Think You Know The Somali People? Think Again!

Somali Faces, a 3-month-old online project, shares everyday stories of ordinary Somali people from around the world. The idea was the brainchild of the creative duo of Donia Jamal Adam, a storyteller, human rights advocate and campaigner; and Mohammed Ibrahim Shire, an author and history enthusiast. The two are both also amateur photographers.

The project has two main objectives. The first is global, seeking to reconstruct the image of Somalis as a peaceful, resilient people, thereby challenging stereotypes that peg them as terrorists, pirates, warlords and refugees. The second is national: a compassionate reminder to the Somali people to rise above petty clannism “and earnestly understand that your fellow co-ethnic has his/her own struggles, dreams, regrets and aspirations”.

The Somali people live to tell powerful stories — of loss, to be sure, but also of hope. Somali Faces curates these stories by visiting and interacting with Somalis across the globe. All of them, young and old, have a tale to tell. Here are some of the most compelling stories…

The Educator

Photo used with permission.

Photo by Somali Faces (Donia and Mohammed). Used with permission.

I was born in Pakistan, raised in the United States and currently live in Hargeisa [Somaliland]. I moved to Hargeisa at the age of 10, after the tragic death of my mother (May God grant her Paradise). I come from two mostly uneducated, nomadic families. […] Being born to these two types of families […] gave me the eagerness to push myself and become successful and educated, be a successful story for my parents. Since my mother passed away, I always get judged strictly on a daily basis by the elders of our Somali community. […] So I arranged my goals into a strict order: news anchor, teacher, wife and a mother. […] I started anchoring news and programs for the English section of Radio Hargeisa at the age of 16. Then to make my father happy, I went on to study Public Health at a local university and found love in teaching. You never know when love knocks on your door. I never thought in a million years of getting married at a young age. Then I met my husband and realised he was the one for me. Alhamdullilah, we have been married for two years and I’m currently 19. We have a beautiful daughter and I’ve fulfilled the order I set out earlier and continue to act on it. My husband taught me to live by the well-known saying, ‘where there is a will, there is a way’. […] I created my own teaching course, teaching fellow Somalis how to learn English as a second language. I try to keep a smile on my face, no matter what I’m going through […] Amidst your rough upbringing, amidst your underprivileged background, the labels that people throw at you, remember you can make things still possible.

The ‘Blind Girl’

Photo used with permission.

Photo by Somali Faces (Donia and Mohammed). Used with permission.

My family and the Somali people that I interacted [with] didn’t know the proper way to raise or approach a blind girl. As a result, I became self-dependent and quite isolated. During my younger years, we lived in a village called Higlale, close to a large well. On a given morning, I accompanied my mother to collect some water […] my mother saw from afar two figures approaching the well […] You see, I love plants and flowers, though I’ve never seen how they look like, but I love caressing them, gently stroking them. So whilst we waited for them, I plucked lots of flowers, as many as my two hands could hold. When the two figures approached the well, they turned out to be a distant relative and her son. After greetings were exchanged, my aunt said […] ‘Who is this beautiful girl sitting next to you, is she yours?’ Before my mother could reply, she answered her own question: ‘Is she the blind girl?’ My mother replied in the affirmative. I got used to being referred to as the blind girl and I guess over the years, the hurt feeling dampened so it didn’t bother me much. But suddenly, once he heard that I’m blind, the son started walking towards me and sat next to me. He took the flowers that I held in my hands and patiently told me their names, their colours, where they can be found. I was taken aback for no one has ever done that for me. […]

He promised me that he will take me as many places as he possibly can, full of flowers and greenery. From that day onwards, he took me to the most beautiful places and we spent a lot of time together. I fell in love with him but since I was a young girl, I could not tell him. I kept thinking, in time I will disclose it to him. Unfortunately, we had to move […] In 2009, we saw [each other] once again in Hargeisa and I told myself that I’ve been given another chance to tell him so I did […] he replied with a question that bothered me to the core. He said: ‘How is possible for you to love, considering that you are blind and can’t see me?’ […] I tried to remain calm and explain to him that we, blind people, are capable of recognising love. In fact, you don’t need physical eyes to see and experience love. Love is experienced through the intuitive knowledge of our hearts and I see and recognise it with the eyes of my heart. […] In the end, however, we didn’t end up together and that’s God’s will. But know that beauty and love’s not experienced through your physical eyes. It’s experienced through your heart and I tell others who have been in my situation and are blind, if you experience love, don’t let your disability deter you from pursuing it. Everyone is capable of love.

