Feature: Somali refugees head home from Kenya camps
BOSSASO, Somalia (UNHCR) - When Hassan Hussein Noor got off the UNHCR plane in his homeland of Somalia in May, after 14 months in a refugee camp in Kenya, he was met with patriotic music, sweet Somali tea and pastries. To his utter astonishment, he was also met by kind women asking him what skills he had. "I told them I'm a good tailor and they provided me a sewing machine and a place to work in a tailor's co-operative," says Hassan, still marvelling at his good fortune. That's how, just days after his return home, he was already able to begin earning money and supporting himself.
The kind women were volunteers from the Somali Reunification Women's Union (SRWU), which worked with UNHCR to welcome refugees who were repatriated from Kenya's Dadaab camp complex in May. Between 13 and 23 May, ten UNHCR flights took 534 Somali refugees - some of whom had lived in the Dadaab camps since the early 1990s - home to Puntland in north-east Somalia.
Six flights took refugees to the Galkayo area, and four flights went to Bossaso, on the Gulf of Aden in the north of the country. A total of 2,880 people have signed up for voluntary repatriation, and the movements will continue as UNHCR is able to get funds for the flights.
"Repatriation, as part of peace-building and reconciliation, is particularly important at this point in Puntland's history," says Simone Wolken, UNHCR Representative for Somalia. "It's absolutely wonderful that after waiting for over two years (because of lack of UNHCR funds), these people could exercise their right to return," she adds.
For many of the former refugees now in Puntland, it's been an astonishingly smooth homecoming. "The women from SRWU were kind enough to help me," says 29-year-old Hassan. "SRWU really supported me." He's now working to get his family to come to Puntland from troubled Mogadishu, where he had been living with them before he fled to Kenya last year.
Bosteio Said Yusuf, founder of SRWU, says the fact that virtually everyone in Puntland has spent some time as a refugee helps account for the welcoming spirit greeting the newest returnees. "They know how somebody who has spent so many years away feels, that a returnee may have some difficulties," she says.
"Integration is easy because there's no hostility," Bosteio continues. "Somalia is one big extended family. Returnees have relatives who can assist them and protect them." The future is bright for many of the former refugees, she says: "Those we have welcomed are now doing well in the community."
Just ask Ismael Noor Barrow, who brought his wife and three children to Bossaso after 13 years as a refugee in Dadaab. Coming from a family of carpenters, he quickly found a job as a trainee carpenter in a shop in town. The wages are only subsistence, he says, but he's glad to have work: "I feel happy, I'm better off than I was before," he says with a smile.
His wife found a job as a housekeeper for a family, and both of them are optimistic about their future as well as Puntland's. "I have great opportunities. I can make a good life here," says Ismael, adding shyly that his dream is to own his own home one day.
As head of UNHCR's field office in Bossaso, Mohamed Ismael was thrilled with the May return of refugees. "UNHCR's mandate is to provide international protection to asylum seekers and refugees and, number two, to seek durable solutions for their problems and repatriation is the best solution of all," he says. "These people are like your children," he continues. "The parent's main concern is the success of their children. As a UNHCR officer, my greatest achievement is that they (the returnees) are doing well," he says
Even those recent returnees who have not yet found work are still optimistic. Saredo Ismail Abdi, a 43-year-old widow who is looking after five children, has settled in Galkayo after 13 years as a refugee in Kenya. She's willing to take on any work, and flexes her right bicep to illustrate her point. "I am a person who has strength. I will be able to work," she says.
Meanwhile, tailor Hassan has some advice for Somalis still living in refugee camps in Kenya: "Don't spend one more night in the refugee camp. The situation in Puntland is safe. Run away from the refugee camps and come here."