Faysal Imaan Isman's wife, brother and cousin were murdered. Fleeing with his children from the war in Somalia they risked death and imprisonment and faced starvation. He speaks to Veronica Stivala before leaving Malta for the US on a refugee resettlement programme.
Faysal Imaan Isman's calm and collected demeanour deceptively hides the horrors he witnessed in his homeland as well as his harrowing journey through the Sahara desert and across the choppy Mediterranean up to his arrival in Malta.
Sitting calmly, Mr Isman explains through an interpreter how he left his homeland because he was facing "a lot of problems". He was, in fact, fleeing war. Somalia has been without a stable central government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fled the country in 1991. Subsequent fighting among rival faction leaders resulted in the killing, dislocation, and starvation of thousands of Somalis. In the past 17 years, up to one million have died because of the conflict.
Mr Isman's first wife was killed in Mogadishu by the controlling militia who were after his money. They destroyed his bakery, seized his car and many of his valuable possessions. He lived in constant fear that his children would be murdered before his eyes.
"They killed the mother of my children; they also killed my cousin and my brother in front of my sons."
But the mood at the US Ambassador's residence in Attard, where the interview took place, is one of hope and optimism. Together with other refugees, Mr Isman is surrounded by his four children and second wife.
The siblings are happily playing with other young Somalis and Eritreans as well as Ambassador Molly Bordanaro's children at a tea party held in honour of the group of refugees who will be leaving shortly for the US.
Welcoming the immigrants to 'America', Ms Bordonaro said she was proud to be hosting the Somalis and Eritreans at her residence and that they could soon complete the process of becoming US citizens.
Mr Isman is evidently pleased to be going to the US after three years in Malta and wants to get across this fact. His first words are: "I want to thank all those who made my departure possible," and he enthuses that this is going to be an occasion to reunite with the rest of his family.
Although he arrived in Malta with his wife and four children, two other children of his are still in Somalia. He has not been in touch with them since he left about three years ago and is eagerly hoping to be reunited soon. He adds how incredibly lucky his children were to have had their lives spared considering the dangers enveloping around them.
Although now wearing a crisp white shirt and looking refreshed, Mr Isman will never forget the hell he went through as he trekked through Africa.
The worst part of his trip out of Somalia was in the Sahara desert. Along with his family, he spent 10 days in the wilderness, most of them without food and water after their car broke down in the middle of nowhere. He had only planned to spend three days, which is why his provisions ran out.
The travellers had no protection and nowhere to stay while they were there. During the night, they chopped branches off trees and built a bonfire to keep warm. They slept on the sand.
"I felt there was no hope of surviving," Mr Isman recalls, "maybe this was my time to die".
Even though Mr Isman's hopes were slowly being crushed, he put on a brave face and helped his family carry on by giving them hope. He told his children that they would soon get out of the desert either by air or by some other means.
During these harrowing days he saw another vehicle smuggling people. He thought to himself, "how is it that our vehicle and not theirs broke down?"
It gave him strength to see that others had succeeded in their journey and so he set about trying to contact another man who could pick them up in order for them to continue their journey. He managed to do so and they were suddenly mobile again.
They finally reached the Khofra region on the Libyan border. There they were stopped by the police who asked if they had enough money to carry on with their journey. Luckily, Mr Isman did have enough to see them through to Tripoli.
While crossing the Libyan border he knew he was running a great risk of losing all his money, of ending up in prison or even losing his life.
But, at last, the family reached Tripoli. "My dream was to reach a safe place." He tried to get help from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) but failed to make any inroads. Mr Isman and his family had no choice but to try to survive illegally in Libya. He stayed in Tripoli for two months.
"What kept us going was seeing other people who managed to get out," he says.
They remained in hiding, always trying to escape from the authorities in order to thwart deportation. The Ismans lived in constant fear. People were often kidnapped or picked up in Tripoli and many of those who were taken to the prisons never saw the light of day again, he claims.
He had no life there and his 'activities' consisted solely of mapping out a way to try to reach Europe. Although it didn't matter to him which final destination he targeted, Mr Isman had been thinking of settling down in Italy.
"I hadn't heard of Malta and thought we'd have a better life in Italy. However, once on the boat I wasn't thinking of a particular country; I just wanted to reach land in order to survive."
How did he feel while he was on the boat?
"It's hard to express," he tries to explain. "We were out at sea for five days and I felt so small; I was there in a small boat underneath the vast sky and floating in the enormous sea on the huge waves."
When he landed in Malta, he was locked up in a detention centre along with the rest of the illegal immigrants. He recalls precisely how long he spent cooped up in the camp: four months and 10 days.
How did he feel while he was there? "Scared," is his one word answer. After the Armed Forces took them into the detention centre he feared his traumatic experience would be revived.
"I thought that I would be facing torture once again. I thought it would be a horrifying experience," he recalls.
However, the time spent inside was not as ghastly as he thought it would be.
"I never thought the Europeans would accept me," he says.
His experience in the detention centre was similar to being in a prison, he explains. "I used to watch the lock on the door. It was like we were in a military prison. They would just give us our food, lock the door, and that's it. All I wanted was freedom."
Despite his previous ordeals, Mr Isman still harboured hope for his future. After his release in October 2005, he lived at the Balzan open centre and landed a job as a gypsum plasterer, but there seemed to be little hope for integration and he constantly felt he was being discriminated against.
"People would tell me you are not welcome on our island. People have the mentality that the island is going to be taken over by black people. They don't understand what I am running away from," he says.
He is also well aware that tiny Malta continues to grapple with more immigrant arrivals. Statistics show that nearly 2,000 illegal immigrants landed on the island this year, an all-time record.
As with all asylum seekers who arrive in an EU state, Mr Isman was left virtually in limbo because to the Dublin Convention, which only permits immigrants to apply for refugee status in the first country they land on.
Mr Isman had no choice but to make ends meet and harbour the frustration until one day he realised his dream was turning into reality - together with his family, he was one of those selected for the US's refugee resettlement programme with Malta.
It was a godsend when a UNHCR official turned up at the open centre to give details about the programme.
Starting his journey to Colorado this week, he is hopeful that he will find it easy to integrate as there are "many more black people". The US is far bigger than Malta and there will be more opportunity for him and his children to build a life there.
Mr Isman is a versatile, keen worker who adapts to whatever situation he finds himself in. His outlook is positive and he is confident about his job prospects: "I'm always keen to do something new."
Somehow, you get the impression that he cannot put his feelings into words and what he says is a far cry from the relief and happiness he evidently feels.
"What I think about is the fact that I will never be tortured again." Perhaps this really sums it up.
Mr Isman gets up to gather his children before he leaves. They clearly provide him with a lot of joy and he smiles a lot as he holds them tight. He makes his way to have a photo taken along with his new wife Nasra Amin, and children Muhammed, Shehab, Fatima and Imaan (named after him, he says, smiling).
Would Mr Isman ever consider going back to Somalia?
Shaking his head, he replies in a resilient tone: "No!"
The programme is a collaborative partnership between the UNHCR, the International Office of Migration, the US Department of Homeland Security, and a number of local non-governmental organisations.
The first group of 30 refugees left in 2007. Last May, three other groups left Malta. Sixty-four refugees will be leaving this month and another group is set to depart in September.
So far, the US has been one of the few countries to have responded to Malta's appeal for help in dealing with the hundreds of asylum seekers.
In the US, all refugees are assigned a sponsor agency that provides initial services such as housing, food, and clothing, as well as referral to medical care, employment services, and other support during a transition period lasting up to two years in order to ensure integration and assimilation.
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