TEDxMogadishu: A Talk by Ilwad Elman

Last week, Samya covered the TEDxMogadishu talks for MMW.  As Samya wrote,

“TEDx Mogadishu is not just a meeting of creative minds to gather and share their views on the welfare of the people in Somalia; it is also an opportunity for outsiders to change their perceptions about developments in that country, especially as they relate to women and children.”

A first TEDxMogadishu talk has been edited and posted online.  The talk, by Ilwad Elman, is entitled “In Memory of My Father, I Returned to Visit Somalia.” The talk can be viewed here, and a transcript is available below it.

Transcript provided by TEDxMogadishu:

So I’ll begin by telling you guys a little bit about myself, my name is Ilwad, I spent most of my life in Canada but I was born here in Mogadishu, I left at a very young age but I’ve pretty much spent my whole life in Canada so I consider myself just a regular Canadian girl but even so my connection to Somalia has always been very deep rooted. I’ve always known where I came from and my relationship to Somalia because throughout my life not only mine but my sisters as well, we’ve always had a constant reminder of where we came from.

That was in part because of my mother. She used to tell us what Somalia was like before the conflict, her day to day life. We used to see pictures of the clothes they used to wear and how they lived. She always used to tell us these stories about this man that really seemed like a fictional character to my sister and I. We really do know that somebody like that existed and the person that she spoke so kindly about and with so much admiration was her late husband and actually my father. That was Elman Ali Ahmed and to this day he’s actually considered the Somali father of peace in Mogadishu. The work that he did was really admirable and it’s kind of what kept my family and I; even when we were abroad and grew up in a whole new culture, what kept us so close to Somalia.

I’ll begin by telling you a little bit about his story and what exactly made him such a household name, even sixteen years after his passing. Elman actually left Mogadishu in his early adolescence and he moved to Italy where he was enrolled in a boarding school where he got a chance that many others didn’t in his situation, he got to pursue his education until  he graduated University. Then in 1982 he came back to Mogadishu, and when he came back he really stood out like a sore thumb, he wore shorts that were really bright colored above knee, he had long dreadlocks, he skipped to his own beat. He really stood out everywhere he went and he was an engineer by trade. When he came back to Mogadishu he opened mechanic garages and electronic shops and because he was so thankful for the opportunity that he received and the education that he got, he wanted to give that back to the vulnerable youth. So he really targeted orphans and street children and took them out of the situation that they were in and brought them to his centers, trained them and gave them jobs in his businesses.

Out of the sixteen districts in Mogadishu, he ended up owning businesses in fourteen districts. All of them were at the management level, the functional staff, all of them were run by former street children and orphans. So what he contributed to Somalia was really – he was a social entrepreneur and somebody that had a big impact in Somalia. When things took a turn for the worse in Somalia after the collapse of the Seabra regime, he wanted to extent the services and the education and the alternative livelihood of the opportunities that he was giving to street children also to children that were involved in armed conflicts. He had a motto that caught on like wildfire and it was called “Drop the gun, drop the gun, Pick up the pen,” which to this day twenty years after is still written on the walls of Somalia.

His mission was very simple, his purpose for doing that was very clear as well. He believed that the majority of those involved in the armed conflicts were youths. On either side the majority were always youths. He felt that by presenting them with appealing opportunities and providing them with alternative livelihoods and teaching them skills that they in turn would sustain themselves would not contribute to being a part of the violence. By taking out those that were the majority, that were contributing to the violence, that he felt peace building would be a lot easier. That the ones that were left, the warlords or whoever they may have been, they would be easier to reconciled so his plan was actually working. Hundreds of young child soldiers were leaving their posts as gunmen and security staff to warlords.

The work that he did got him a lot of recognition locally and people that loved him told him, “you can’t do this, not during this time. You have to protect yourself and you have to get security.” People were willing to work for him for free and to guard him with their lives. But he didn’t want to be a hypocrite so he said, “I’m not going to tell these young to protect me with their lives and carry guns, when the whole message that I’m trying to preach is that, weapons don’t solve anything.”  In his true nature what he did was he walked the busy streets and the dangerous streets of Mogadishu without any sort of protection. One day, on March ninth, he was presented with an ultimatum and that ultimatum was, “Either stop disarming children or stop living‚” and anybody that really knew him believed that, that is the only way he would have ever stopped what he was doing. He would have rather died that to stop trying to save children from the situation they were in. Ultimately that was his fate.

