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Abdulkarim Jimale grew up in a dead place. Escaping was the only way to survive. Mogadishu, Somalia | June 2006

Abdulkarim Jimale grew up in a dead place. Escaping was the only way to survive. Mogadishu, Somalia | June 2006

Photo by Andrea Bartley

Photo by Andrea Bartley

Abdulkarim Jimale grew up in a dead place. Escaping was the only way to survive. Mogadishu, Somalia | June 2006

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That afternoon was like any other. 16-year-old Abdulkarim Jimale and his friends met at the abandoned Mogadishu International Airport for their usual pick-up game of soccer. The cement expanse was smooth and barren. As a forward for Team Baangariyo, it was Jimale’s job to get the ball into the goal, a space designated by two large stones. They played for three hours, the ball skidding over faded white paint lines, past large heaps of what used to be terminals.

The boys had 15 minutes to spare to get from the airport to the local mosque for evening prayer. Traveling on foot, they were making good time. That is, until a group of seven or eight Al-Shabaab militants, the oldest maybe 12 or 13 years old, stopped them at a roadblock. AK-47s loaded and ready, the militants asked the boys where they were going. To the mosque, said Jimale. But the militants didn’t like that answer. Just for the hell of it, they gave the boys two options: get down on the road and pray or… get a bullet in their heads.

With Russian revolvers aimed, Jimale and his friends said their evening prayer at the roadblock and continued home. They escaped death that day, but that didn’t mean much in Mogadishu, where death was not a question of if.

 

***

 

Mogadishu is the capital of Somalia, a neighbor of Ethiopia and Kenya in the Horn of Africa. Located on the edge of the Indian Ocean, Mogadishu has long stretches of beaches curled along vivid blue water. It’s a paradise. Or at least, it used to be. Jimale says there were once so many tourists that Mogadishu was called “Little Europe.” But now, “it’s a vacation in doomsday,” he says.

In 1991, after the ousting of president Siad Barre, Somalia’s government collapsed and the Somali Civil War ensued. Militias engaged in a perpetual fight for power, a fight dominated by the militant Islamist organization, Islamic Courts Union. It resisted Somalia’s Transitional Federal Parliament, a new government attempting to restore order. The ICU eventually splintered into various extremist groups, including the radical, Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, in 2007.

“Al-Shabaab” means “the youth,” and it’s literal: fighters in the militant group are as young as eight years old. They dress in baggy olive green or brown tunics, capris that slouch at the shins, black closed-toe sandals, and a headscarf wrapped over the face, leaving only a small sliver open for the eyes. Just enough see the target. And a gun. Always a gun.

With numbers close to 15,000, they’ve waged reckless violence, and acquired increasing levels of power, leaving Mogadishu in utter anarchy.

The ongoing Civil War has only been part of Somalia’s many significant challenges over the last decade. Somali pirates have violently attacked foreign vessels and impeded international shipping. Drought, disease and famine have ravaged the small nation of about 10 million, killing hundreds of thousands since 1991. Last year, over a mere 90 days, 29,000 Somali children perished from hunger.

 

***

Jimale was born in Mogadishu in 1989, as his nation’s government teetered on the brink of collapse. He’s one of what other Somalis call the “unlucky people” — Somalis who have never seen a government, legislation or stability. They are the young adults raised in a chaotic abyss. Jimale has only seen one rule in Somalia — the rule of guns.

His divorced parents abandoned him when he was four months old. He was raised by his sister and her husband, both in their thirties. For a time, Jimale thought they were his parents. Jimale says it’s fairly common for youth to not have relations with their parents, some of whom died in Civil War fighting or are still missing.

During the week, Jimale went to Islamic school in the morning and a private academic school in the afternoon. After, he played with friends at the beach or the desolate airport grounds, the warm evening air punctuated by the distant rattling of militants’ pick-up trucks and ear-splitting eruptions from Kalashnikovs.

Sometimes the Al-Shabaab shot machine guns up into the air for the sheer thrill of the sound. Sometimes the gunman was ten years old, carelessly shooting at buildings, cars and people.

“They’re not killing for a reason,” Jimale says. “They kill for fun.”

A gun makes a certain sound when its bullet hits someone. A quick pop, a dense echo and a muffled thump. By the age of eight, Jimale could hear the difference between a pistol, machine gun and AK-47, between a gun fired into the air and a gun fired into a person.

Jimale witnessed murder and mayhem daily. It was as common as having coffee, he says. An every day thing. Young militants carried small grenades in their hands the way other kids their age carried cell phones. Disabled grenades became soccer balls, the Al-Shabaab kicking the small explosives along the ground with their feet.

