As part of our Refugee Week 2019 series, we chat to Ilyas Mohamed, head of the Somaliland FA, about moving to the UK aged 9, and what he misses most about his homeland…
Q: Tell us about Somaliland, Ilyas. You’ve been back there a lot, setting up your footballing academy and preparing for the CONIFA World Football Cup in 2020. What is it like there?
“Unlike Somalia, its neighbour, many people do not know about Somaliland in the Western world. Western countries associate Somali people with constant wars and man-made disasters or poverty. Some of which is true – but since its formation, Somaliland is anything but that. With Somaliland 2020 we hope to change that by showcasing the beauty of Somaliland to the outside world. Somaliland is a peaceful country filled with happy people. Even though life is Somaliland is difficult and far from perfect, people will always find time to make you feel at home even as a foreign guest or visitor. They will take any opportunity to talk to you with their broken English.
“Somalilanders are natural entertainers. They are tough, resourceful and entrepreneurial people. You will find plenty of banter in all markets and modern shopping malls. Be prepared to haggle!”
Q: And what would visitors expect to discover if they went to Somaliland?
“If you are looking to visit a pristine holiday destination than Somaliland is not the place for you. The best way to describe Somaliland is a ‘work in progress’. The potential is endless but it’s caught up in a political limbo which explains its current state. However, Somaliland has a lot of natural beauty to offer to a visitor. It’s unique unlike any other country in the world. The most noticeable feature is how bright the sun and how clear and blue the sky is. Equally impressive are the natural and untouched beaches. Somalilanders love bright colours and every house is brightly decorated specially the old houses, which are interesting to observe as a first-time visitor. Somalilanders truly admire and love their camels. Be prepared to try camel meat…
“You can expect modern hotels in the major cities. The bigger cities are brimming with different types of foods from Ethiopia, Yemen, Syria, Somali and Western influences. There is something for everyone, you just have to go and find it.There’s a thriving telecommunications industry, and the internet is cheap and easily accessible throughout the country. There’s a young population who are savvy users of modern technology and social media.”
Q: So when did your family and yourself leave Somaliland? How did you come to the UK?
“I left Somaliland in 1993 and came to the UK as a nine-year-old via a family reunion.”
Q: Are your family here with you? Or are they still in Somaliland?
“My immediate family are in the UK, but my extended family are all in Somaliland.”
Q: Do you remember much about living there as a child?
I had a wonderful childhood in Somaliland and I loved every moment of it. We had little to nothing but we laughed and played all the time. I had so many friends and I still remember their nicknames even after 25 years. I remember so much from my childhood, the good and the bad. Every time I land in Somaliland, the smell always brings back so many memories. The call of the rooster in the morning. The pancake being prepared in the morning…”
Q: What do you miss from your time there? Is there a specific food or a place…?
“Naturally I miss all my relatives. I get a sense of belonging when I am in Somaliland. Time is so much slower and you can accomplish a lot in day.”
Q: Does the country still have an impact on your life today?
“Somaliland is always on my mind. It is home, it is the place where I was born and where my roots began. I feel obligated to improve the living conditions of the country, no matter how small or insignificant it may appear to be.”
Q: Moving to the UK… how did you find this? Was it easy or hard to settle in?
“As a child you adapt more easily to new environments than adults, so it was okay, not difficult at all. The weather was the main issue. The night we arrived it was snowing, and I recall how ill-prepared we were. The jackets we had on would not keep the cold out. We literally ran into the car freezing having left the airport, and remained indoors for a number of days observing the snow turn into slush from our windows. It was a totally new experience at the time.”
Q: What was the worst issue you had to face moving here? The hardest thing to deal with?
“The food was hard to get used to at first, to me it was very bland and tasteless. It took a while to get used to that!”
Q: Did people help you settle in? Or do you feel like you were on your own?
“I had a lovely bunch of friends at school who helped me to settle in there. Not knowing your neighbors was a strange thing; I found that very strange at first.”
Q: Do you feel as though you’re British or a Somalilander now? Which feels more like home?
“That’s a very tough question. I have a mixture of both cultures in me.”
Q: And which language feels like your ‘natural’ language now – English or Arabic, or…
“Neither of those – it’s definitely Somali. I think in Somali.”
Q: Is there a strong Somaliland community in the UK? Was it welcoming?
“There was a strong Somaliland community at the time and everyone supported each other. As the years go by naturally people become more independent and self reliant so the community ethos is not as strong as it was when I first moved here.”
Q: Would you ever want to move back to Somaliland for good? And how does it feel when you go back – like home?
“Not sure… possibly! It’s a strange feeling. The world changes and moves on. People I knew back in Somaliland either left or passed away so it doesn’t feel like home as much now. It’s not just the place that makes a home, it’s the people and when the people are missing, it takes time to get used to. Since I established the football association I have made genuine friends in Somaliland and that pulls me to one day resettle in Somaliland. I would say at the moment London feels more like home because the people I care most about are here and so that’s home.”
Q: What’s your one main dream of the future – your one hope?
“I want Somaliland to compete internationally in football.”
Q: What has football helped you to achieve outside and inside Somaliland?
“It has taken me strange places that I would never have considered going to. I went to Abkhazia. The country and its people were amazing. I highly recommend it to any traveller. In Somaliland, it has help me create real, genuine friends who I feel honoured to know.”
Q: What has being a member of CONIFA given to the Somaliland FA?
“The opportunity to play the beautiful game with the rest of the CONIFA members. This has become a catalyst for us to chase a bigger goal. To play international football not too far in the future.”