NAIROBI, Kenya – When Aisha Omar heard about a massive explosion in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, she was at home in Eastleigh, a suburb of the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
The 23-year-old, who left Somalia aged 11, still has family back in Mogadishu, like many other Eastleigh residents. More than 200,000 of the 330,000 people who live there are Somali, hence its nickname, “Little Mogadishu.”
For about a day Omar’s family in Eastleigh made calls trying to locate her cousin, Maryan Mohamed, a few years older than her. Eventually they discovered she was among the more than 300 people killed in the twin suicide bombing on Oct. 14, one of the deadliest terror attacks in years. Hundreds of others were injured. Omar swallows hard, remembering hearing news of Mohamed’s death.
Her sister also lives in Mogadishu, but was far from the attack. Now she is coming back to Kenya, too traumatized to stay.
Omar relayed her story at a meeting this week in Eastleigh’s Madina Mall, hosted by the Kenya Chapter of the Somali Student Association, to discuss ways for the community to support survivors of the attack.
Dozens of men and women, the majority of whom looked under the age of 30, crowded into the room. Extra chairs had to be brought in so everyone could sit. Attempts to divide the room into male and female areas quickly floundered as more bodies packed into the gradually heating room.
People wore red bandannas on their heads or over their hijabs in a display of anger and resistance. Signs were passed out reading in English: “In Solidarity With Our Grieving Families.” Others had messages in Somali condemning the attack and cursing al-Shabab, the fundamentalist group believed to be behind it.
Somalia has been ravaged by conflict for more than two decades, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee. The exodus has generated a tight-knit diaspora of more than 2 million, united by language, culture, an intense national history and a complex relationship with a country that many have never been to, but to which they maintain significant emotional as well as practical ties.
The atrocity on Saturday did not just impact Somalia. With such a far-flung population, people are personally touched all around the world. Little Mogadishu is no exception.
“If anything happens in Somalia it directly affects people here in Eastleigh,” said Ahmed Mohamed, a community activist.
A day earlier, Mohamed had organized a blood drive in the neighborhood. With the assistance of the Somali Embassy, 310 pints (175 liters) of blood were sent to Mogadishu by plane.
The clan politics that rankle the country also play out in the diaspora, but appear to be at least momentarily overcome in the face of adversity.
“Somalis are one no matter where they are in the world,” Omar explained. She has a Kenyan passport, not a Somali one, but says she identifies as Somali.
Ahmed Abdullahi struggles to speak when asked about the tragedy. He learned of it watching Universal TV, a Somali Channel, at home in Eastleigh. Two of his friends were killed.“It affected me deeply because they are just my brothers and sisters,” he said. “As you know all Somalis are family.”
“It was the talk of the town,” said Abdi Malik Abdullahi of Saturday’s attack. He was born in northern Kenya, near the border, to Somali parents who left in 1991. Even though he’s never been to Somalia, he says “I feel more Somali than Kenyan, deep down in my heart.”
A 23-year-old student of political science at the University of Nairobi, Abdullahi knew from friends how busy the neighborhood where the attack happened, Kilometer Five, can get. He quickly realized the casualties would be massive.
On Tuesday night, Abdullahi went with 25-year-old Ahmed Adawe and about eight other friends, both men and women, to Nairobi’s Kenyatta Hospital to greet badly injured and likely traumatized people they had never met.
The Government of Kenya, along with other countries including Turkey and Sudan, has flown a handful of the worst-wounded out of the country for surgery. Somalia’s public health system is practically nonexistent, and its hospitals not at all equipped to deal with the surgeries needed to remove shrapnel near the spinal cord, charred body parts and complex head wounds.
When Abdullahi reached the hospital, one of the injured men he greeted turned out to be the father of his classmate in Nairobi.
Abdullahi and Adawe both talk about going back to Somalia. Despite Saturday’s devastation the country is more stable than it has been in decades. They see a future for themselves there, building up their country and likely making some money and a name for themselves along the way.
The terror attack has galvanized them: “The government needs my support. The government needs my talent. The government needs my education,” said Ahmed.
Others feel differently. Many Somalis cite Kenyan government pressure to return and empty promises upon arrival to Somalia. Omar, who lost her cousin in the attack, says she wants to go back, but will not go until there is peace.