experience in any business, I urge them: It's easy to start over here," says Mohamed. "Don't be afraid. You will get support here. It all depends on you. Stand up and forget the refugee camp and start a good, hopeful life."
For engineer Issa Omar Mohamed, who now runs a poverty reduction and economic recovery programme for the UN Development Programme in Bossaso, coming home was much easier than sitting idle and watching his professional engineering skills go rusty in a refugee camp.
"Nothing is guaranteed [for returnees to Puntland], but at least here they have opportunities," he says in an interview at his office just steps from the bustling port, where fish and livestock are exported to the Gulf, and where ships from as far away as Sri Lanka and Norway come to fish.
Further south in Galkayo, as one of the founders of Galcom telephone company, returnee Ahmed Ibrahim Osman has had a ringside seat to Puntland's economic development over the past few years. When his company started in 1997, Galkayo - a town with an estimated population of 170,000 - had just 150 telephone lines, and most people lit their homes with kerosene lamps.
Today the town boasts 4,300 land lines, 1,500 mobile phone subscribers and 15 Internet cafés. Galcom itself also supplies electricity to the town, and employs about 200 people. "Telecoms can play a role of peace," Ahmed says. "People used to spread rumours, but when there is a telephone, they pick it up and get the truth."
Many Somalis abroad are waiting for a national government to be formed before they will have confidence to come home, Ahmed says. A father of five children, aged three to 12, he himself vacillates in his assessment of Somalia's future.
"Sometimes I say, my children will have the best future anyone in Somalia has ever had," he says. "Other times I say, it's 12 years [since the civil war started] and there is still no government. I say to myself, I have sisters in the USA and Canada, maybe I'll send my children there."
But his counterpart in Bossaso has no such doubts. Returnee Abdulaziz Ahmed Hersi, chief engineer for Netco telephone company, advises all Somalis abroad: "Move back to Somalia, or at least send your money and let it work for you. There are good opportunities here."
By Kitty McKinsey in Galkayo, Gardo and Bossaso, Somalia