Tired of hunger pains, Jimale’s friends, boys he grew up with, joined Al-Shabaab. “Yesterday he was your friend. Today he’s not your friend,” Jimale says.

In Al-Shabaab, you get food, a cell phone, money — $50 a month, plus $35 commission for successful murder missions. Once you’re in, there’s no getting out.

Jimale could have joined the gangs, too, but his teachers and sister told him to stay in school. They educated him about Al-Shabaab and the conflicts surrounding the Civil War. Jimale blames a lack of awareness for so many youth picking up a gun. “If you know what’s going on, you will not join (the militia),” he says.

At 16, Jimale began working at Al Arabiya, an Arabic television news channel he describes as second only to Al Jazeera. There, he helped fix computers, eventually moving on to videotaping press conferences and working with the cameras.

In August 2007, two Mogadishu journalists, friends of Jimale, were killed. He was at the restaurant with them when it happened. Jimale says that once Al-Shabaab started killing the media, it meant they were killing everyone. He decided to leave Mogadishu for central Somalia, where Al-Shabaab forces were less of a threat. Every week he moved between two provinces — Beledweyne and Guriel — staying at hotels paid for by Al Arabiya and taking photos for corresponding Al Arabiya news stories.

In March 2008, seven months into self-imposed exile, Jimale received a call from a former classmate and current Al-Shabaab militant. He told Jimale to get out of Somalia, or Al-Shabaab would kill him. It was his last chance.

Jimale, then 18, packed up his student ID, high school diploma, a thermos of water, crackers and $250 gifted from Al Arabiya. “If you take other things, they’re [the militia] going to think you’re leaving,” he says. And that would be bad.

Al Arabiya coworkers were the only people who knew he was leaving. They were the only ones he could trust. They’d connect him with help in cities and villages along his journey.

Jimale was headed more than 700 miles away to Nairobi, where he’d stay with former Somali classmates who had also fled Mogadishu.

Jimale took the battery out of his cell phone, so there’d be no signal. No way to trace his location.

He had heard about the journey to Nairobi, heard how rough and dangerous it was. About the scorching sun and oppressive heat. The wild animals. The coarse, sandy footpaths. The chance of running into militia. He had heard about a guy who was eaten by a lion.

To avoid the militia, Jimale took the back route, a southwest journey through the jungle. A direct trip would’ve taken 12 hours. Jimale’s trip took four days.

On the way, Jimale stopped at villages and cities for only an hour or less. Al Arabiya put him in contact with clan elders who fed him a meal of rice or meat, and got him a safe car ride out of town.

He walked up to eight hours at a time, with no map or clear directions. If he had to turn left or right, he always chose right. Kenya was to the right. The left led back to Al-Shabaab territory, back into the hands of those bullet-spitting machine monsters.

The jungle greenery was dense and the sun merciless. Jimale rationed his crackers into miniscule portions. His drinking water was warm, and he rationed that, too. When Jimale did rest, it was only for a few hours, among jungle noises and crawling insects under low-hanging branches.

He met no lions, although he says he would have preferred being eaten to being jailed, beaten and murdered by Al-Shabaab.

At the Kenyan border, he handed over the money from the television company to the border official. For the $250 entry fee, the official agreed to no questions asked about Jimale’s origin or destination. After taking a bus for the final stretch of his journey, Jimale finally arrived in Nairobi.

He could barely recognize himself. He was 112 pounds at the start of his journey, and 95 pounds at the end. His body was encrusted with dirt and sand; his clothes dusty and disheveled.

Exhausted from his trip, Jimale felt an overwhelming sense of relief. He felt safe. Finally. “I can’t forget that day,” he says.

Jimale met his friends in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, an area predominately inhabited by Somali immigrants. Kenya historically shelters Somali refugees. The two countries are like brothers, Jimale says.

Jimale shared a room in a three-bedroom apartment with four roommates. To support himself, he worked at clothing and textile shops. In June, he enrolled in a yearlong English language program at Kenya Institute of Professional Studies. In July 2009, Jimale began studies at the East Africa School of Media Studies where he planned to take classes for two years. His Somali friends helped pay his tuition with money from relatives in Europe.

As a class requirement, Jimale had to get media experience, so in early 2010, the 20-year-old began work for Free Speech Radio News, an American radio station based in Oregon. He sent them three or four radio clips a week with news from Somalia, Kenya and Uganda. Jimale eventually began freelancing for Before It’s News, a news website based in California, and Islam Online. Between those gigs and his textile jobs, he had enough money to pay for school.