So I want to tell you guys about another hero of mine, my wonderful mother, her name is Fartun Aden. In 2007 she left Canada, it’s always been a dream of hers to come back to Mogadishu and work in Somalia and when my father was still alive they worked together. The people used to call them one person that God made in two sexes because they had the same devotion and the same passion. They worked together very well and when 2007 came and she felt that my sisters and I were old enough to take care of ourselves and were mature enough to stay by ourselves, she made the move back to Mogadishu. She came to lead the organization that is now known as, “Elman Peace and Human Rights Center.” She came back in 2007 and she really stuck to a lot of the principles that were accepted by my father such as: Sticking true to child protection and making sure to uphold human rights for all people regardless of anything.

What she was also able to do is expand the services outside of Mogadishu. We now have office throughout central Somalia as well. We intervene in several different areas such as, livelihoods, education, protection, women empowerment, nutrition and development as well as human rights and peace building. What she’s been able to do is to bring back a lot of the people that worked for Elman during the prime and they recruit people. She’s a really big fan of bringing diasporas back to Somalia to help their old people. When my mother came back here it made a big impact on me and I saw that; a lot of people say that it’s in my genes to do humanitarian work because of my mother and father but to me it really just makes sense and I feel like this is something that I really need to be part of.

Originally when I came back to Mogadishu, I had come back to visit my mother who I hadn’t seen in a couple years, to see how I could help, maybe some administration work in the office. I was scared of Mogadishu, I didn’t know anything about it. When I first came here I didn’t really speak Somali at all, but after I stayed I really picked up on the culture and I saw that something that I did in one day could change somebody’s life dramatically. It didn’t take a lot of effort from me and it didn’t take a lot of time so I did not feel right not being here and helping anymore. So since then I stayed. I have been in Mogadishu for three years now and for my time here I have worked in managing programs in that the rehabilitation and the economical reintroduction of children involved in armed conflicts. I’ve also managed programs finding livelihoods for men and women and boys and girls alike throughout south and central Somalia.

Most recently my mother, with an admirable American activist named Lisa Shannon and a Somali expert because she’s been working in Somalia so long named Katie Grant, founded the first rape crisis center on Mogadishu. We named that program Sister Somalia. Because our main purpose for this is protection for all, it doesn’t matter if the subject, or the person that you are protecting, is very stigmatized. Everybody deserves support . And rape, sexual violence, gender based violence is an issue  that are seldom spoken in Mogadishu in Somalia at all because of our culture and when we started this first rape crisis center, we found an outpour of women so desperate for this support that we started providing them with medical care, education, business grants so they could rebuild and reclaim their own lives and counseling. For the time we’ve been doing it, it’s really catching on and women really need that.  We have been blessed by getting in touch with a lot of international actors who wanted to get involved and support the work. We were able to partner with our Canadian counterparts. We started a new program called, “She Will’, with that we were able to start the first Somali all young women basketball team, that consisted of only survivors.

I asked them to pick a name that describes you as a team, they came up with the name elephants because they said the elephant is one of the biggest animals in the kingdom and one of the strongest in the animal kingdom.  However, it’s not a terror in its habitat; it has an unspoken grace, but when push comes to shove it can handle its own.  And it’s also a very smart and elegant and graceful animal, they thought. They felt all those characteristics of the elephant was the perfect symbol for them. We are so proud of them.

We have a lot of plans for the future.  We’ve been able to work in many parts of Somalia so far, but we hope to expand our services and do something more that’s sustainable. I feel like by being here today at the rebirth of Mogadishu it is so appropriate. Being here today is incredibly inspiring for me because it instills hope in all of us that there is more to come. I’m so honored to be on this panel of speakers because all these people are innovators. Thank you.


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