Home Away from Home

Deqa Farah, C’15, discusses the Somali diaspora.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

By Blake Cole

When College senior Deqa Farah completed her international relations research methods course, designed to help majors formulate thesis ideas, she decided on a topic that hit close to home. Farah, born in Ottawa, Canada to Somali émigrés, would focus on the impact of the Somali diaspora on development and reconciliation efforts in Somalia following decades of civil strife and prolonged conflict. 

“Migration is something that’s always interested me, especially being an immigrant and seeing my own family’s vested interest in the country we’re from,” says Farah, who is minoring in African studies. “My research topic extends to other countries that have experienced conflict or political or economic issues. What I’m really asking is, are the people that migrate still invested in their home countries? And if so, how, and what are the implications of this investment?”

While Somalis have been migrating for quite some time for economic and educational reasons, Farah is focusing on the diaspora that occurred as an immediate result of the Somali civil war. In the late 1980s, a number of opposition groups, most notably the United Somali Congress, Somali National Movement, and Somali Patriotic Movement, held campaigns to overthrow autocratic ruler Mohamed Siad Barre. The military dictator was ousted from power in 1991, leaving behind a power vacuum that served as a catalyst for conflict.

For her research, Farah decided to focus on Somali transnational migration following the civil war, to countries across Europe to Canada and the United States, as well as the Middle East and parts of Asia. In Europe, many Somalis have gravitated towards the U.K., Italy, Finland, and the Netherlands. In the United States, Minneapolis became a prime destination. In Canada, Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal have large numbers of Somali migrants.

“I know many Somalis who call Minneapolis ‘Little Somalia’ because the vast majority of Somali migrants in the United States live in Minneapolis,” says Farah. “In Ottawa, where I was born, there is also a very vibrant Somali community. People tend to go where there’s already an existing community.” 

There are many benefits afforded to immigrants living in these enclaves, including the familiarity of hearing your language spoken, sharing religious and cultural values with your community, and creating a home away from home. In some cases, though, says Farah, these communities can stagger assimilation and hinder the progress of migrant communities, due to their insular nature.

Enclaves also impact economics. Migrants send remittances using hawala, an intricate trade system involving loans and money pooling that has persisted for generations and is present all across the world. Many Somalis, predominantly women, also engage in hagbad, a traditional microfinance mechanism that is essentially a rotating savings and credit association whereby a group of individuals agree to save and borrow together. 

“With hagbad, you might form a group and say, ‘I’m saving up for a wedding for my son and I need X amount of money,’” says Farah. “And so they just put a set amount of money in each month and when it comes to the month for the wedding, it’s your turn to receive all the funds that others in the group put in. In my opinion, even if immigrants have access to formal banking mechanisms, they’ll still use these generations-old honor systems, because it’s what they trust.”

One of the most effective ways to bridge these gaps in communication is on the Internet. As her research continued, Farah discovered that a lot of Somalis have turned toward diaspora organizations’ web sites. The sites have provided Farah with an invaluable view into political and economic initiatives within the diaspora community. Many of the users on sites like SomaliMeMo and SomaliNet are discussing the best way to reconstruct Somalia, the role of kinship in development, democratization and good governance, and how to lobby for Somali development.

“A lot of diaspora organizations are politically focused,” says Farah. “The users on these sites are lobbying for their home countries to help with the situation in Somalia, so I’m very interested in looking at how exactly the cyber aspect of the diaspora is affecting politics in Somalia.”

These kinship ties that reinforce cultural roots can be a double-edged sword when immigrants in the U.S. and other places try to use their influence to positively effect change back in Somalia. In the research, some scholars believe that “Members of the diaspora are looking to help ‘their own’ within Somalia,” says Farah. “And so in a way they’re helping to perpetuate some of the issues that led to civil war. For example, if you only want to help invest and rebuild your own city or region, are you really helping to bring up your people as a whole?”

Farah hopes to continue her research on migration and the role of diasporas in post-conflict development in the future, extending her research beyond Somalia to other countries that have endured civil conflict.