There are many ways to describe Fatumo Farah: she is a mother of three, a Master’s graduate in Business Administration and a Somali refugee who has been living in the Netherlands for the past 21 years.
But above all, she is a source of inspiration, as well as information, for countless other migrants.
As the executive director of HIRDA (Himilo Relief and Development Association), a Dutch-Somali NGO working on refugee relief, the 43-year-old is an example of how refugees can successfully integrate into other cultures and also become leaders and active ambassadors for their own communities and broader civil society.
She was invited to Malta as part of Aditus Foundation and Integra Foundation’s Our Voice project, which aims to support refugee integration on the island.
Education enables you to work, sustain yourself and lead your own life, as opposed to blindly following what the community dictates
Yesterday, she met a number of Somali women living in Malta and talked publicly about refugee civic participation.
Ms Farah has travelled to various countries to deliver her message on female empowerment, political participation and what she sees as the key to it all – education.
“Education is extremely important. Through education, you get to know what your rights are.
“It enables you to work, to sustain yourself and to lead your own life, as opposed to blindly following what the community dictates,” Ms Farah told Times of Malta.
“Ultimately, it all centres on imparting information. For instance, we help teach Somali women negotiation skills, which allow them to deal with men in a number of settings, including political ones.
“We help them abandon the traditional stereotype that politics and administration are a man’s task and that the sole function of women is to have children.”
Ms Farah was always extremely ambitious. She was a first year student studying to be an engineer in 1991 when disaster struck.
Somalia was thrown into upheaval by a civil war that lasted 20 years.
It ravaged the country and destroyed the education, judicial and healthcare systems.
“My dream was broken. Women were raped, and there was rampant killing. I just couldn’t live in such a dangerous and hostile environment. I knew I had to leave at all costs.”
The voyage was a long one – she fled to Kenya, Egypt and France, finally arriving in the Netherlands in January 1992.
“In reality, migrants never visualise the dangers of escaping and travelling,” Ms Farah reflected.
“At the time, it’s all clouded – the only thought which dominates your mind is that of going somewhere else.”
Once in the Netherlands, she was faced with the challenges of cold weather, the language barrier and obtaining refugee status.
“However, a year later, it all suddenly became clear in my mind. Here in the Netherlands, I had another chance at life and living.”
Through the support of organisations such as the Refugee Centre, she was able to complete her studies.
She worked for four years with accounting firm KPMG.
“However, my heart tugged in the direction of Somalia. I felt I needed to contribute to my homeland.”
She joined HIRDA in 2005 and helped shift the focus to empowerment, political participation and education.
The NGO supports 80 schools in Somalia as well as various other projects and helps build and strengthen networks. Ms Farah has also participated in a number of consultation meetings for the United Nations.
She modestly describes her work as “a drop in the ocean” – but her influence has positively impacted countless others.
What skills do migrants need to successfully integrate themselves into other cultures?
“Firstly, they need to understand the culture of the country they’ve moved to. It is imperative that migrants living in Malta, for instance, learn the Maltese language so that they can communicate and engender dialogue with the natives.
“In short, they need to learn the dos and don’ts of the culture.”
She added that the situation was dual-sided – migrants needed to find an enabling culture or else they would not be stimulated into making the effort.
Both parties needed to be open to each other: “Fear is normal, from both sides. However, one needs to be open and observe what is happening around the world,” she said.
“The migrant-filled boats shouldn’t automatically equal a burden in the minds of the locals. Migrants can also be an asset to Malta.
“For instance, I’m Somali but I’m also Dutch. When I participate in UN meetings, I also defend the interests of the Netherlands – I contribute as a Dutch person.
“Migrants are useful on a political level. They can help strengthen bilateral relations.
“For example in the Netherlands, whenever there are consultations involving Somalia, the Minister of Foreign Affairs invites us to contribute.”
Ms Farah also stressed the importance of the migrants’ active efforts in integration and proving their worth.
“Migrants should engage in voluntary work and not just sit waiting for something to happen – that way, the locals can truly see their worth.”
She adds that migrants are often full of misinformation.
“They perceive Europe as a haven. They don’t realise how difficult it is to live in another country.
“It’s a migrant’s narrative that can be altered through education, information and by ultimately going back to the roots of the problem and tackling the unrest in the country of origin.”
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