The Migrant

Photo used with permission.

Photo by Somali Faces (Donia and Mohammed). Used with permission.

Whilst in Mogadishu, a close friend of mine and I decided to enter Europe and travel through the usual path, which is from Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya and then into Europe. We ran out of money and were stranded in Ethiopia. […] I was broke, couldn’t speak Amharic and had little rent money left. With my last remaining money, I bought a Somali-English dictionary and grammar book. Every day, I would study at least 20 English words […] Within 2 months, I reached to a decent level where I could understand news programmes in English. I was getting stressed as the little money that I had left was running out but opportunity knocked […] You see, there was this Somali IT teacher who wanted to learn Arabic and I spoke fluent Arabic. […] He said he was willing to give 400 Ethiopian birr [Ethiopian currency] which was a lot […] my monthly rent was 50 birr. I thought about it and told him that I didn’t want his money. Just teach me computing and I will teach you Arabic. He happily agreed but told me that he couldn’t give me a certificate as I didn’t have a refugee card. I didn’t mind but of course, I was still not getting any money in. But thank God, by the next day, I met an American who wanted to learn Somali and we agreed that he would pay me 50 Ethiopian birr per half hour. After I taught him the Somali language, he tested it by travelling to the Ethiopian Somali region. A week later, he came back and started praising me profusely. Given that I had computing skills and spoke decent English, he offered me a good job at his place. […] Money comes and goes but knowledge lasts forever.

The Military Scientist

Photo by

Photo by Somali Faces (Donia and Mohammed). Used with permission

I used to be part of Somalia’s elite special operations force before the civil war. We were Somali taught and thus trained/conducted exercises with the US Army Rangers and Egyptian Special Forces. We used to rotate; sometimes we trained in Somalia, sometimes in Egypt, other times in the United States. After 1991, I switched to IT and left my knowledge and experience in Somali military behind. It was only in 2006 when I saw what foreign forces were doing in Somalia that I changed course, how we do not have any military science specialists and that we have to be trained by so many different countries instead of empowering Somali trainers. I left the world of IT and decided to study military science from scratch, the theoretical aspect for I already am experienced in the practical aspect. I am now currently doing my PhD in Political/Military Science in order to fill the vacuum instead of keeping it open for non-Somalis. I’m aiming to bring back Somali military science, by Somalis and for Somalis.

The Activist

Photo by

Photo by Somali Faces (Donia and Mohammed). Used with permission

I was six years old. I went out to play with my friends […] Given that we didn’t have much to play with, we scanned the place for objects that we could play with. […] I found this particular metal object that was beautifully shaped and presented it to my friends […] But it kept getting hot so I chucked it away by throwing it in the air and giving it a nice kick. The minute I kicked it, it blew up. I became unconscious. I opened my eyes at the hospital. I tried to get up but was told that I lost both of my legs. I lost hopes and saw my ambitions dwindling away. I gave up on life. You will never walk again, I told myself. […] After several months in the hospital, the UN visited me and were intrigued by my case so they offered me artificial limbs in order for me to walk again. I […] was suddenly overwhelmed with a new sense of hope. I was the first Somali to have artificial legs fitted. In 1996, I attended an international conference on mine elimination in Switzerland. They kept asking me, what can we do for you, do you want to stay in Switzerland or any other country? I told them to build me a school in my birth city, and they did. It was aptly named after me. I attended my own school and finished high school there. I now have a bachelor degree and campaign for a local organisation that raises awareness for disabled Somali people. You might be physically disabled but that doesn’t mean you’re mentally disabled. If you have an ambition, there are many ways to achieve it.

You can read more inspiring stories on the Somali Faces website and follow the project on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


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