From Kitsilano to Kenya: a Somali fears persecution after Al-Shabaab attack

Somalis in Kenya fear persecution after Al-Shabaab terrorist attack
Photos of Vigil in Kenya and Abdi Chireh, a Somali who grew up in Vancouver before moving to Kenya. Photos by Elizabeth McSheffrey

Since the start of Kenya’s war against the Somalia-based terror of Al-Shabaab, Somalis in Kenya – even those who hold Kenyan citizenship – have come under fire for Islamist attacks.

In Eastleigh, a Somali enclave in the heart of the capital, Nairobi, many Somalis have been called “terrorists,” “aliens,” “Al-Shabaab,” or worse as police officers haul them off buses, check their identification, demand corruption money or arrest without charge.

Most have learned to “deal” with this reality since the start of Kenya’s occupation in Somalia in 2011, but on April 2, Al-Shabaab carried out the worst terrorist attack on Kenyan soil in over 15 years. More than 150 people were killed at Garissa University College, most of whom were Christian students.

Somalis in Kenya – particularly in Eastleigh – are now terrified that aggressive behaviour towards them will escalate in light of the recent massacre. In the days since the attack, the bustling suburb has become rather vacant as residents clear the streets before dark in fear of harassment from local police.

“I see it on people’s faces,” says Abdi Chireh, a 35-year-old Somali from Mogadishu who grew up in Kitsilano, Vancouver. He’s sitting in the very same Nairobi restaurant where just last week, a Kenyan server refused to take his order without the insistence of his Kenyan and Caucasian company.

“It’s not as busy here (in Eastleigh) as it used to be and people go home at 4 p.m. They don’t go out as much, they don’t take taxis as much and you’ll find a lot of flats empty.”

Chireh, who holds Canadian citizenship, has had family in Kenya since the early 1990s, and rents property in Nairobi as a way to support them. He splits his time between Nairobi and Vancouver, where his fiancée and daughter live, but his First World passport and fluent English aren’t enough to stop harassment in Nairobi, which is frequently based on ethnicity alone.  

“I can tell the police are discriminating those of Somali descent,” he says, wearing a bright green UBC T-shirt.

“A lot of people leave (Kenya) and never want to come back – now I understand why.”

Photo of Eastleigh courtesy of Elizabeth McSheffrey

In Kenya, Somalis make up a minority of 2.3 million people, roughly 6 per cent of the total population. Many of them were born in Kenya, have never been to Somalia, or like Chireh, can barely carry a conversation in Somali.

Since 2012, the Canadian national has been “slapped around,” jailed, pulled over and forced to pay bribes during visits to Kenya, and on a number of occasions, police have threatened to say he is “Al-Shabaab” unless he coughs up a considerable sum of cash. Last week, officers arrested his 15-year-old nephew Abdul Guled, who was riding in the passenger seat of Kenyan friend’s car when they threw him in their trunk and detained him for 45 minutes.

“It makes me mad, but oh well,” says Guled, who has joined his uncle at the table. “I want to go outside and stay out long, but I don’t want to get arrested by the cops.” Guled, an American-Somali currently studying in Nairobi, suffers from strict house rules because of his ethnicity.

In the last two years, Al-Shabaab has killed more than 400 people on Kenyan soil, often citing Kenya’s “unspeakable atrocities” against ethnic Somalis and East African Muslims as the reason for their brutal retaliation.

It’s hard not to point fingers in the wake of such tragedy, says Kenyan human rights activist Boniface Mwangi, but after the Garissa attack, the country and government must resist the urge to play the ethnoreligious blame game. The result of such a mistake would be to alienate the Kenyan-Somali population further, which could even provide incentive for Islamic radicalization in parts of Kenya.

“The government has to be very, very careful how they respond this time around, because if they profile people, it’s going to backfire,” he explains. “Al-Shabaab – murderers and terrorists – will find a way to say Kenya is discriminating against Somalis.” Kenyans and their representatives he says, must address the Garissa attack through a discourse of criminality rather than one that creates an ethnic or religious divide.

“It’s about Kenyans who were killed – full stop – and that’s what the narrative should be,” he adds. “So the government should control the language of their response.”

But now, one week after the attack, Kenya is off to a rather rough start.

On April 6, government officials called for the closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Garissa District, which houses hundreds of thousands of Somalis fleeing conflict across the border, and on Wednesday, they froze more than 80 bank accounts with suspected Al-Shabaab connections. Many of them were ‘hawalas,’ Somali money-transfer systems that Kenyan-Somalis depend on for business and family support. In Eastleigh, the police crackdown has already begun, despite its residents having held an anti-Al-Shabaab demonstration last Saturday in solidarity with the Garissa victims.

Even if these measures aren’t aimed at persecuting Somalis directly, for those affected, it’s difficult to make that distinction.

“We’re not part of Al-Shabaab,” says Abdi Kareem, a 21-year-old Kenyan-born Somali who has never been to Somalia, “but they generalize us and there’s no freedom here.” He sits outside a soda shop in Eastleigh, where his friends nod their heads in agreement.  “The government has not set a curfew, but we have set it on ourselves,” he continues. “We fear (police) harassment, even in broad daylight.”

There is no law in Kenya that permits racial discrimination or profiling under any circumstance, yet the problem has become systematic within the police force, hand-in-hand with cash corruption. Kenyan Interior Ministry spokesman Mwenda Njoka says the act is illegal in every circumstance, but didn’t deny that it happens regularly. Those with complaints about police harassment should file them he says, and each will be evaluated on an individual basis.

“I will revert to other places where these kinds of things happen,” Njoka explains. “After the (Charlie Hebdo) attack in Paris, there were incidents of West Africans being there and harassed by people. It’s not like we target Somalis… but it becomes very difficult to file them all in a different name.”

To the average Somali, this sounds like a very poor excuse.

“When one person does something wrong to you, you can’t judge the whole race,” Chireh insists, enjoying a bowl of popcorn in the restaurant’s coffee room with his nephew, Guled. “I just want to leave, but at the same time that’s what they want me to do, and I’m not just going to be chased away. I want to make sure I’m treated equally.”

Chireh will return to Vancouver eventually he says, but for now, he will stay in Nairobi to stick this out with family and friends.

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