The West and Somalia: A Complex History

From the MARCH/APRIL/MAY 2017 PNL #855

By Kip Hargrave


For twenty years I coordinated a team at Catholic Charities that helped refugees resettle themselves in Syracuse. In order to help refugees acclimate to life in the United States, it is very important to learn both their national and personal histories. One refugee who I got to know very well, was a Somali woman named Marian Gedow who arrived here in 2000 with five children and her mother. I would like to introduce her and her country to you, the progressives of Syracuse.


In one sense her experiences were extraordinary for a Somali woman. She came here with a Master’s degree in Economics from the University of Rome, as well as a fluency in Somali, Italian and English. In another sense, she was like the majority of Somalis. She was fleeing a political and social situation that she found intolerable and had almost no resources to make a new home here. To understand what happened to Marian, her family and to thousands of present day Somalis who flow into our country, we must understand something of modern Somali history. And as people who live in the US, we must understand the US/Western roles in creating the conditions which force citizens to become refugees.

The Colonization of Somalia

Before the Second World War, Somalia had been divided into two protectorates – one for the British in the north and another for the Italians in the south. Somalia, like almost all of Africa, had been “settled” (i.e. colonized) by the European powers. The result was a country invented by Europeans for their good and not for the good of the African people who inhabited the region. After WW II, the British ceded control of all of Somalia (except for the Ogaden province which was given to Ethiopia) to the Italians. The British, although victors in the war, realized that the prosperous and better educated Somali citizens felt more comfortable with Italy than with England. Ten years later, in 1959, Somalia was granted independence.

In 1969, the democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coup by Siad Barre. In 1977, Barre invaded the contested Ogaden province with the help of the Soviet Union. However, the Soviets eventually reassessed their commitment, deciding to support Ethiopia and abandoned the poorer and weaker Somalia.

After his defeat in the Ogadan War, Barre convinced the United States to help him fight his Ethiopian /Soviet adversary. The US donated money but was reluctant to give military aid. The country was desperately poor – perhaps the poorest in Africa – and in the midst of a devastating drought and famine. The US aid could have made a difference but President Barre put most of the money into his own pocket or used it to defeat his internal political enemies.

The President realized that the greatest threat to his power, his most powerful political enemy, was the tribal loyalty of his people. People identified not as Somalis but as Benadeer, Bantu, Hawije or a host of other clans and super clans. Most of Barre’s tenure in office was spent trying to force people to throw off the bonds of tribalism and accept him as the sole ruler of the land. It never worked.

Mr. Barre was deposed in 1991, but the United States was so bound up in the country and its battle with the Soviet Union/Cuba/China that it felt that it couldn’t leave. In December 1992, the United Nations convinced the George H.W. Bush administration to send troops to Somalia to defend the UN effort to supply humanitarian aid to starving villagers. In early 1993, the newly elected Clinton administration expanded this commitment to include destroying the clan-based warlords. It was decided to send in a well-armed contingent of US soldiers and capture or kill the warlords. But in October 1993, American helicopters were shot down over the streets of Mogadishu and some twenty US soldiers were killed in the controversial “Black Hawk Down” incident, in retaliation for US aggression in the region. The United States pulled out of the country soon after and by 1995 so had the United Nations. For all intents and purposes there was no national authority left in the country. It was ruled by warlords and their clans.

Marian’s History

It is in the midst of this chaos that Marian and her family escaped. Upon returning from graduate school in Italy, she had begun working with NGOs that were interested in empowering and educating women. The conservative clan leaders could not accept this and Marian escaped when her house was destroyed and her life threatened. She went first to Djibouti and then to Pakistan. In Pakistan, she found an office of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and after more than a year of paperwork and interviews was given refugee status. A year later she was informed that the family could go to the United States but she refused. She would not leave unless all her Somali friends in Pakistan could go with her. Another year passed and finally the State Department agreed to allow the entire Somali community of Islamabad into the US refugee program. Marian and her family were the last to leave because she wanted to make sure that all got out safely.


Marian did get a job with us at Catholic Charities where she worked as a case manager for fourteen years. Her children all went to college and became successful professionals. They bought a house in Liverpool. What more could you ask? Unfortunately the story doesn’t end here.

Marian contracted ALS in 2010. Slowly and agonizingly she lost the use of her feet, then her legs, her hands and arms, and finally her ability to talk. She is still alive today and Somalis still go to her house to ask for advice and to pay tribute to the person they feel is one of the greatest Somalis to have ever lived.

The US Role

As for Somalia, it is still tied up with clan warfare, the colonial split between the English-speaking North and Italian South, excruciating poverty, lack of education, and most recently another devastating drought and famine. There is also the issue of the war between the United States and Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had been in Somalia since well before 9/11/2001. After the attack on New York and Washington, DC, President G.W. Bush authorized US forces to find and kill its leaders. He began to pay warlords to track down and kill anyone associated with Al Qaeda. This strategy only strengthened the warlords and weakened any semblance of a national government. In 2006 a radical Islamist group called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) went to war against the warlords and tried to unite the country under its terrorist banner. In response the United States funded an Ethiopian invasion of the country. The Ethiopians were successful in defeating the ICU but at a terrible cost in innocent lives. The result was the birth of an Al Qaeda offshoot called Al Shabab.

Al Shabab, although constantly on the run from American drones and African Union troops, has been very successful in creating havoc throughout Somalia and Kenya. As of early 2017, the United States has 200-300 troops in the country and it coordinates hundreds of airstrikes and counter insurgence attacks a year. Twenty-two thousand African Union troops are also stationed in strongholds throughout Somalia.

On March 31 of this year, the New York Times reported that the Trump Administration is building on the Obama Administration’s military intervention strategy for Yemen, Syria and Somalia. In Somalia, Trump is relaxing rules to protect civilians in order to “lay the groundwork for an escalating campaign against Islamic militants in the Horn of Africa.” This will certainly result in more refugees leaving Somalia. Ironically, Mr. Trump has reduced the cap on the number of refugees arriving in the US in 2017 from110,000 to 50,000, so most will probably not come here. Already the slow down is evident. In Syracuse, we have resettled 66 Somalis since the beginning of the 2017 but only a trickle since Mr. Trump’s executive orders.

Although important, resettling refugees is not as important as resolving the conflict in the region. The real issue is how to help the region deal with poverty, famine and tribalism as well as religious extremism and terrorism. This is the question that many Somali refugees are asking. They have strong allegiances to both of their countries and would like to work with us non-Somali Americans to avoid the mistakes of the past.

This is where we can get involved. Most Somalis I know are convinced that neither a total reliance on armed intervention, nor total withdrawal from the conflict will keep their beloved Somalia safe and let it prosper. They also understand that neither armed intervention nor withdrawal will be good for the US. They believe the answer for the challenges of the Middle East and Northern Africa lie in patience and understanding. We in the West must be willing to stand with our brothers and sisters in Somalia, Syria, Yemen and other conflicted areas of that part of the world long enough for them to get on their own feet. It will certainly cost a lot of dollars and perhaps even some US lives but it can and must be done. Crucial to this will be the depth of understanding that people like you and me bring to the situation. This is our role: to read, to listen to Somali refugees and to make our voices heard in Congress.