31st March 2014 Washington DC, USA

Inherited Identities, New Futures

Diaspora – from Greek, “scattering, dispersion”

Identity can be a complicated thing. What does it mean to be part of a diaspora? Do people always carry the old country with them or do they gradually leave it behind? You could read Zadie Smith or Jhumpa Lahiri for some answers.

This isn’t a fictional question for me. Over a hundred years ago, facing poverty in Yemen, my great-grandfather Saeed moved his family to Tanzania. His sons, Ali and Salim, did better for themselves, becoming butchers. They had 20 children who grew up speaking as much Swahili as Arabic and still tell stories today about their African childhoods. But my father and his siblings left Zanzibar after the 1964 revolution. They returned to South Yemen only to live through its own violent uprising against British rule. They scattered again.

That generation now lives in 8 different countries. Despite their own lack of it, Ali and Salim instilled in their children a commitment to education. That included taking any opportunities the colonial system offered, which for my father meant working hard to win a scholarship to study in the UK. So I am personally proud that this continues today. Last year nine students from Yemen, and another 600 worldwide, were awarded Chevening scholarships to study in the UK.

Those children are now businessmen, medics, UN staff, a well-known Professor and an Ambassador. I don’t write this to brag, though I am humbled by how much they achieved with so little. I think it’s an example of the drive and adaptability of many diaspora families. Not only can they contribute to their adopted homes -the Ambassador serves the UAE, the Professor teaches in Canada- but they can also support development back home. My father started his business in Dubai then, with family members, opened offices in Yemen, employing hundreds of people. My aunt went back to work for UNDP and Oxfam.

Discussions with some of the Somali community in Minneapolis.
Discussions with some of the Somali community in Minneapolis.

So I’ve always cared what diaspora communities have to say. That’s why I went to Minneapolis last week to meet representatives of the Somali-American community. It was fascinating. They really want to help Somalia break out of the cycle of suffering it’s been in for years. Most send considerable sums back to family members, which is a lifeline for many in Somalia. Some, like Muna, an impressive young fashion-designer who makes “modern and modest” clothing, want to open businesses now that the security situation is improving. Others are using their expertise to help build the capacity of the Federal Government of Somalia. Another woman I met was moving to Mogadishu to work in the President’s office.

I heard positive things about the UK’s role. They appreciated what we’re doing on development and the re-opening of our embassy. There were complaints too. Some said that a lot of support goes to the AU force but too little to the Somali National Army. That’s partly why the UK-drafted UN Security Council Resolution 2124 created a trust fund to provide greater logistical support to the SNA. I also heard real worry about the closure of some avenues for remittances. Our Development Secretary has been talking about this to Somali communities in the UK. We’re working on solutions that would keep channels open while making payments secure and ensuring they get to the right people.

The community was also contributing to the city of Minneapolis. I met a Somali-American policy aide from the Mayor’s office, and another working for Representative Keith Ellison. I met Councilman Abdi Warsame, the first Somali-American to win a municipal election anywhere in the country. These individual examples represent an increasingly integrated community. In fact, when I asked Abdi what issues his constituents usually raise with him he listed crime, jobs, education. Not so different from other Council Members, I imagine.

In truth, I don’t often think of myself as part of a diaspora. But as I sit here, working for Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service in our embassy to the world’s most powerful country, I wonder: what if Saeed never made that trip? What if Tanzania and those other 8 countries hadn’t been so hospitable? But he did. And they were. And I’m sitting here.

1 comment on “Inherited Identities, New Futures

  1. You can say that again son. What a long journey since Saeed bindaair left hadhramout to go to africa. I would like to reiterate the questions you asked at the end of your article what if what if what if? My suggestion is that the UK should be as hospitable as tanzania was to Saeed Bindaair. Britain should give more to poor countries they once colonized in terms of real social development one of the most significant factors being giving more opportunities to yemeni students to study in britain.The chevenning scholarship programme is very limited and is prone to all sorts of considerations which might be exclusive in their nature so as to leave out a large segment of students who could benefit their countries upon their return to say the least. So a bit of the red tape needs to bent and take on a different hue. Moreover the development programmes need to target the grassroot level more directly without going through layers of institutions,and gatekeepers who may not deliver the goods to the intended beneficiaries.This said in hindsight when the security situation allowed for direct interventions to take place and the suggestion can hold for the future when the . situation improves and development agencies are back in full force.

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About Omar Daair

Omar joined the British Embassy in Washington DC in June 2011 as First Secretary covering Africa, the UN and conflict issues. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office first sent him to…

Omar joined the British Embassy in Washington DC in June 2011 as First Secretary covering Africa, the UN and conflict issues. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office first sent him to Africa in 2004 to study Arabic in Egypt, followed by a three year posting to Sudan. In Khartoum he focused on internal politics and the Darfur crisis, as well as acting as the Embassy Spokesman. Following two years as Head of the NATO Team in London, Omar returned to Sudan but this time as Head of the UK Office in Juba, South Sudan. During that time he worked on issues relating to the Referendum on southern independence and acted as an Observer during the vote. In his current role Omar covers all of Sub-Saharan Africa but recently most of his time has been spent on Somalia, Mali, Kenya and the DRC. His interest in Africa was first stimulated by his father, who was born in Tanzania. Omar a Masters degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He wants to visit as many African countries as he can but has only got to 12 so far.

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