People with disabilities in Somalia are often overlooked by their own families because they are considered to be a terrible burden. In a country that has been affected by two decades of civil war, one can think of the situation of normally abled people but there are victims who pay a much worse price of the conflicts in Somalia. They are the disabled or physically impaired people, also known as ‘people with special needs’. The majority of disabled people in Somalia suffer from extreme poverty, inadequate health services and, worse of all, lack of accessibility to public and private buildings such as hospitals, hotels, restaurants, schools and even universities. The lack of an accessible transport system and poor technical aid equipment makes their situation even more miserable and forces them to stay at home.
However, there is one man on a mission to change the attitude of a whole society toward disabled people. Mohamed Ali Farah is a renowned Somali disability activist and human rights defender whose achievements in recent years have been widely witnessed and acknowledged by many Somalis and non-Somalis.
Mohamed was born in 1984 in Beletweyne, a town located in south central Somalia about (206 miles) north of Mogadishu. He was born to middle class family that led a simple life in Beletweyne. His father was shopkeeper and his mother was housewife, like many other Somali women. At the age of 3, Mohamed contracted polio, which was widespread in Somalia at the time. As a result of the disease, Mohamed’s muscles in his legs weakened, resulting in ‘infantile paralysis’. As a young boy and living in an environment where such children are discriminated against, Mohamed told me about his ordeal back in his childhood.
“The psychological trauma was much more painful to me than the physical effects of the disease itself. Being disabled is more difficult at childhood times.”
“My brothers and sisters were all sent to Madrasa and school. I was the only one in the family who stayed at home.”
Mohamed moved to Mogadishu in 1993 and managed to start primary school. He finished secondary school by 2006 and was not in a position to pursue his degree studies due to financial hardships.
“I was lucky enough to finish high school because I was the only disabled student in the school. I used to go to school without wheelchair by crawling through the streets under the hot weather of Mogadishu. Then I asked myself why other disabled children are not attending school? That was my turning point and that was the very reason why I started thinking about being an activist and speaking out for the rights of disabled people.”
The beginning of the struggle
In 2011, Mohamed founded new organization called Somali Disability Empowerment Network (SODEN) that assists mobility challenged individuals to build better lives through social integration and skill development.
“We did survey and we found out that less than 1% of disabled children are enrolled in schools. We also found out that there was no accessibility support for disabled people; for instance, there are no wheelchair ramps in most houses, streets, public and private buildings. My mission is to try to remove the perception that disabled people cannot be, and are not now, a vital part of society. Having fewer abilities because of an accident, birth defect or illness does not make a person inferior.”
“Nobody has ever came out and speak for our rights which were never respected in our community. Mohamed has really inspired in many ways, most of us here believed being disabled means there is nothing you can do in your life but now seeing him making all these achievements makes us stronger,” says one of the disabled who has closely worked with Mohamed.
“I met Mohamed during one of the national youth council conferences in Mogadishu, he is tremendously passionate about disability rights and the values he stands for. His campaign is eye-opening for thousands of neglected disabled people in Somalia. In fact his work goes beyond just disability rights, he advocates for all human rights. As far as I know his campaign has resulted tangible impact in the society. For example you see many buildings have now wheelchair accessibility and you find disabled children going to school,” Says Mohamed Sudani, Youth Activist who have closely worked with Mohamed.
Through his organization and with support of international donors, Mohamed managed to raise public awareness of the rights and the needs of disabled people. “I used to talk to people about our rights and they used to tell me ‘You are talking about rights of disabled people when we don’t even care about rights of those who are abled.’ They were treating with us like we are not humans”.
In 2015, Mohamed and his team launched new social media campaign with hashtag #AlbaabkaIgaFur, which means #OpenTheDoor. The hashtag trended both on Twitter and Facebook. The aim of the campaign was to ensure full physical accessibility for the disabled people and promote their rights to social services.
“In my career I have come across many disabled people in desperate situations, worried and in despair. I have even met with a young boy who said to me ‘I would rather be dead than disabled.’ Through our #OpenTheDoor campaign, I have knocked on every door, including government institutions, international agencies, and local businesses in order to ensure our rights and needs are ensured as humans.” After the campaign, several buildings in Mogadishu added wheelchair ramps.
Mohamed’s campaign was not only confined in Mogadishu. He has reached out to other regions in the country and beyond. He has travelled to Kismayo, Hargeysa and Baydhabo to spread the message. He has also participated in a number of international conferences which were held in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. He was interviewed by BBC World Service, CCTV and many local media outlets.
As a result of his remarkable struggle and activism, Mohamed received two national awards from the Federal Government of Somalia and Dalsan Radio’s Person of the Year Award in 2015. He was also awarded by the East African Disability Aid.
Mohamed has successfully finished a university degree in Public Administration at University of Somalia in 2016 and is currently pursuing his post graduate studies at Kampala International University, majoring in Human Rights and Social Development.
“My mission is far from over”
I met him last week at the university campus in Kampala during one of my visits to Uganda. His mission is far from over.
“I will go back to Somalia with my voice louder than ever, and I will keep fighting for our rights at all cost. I will knock on every door until my last breath.”