For Islam Online, Jimale had to occasionally return home to Mogadishu to take photos of Somalis for the website’s human-interest stories. He returned in 2009 and 2010, staying for one or two weeks at a time, with a friend near the airport. He wasn’t scared, he says. He knew where he was going, how to get around and what parts of the city were safe. Though he missed Mogadishu, Jimale still wanted to finish his degree in Kenya.

In the spring of 2010, during the midst of his studies, Jimale received a call saying he had been selected by the U.S. Embassy to Somalia to be part of the U.S. International Visitor Leadership Program. The embassy had seen his work on Islam Online. Designed to build better relations and understanding between nations, the program brings emerging foreign leaders of all ages and backgrounds to the U.S. for one month of training in a given area of interest.

Jimale arrived in the U.S. on Oct. 23, 2010, with his passport and a visa good for a few months. His program group included 150 journalists of all ages from all over the world. After nine days of training in Washington D.C., the group traveled to the University of South Florida in Tampa for a week of conferences, then to Seattle the following week and New York City for the final week.

Jimale expected Americans to be hostile toward him because of his Muslim faith, but was pleasantly surprised when he was welcomed. A hotel worker in Washington D.C. gave Jimale information on local Muslim prayer times, and offered to bring him to the mosque whenever he wanted.

After the program, Jimale traveled across the country, visiting cities and meeting up with old friends who had relocated from Somalia. Many Somalis have moved to cities in the U.S. — Minneapolis has the largest population with around 32,000 Somalis. Jimale says all the Somalis in the U.S. help each other, providing food, shelter and financial support. Even if Jimale doesn’t know a Somali in a certain city, he likely knows someone who does. In turn, Jimale shelters Somalis who visit his new town of Milwaukee.

Now 22, Jimale continues to report for Before It’s News and Free Speech Radio News, sending in stories three or four times a week. After his visa expired, Jimale acquired his I-94, allowing him to stay in the country indefinitely.

While Jimale’s original plan was to return to Kenya to finish the two-year program at the East Africa School of Media Studies, a meeting in Michigan with a law professor at University of Detroit Mercy, changed his mind.

In that conversation, he first heard the words “Marquette” and “Milwaukee.” After reading Jimale’s writing clips, the professor encouraged Jimale to apply to Marquette’s Diederich College of Communication, saying it was well worth staying in the U.S. to get his degree here. In spring of 2011, Jimale was accepted to Marquette University’s Class of 2015.

 

***

 

Jimale arrived on Marquette’s campus in August 2011, having never before seen Milwaukee. A scholarship and financial aid cover his tuition. His paychecks from Before It’s News and Free Speech Radio News pay for housing and essentials. He reports on African refugees in the Midwest, interviewing them on the phone and telling their stories.

Marquette wasn’t an easy transition for Jimale. He had trouble with homework assignments and didn’t know how to use D2L. But with the help of professors and friends, Jimale has learned a lot, he says. Being able to understand the Christian community and interact with other cultures will make a difference in his journalism.

Half a world away from Somalia, Jimale’s writing and outcries against Al-Shabaab are heard back home. Militants in Mogadishu send Jimale death threats by email and cell phone. From Africa, they can hire American Somali gangs to do it. “You are infidel and left your religion, I swear on God who created my soul, you will die in bad situation, you will die as infidel, soon we will send our Mujaheddin brothers in America to kill you.”

To this Dec. 6, 2011 Facebook message from a former classmate, Jimale says, “Come and kill me.” He says he’s not frightened. Al-Shabaab would’ve killed him already if they wanted to.

The day after he receives his Marquette diploma, Jimale is getting on a plane back to Somalia. He wants to start his own radio station — one of the few forms of media left in the country. Over the last ten years, Al-Shabaab has shut down most of the newspapers, but it’s impossible to shut down all the radio stations, says Jimale.

He hopes to guide other youth away from violence and joining militias. Jimale says the only education most militants have received is about how to fight. “If militias can persuade them to carry a gun, I can persuade them to carry a pen or book,” he says.

Jimale thinks that with a degree, it’s possible to make a difference in Mogadishu. “At that time I wasn’t able to help my people, but now, when I graduate, I’m able to do something,” he says.

Even if he only works for six months before the Al-Shabaab make good on their death threats, as long as he’s able to help the Somali youth for a little while, Jimale is OK with dying.

 

***

 

In the midst of a bitter Milwaukee winter, Jimale longs for his home, the ocean, the sandy beaches, his family and his friends. “The best place to live is your home,” he says. “Nothing is better than home.”

Though the future of his country is uncertain, Jimale dreams of the old Somalia, where gun clatter isn’t background music for an afternoon game of soccer.

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