Ismail Warsame still bears a scar over his eyebrow from when he was 6 years old living in Beledweyne, Somalia, and he woke up to a 7-foot warhead plowing through his house and exploding next door — killing several people.
“I woke up and saw the house was on fire and everyone was screaming,” Warsame recalled. “I remember my mom asked if everyone was OK. My cousin said, ‘no I died.’ He wasn’t making a joke; he literally thought he was dead.”
Warsame and his family moved around to avoid civil wars in Somalia so often while he was growing up that he doesn’t remember half of the places he stayed. Eventually his parents and all seven of his siblings escaped the war-torn country.
Warsame left in 1998, at the age of 14, to live with relatives in Kenya, hoping one day to return to his home country. After several years of waiting and the wars escalating, he and most of his family came to the United States.
“My father was an electrician who did some work with the U.N. peacekeeping troops,” Warsame recalled Thursday at the International Living Learning Center at Oregon State University. “Everyone who worked with the U.N. was a target (of the rebels fighting in the wars). Because of my dad, my family was associated with that so that’s how we got resettlement out of the country.”
Warsame, 30, works as an international student adviser for OSU. He’s lived in Corvallis since 2010. Growing up in Somalia, he lived in places that had no electricity or running water, in buildings made of mud and sticks. These days, he has an Instagram page and the latest iPhone.
After speaking to an aunt who still lives in Somalia, Warsame decided in January to take a trip to visit his remaining family members in Beledweyne and Mogadishu.
Many assured him over the phone that the country had improved tremendously since 2012, when the country elected its first president since 1967 — Hassan Sheikh Mohamud — and the international community donated $2.4 billion in reconstruction aid in the 2013 New Deal Compact that helped strengthen the nation’s economy and security.
Warsame remembered reading news stories of the land being called a failed state and the worst place in the world, and he had seen movies like “Captain Phillips,” which portrayed Somalians as pirates and criminals.
“I knew my views of Somalia were biased. Most of the news you hear is negative,” he said. “But I didn’t realize the extent of that negativity until I got there. It was mind-blowing.”
Warsame says he was shocked when he first stepped foot into the region of Hiiran near his home — nearly 17 years after leaving the area as a refugee of war.
“When I left, there was no running water, no electricity, no phone lines. It was like an ancient village that remained one way for 1,000 years,” he said. “But in the last 16 years, that changed. Every single house now has running water, electricity, cable services and internet. Those few things changed a lot.”
Areas of the town he remembered as being barren and dirty now were grassy and full of life. Homes that previously were made of mud and sticks and had dirt for front yards are now brick and stone, with big mango trees and gardens in front.
“Before, people didn’t even go out at night because they were afraid and there was no electricity. Now there’s a night-life. The whole culture is changing,” he said. “I was really blown away. I kept thinking, what took me so long to do this?”
Warsame acknowledges not everything has improved. One day, while he was enjoying a walk along Mogadishu’s Liido beach and dipping his toes into the Indian Ocean, a strange masked man wearing a green uniform began interrogating him about being on the beach. Then he experienced what he referred to as “a nightmare come to life.”
The masked man pulled out a hand grenade and demanded he stop, and then another uniformed man joined the first for a tense interrogation. But it turned out that they were just local police, and they even apologized to Warsame once they were satisfied that he was a peaceful visitor.
“People were in chaos for decades so they don’t understand that a hand grenade isn’t a policing tool. It was something they had on them so they used it,” he said, adding that he harbors no ill will toward the men.
The rest of Warsame’s trip was involved visiting his family and old friends, attending a wedding, and meeting people looking to help the country improve. The experience had such an effect on him that Warsame is making plans to offer aid to the area.
“I’m thinking about writing proposals to the mayor and others to organize people to build a waste management center,” he said. “Now that I’ve seen it, with a small time commitment, I could make a big difference.”