Vancouver Somali says tragedies like the Nairobi mall attack should be fought with education
A Vancouver-based Somali man has said that the attack in Nairobi that occurred over the weekend is the result of an “absurd” mix of “religion, guns, money, and power”.
“This is a crime against religion, a crime against the Somali people, a crime against our neighbours,” said Aweis Issa, a long-time Vancouver resident who recently returned from two years teaching in northern Somalia. “Kenya is our neighbour nation. So I can tell you that the Somali community in the Western World is totally devastated. Our name has been trashed so we are saddened.”
Issa suggested that such examples of religious extremism should be countered by creating opportunities for education in the impoverished areas where religious fundamentalists often find their recruits.
According to a 2013 UNICEF report, only 42 percent of Somali children are enrolled in primary school. For older youths, the situation is worse. “The number of out‐of‐school and at risk children and youth aged 6‐18 years has been estimated at 4.4 million, out of a total population of 9.2million,” that document states.
Two Canadians are among the 68 people confirmed killed in the attack on an upscale shopping mall in Kenya’s capital city. The first has been identified as Annemarie Desloges, a foreign-service officer working in Kenya originally from Ottawa. The second is Naguib Damji, a businessman from North Vancouver.
Issa told the Straight that he met Desloges once two years ago while renewing his passport at the Canadian high commissioner’s office in Nairobi.
“She was smiling and that kind of thing,” he recalled. “She was very jovial.”
Desloges' husband, Robert Munk, was injured during the attack and has since been released from hospital. According to media reports, another two Canadians, Fardosa Abdi, 17, and Dheman Abdi, 16, have been described by their aunt as having suffered more serious injuries.
Issa has spent much of the last two years teaching agriculture at the University of Burao, which is located in a semi-autonomous region of Somalia known as Somaliland. He has a master’s degree from UBC and has lived in Vancouver since first leaving his home country in the 1980s.
On a trip through Vancouver while on a break from teaching in Somiland in July 2012, Issa told the Straight of the sadness he experienced seeing the ruined state of his country of birth.
“[Somalia] has been taken hostage by Islamic fundamentalists,” he said during that interview.
“The Saudis, they spend a lot of money—no education, no health, no libraries, no pencils—but they built so many expensive mosques,” Issa continued. “On every corner there is a mosque.”
A group of Somali-based fundamentalists called Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the September 21 attack in Nairobi. Al-Shabab’s stated aim is to install an Islamic government in Somalia. The Nairobi attack was reportedly in retaliation for Kenya’s military presence in southern Somalia. Kenyan forces have led an African Union mission in Somalia that’s battled Al-Shabab since 2007.
Speaking to the Straight today, Issa again emphasized the need for education in Somalia and emphasized connections between a lack of opportunities for schooling and a rise in religious extremism and violence.
“We’ve been held hostage for seven years in the name of religion,” he said. “We want peace and prosperity but we have no education, no schooling. But everywhere there is a mosque. Who is funding these mosques?”
Somalia recently received attention from Canadian media outlets for the publication of a book by Amanda Lindhout, an Albertan woman who was held hostage in Somalia for 15 months beginning in 2008.
After her release, Lindhout founded a non-profit organization that provides educational programs in Somalia. In a recent interview with the Straight, she similarly suggested that uneducated youths can become easy recruits for religious zealots.
“The lack of education in a country like Somalia creates these huge social problems,” Lindhout said. “Young people, like my 14-year-old captor, are involved in that sort of criminal activity because there are almost no opportunities for youth in these villages to have access to education.”
Issa said that the international community should “get serious” about al-Shabab and “take a stand”. Though critical of international aid in the past, he said that an emphasis on education should be a part of that effort.