Having fled the Somali civil war, Ifrah Ahmed landed in Dublin, Ireland, in 2006 to begin a new life in exile as an asylum seeker from one of the most intractable conflicts in the African continent.
Unlike many newly arrived refugees in Western Europe who may languish in a settlement limbo, Ifrah Ahmed quickly found traction in social activism, fighting for the rights of new communities in Ireland, such as refugees and newcomers from Africa, East Europe and other parts of the world.
The charismatic, stunningly beautiful 23 year old activist has directly engaged Irish national leaders, including the man occupying the highest office in the land, President Michael D. Higgins and Mr. Joe Costello, the current Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In fact Ifrah has worked with these powerful politicians even before they assumed their current leadership roles.
In an exclusive interview with Digital Journal's Farid Omar, Ifrah shared inspiring stories highlighting her multi-faceted brand of activism that involves support for international students, anti-racism initiatives, fundraising for worthy causes, HIV/AIDs awareness campaign and the far more sensitive fight against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a practice that affects millions of girls in a number of developing nations.
Rights groups note that FGM is a traditional practice with severe health consequences for girls and women. According to UNICEF, FGM is common in countries stretching from Senegal in West Africa to Somalia in East Africa and to Yemen in the Middle East while reports from Europe, North America and Australia indicate that it is practiced among immigrant communities as well.
The stats on FGM are startling in that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates indicate between 100 million and 140 million girls and women alive today have experienced some form of the practice while millions of girls remain at risk of genital mutilation annually.
In her early days of community mobilization, Ifrah worked as an independent advocate engaging policy makers, rights groups and mainstream organizations. She demonstrated her ability to work as a highly motivated social and community worker involved in many community projects and organizations such as UNICEF, Amnesty International, Irish Refugee Council, Caidre, The Africa Centre, Spirasi, Somali Community in Ireland, and Integration of African Children in Ireland.
As time passed, Ifrah quickly realized the need to establish a more viable platform where she can coordinate her activities at an organizational level. To meet the increasing challenges of new communities, Ifrah founded the United Youth of Ireland (UYI); an organization bringing together dedicated young people aged 15 to 25 initially drawn from different countries mainly from Africa and Eastern Europe. Today, the UYI has in its ranks many Irish youth who are part of a vibrant cadre of volunteers working for a cause in the service of communities where they operate. The UYI also helps young people from migrant communities in their artistic, creative and business endeavours.
Ifrah’s powerful advocacy on behalf of women, the victims of FGM, youth development and humanitarian relief in East Africa has received coverage in Irish and European media including reports and interviews in the Irish Times, Irish Examiner, Metro Eireann, News Talk/Dublin Q 102, The Sun and the Hot Press Magazine etc. In 2008, Ifrah was the Face of Africa Feature in the Exclusive Magazine. She has also received nomination for the “Women Inspiring Europe” 2012 online calendar.
In the public arena, Ifrah has organized and presented in major conferences including the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM 2012, International Women’s Day’s 2010 “Women Rights in Somalia”, IACI Art and Interculturalism, 2010 “Somali Culture and Art,” World Water Day 2010, “Importance of Water for African Life” and the APF Portugal International Conference to End FGM, Lisbon, 2010.
Under Ifrah’s leadership, the UYI has organized key events including a 2010 conference and fashion show in Dublin attended by over 300 enthusiastic participants. These events raise awareness on FGM which affects 18 different nationalities in Ireland. The Ifrah-led anti-FGM struggle in Ireland has been a difficult one to articulate both in affected migrant communities and in the Irish health system as well.
“We had a situation where Irish nurses had no clue about FGM, a practice that leaves its victims with long-term psychological and emotional scars and in extreme cases, leads to death from excessive bleeding” said Ifrah.
“Right from the time I started the campaign against FGM, girls in affected communities in Ireland who were largely asylum seekers, were terrified to speak about it. We had to educate Irish nurses on the FGM process so that they can come up with an appropriate response mechanism” observed Ifrah.
In driving her message across, Ifrah saw the necessity to speak from her own experience.
“As an FGM survivor, I had to engage Irish nurses and rally the support of Amnesty International, which has been conducting a European-wide anti-FGM campaign. We also had to break barriers in local communities here where the incidence of FGM is rampant. Some parents would tell me in the face ‘leave our children and culture alone.’ But we need to make it clear that FGM has nothing to do with culture or religion. It is simply a gross violation of girls’ rights that should be rooted out completely.”
Even in the West, the practice of FGM is prevalent among immigrant communities. Ifrah says that in UK for example, it is believed that “qualified health practitioners are cashing in on FGM charging up to 750 sterling pounds per procedure” adding that “a government crackdown there has resulted in the arrest and prosecution of unscrupulous practitioners.”
The fashion shows in Dublin have served as a useful tool to educate the Irish public and policy makers on the dangers posed by FGM.
“We have effectively used our colorful fashion shows to raise awareness not only on FGM but on anti-racism initiatives and a myriad of other campaigns. We need to send the message that young people are beautiful and the youth should edutain (educate and entertain) the public. To date, our fashion shows have proven extremely successful as we had huge turn outs and boasts of a laudable attendance that includes high profile officials from UNICEF and other UN agencies, Amnesty International, Muslim organizations and delegates from other European countries” stated Ifrah.
Prior to Ifrah’s arrival in Dublin, there were no laws that prohibited FGM in Ireland, which lagged behind other European countries that had outlawed the practice. Ifrah took her fight to policy circles engaging the Irish political elite to bring legislation to ban the practice.
She has been working closely with Joe Costello who before he became a minister, was a Teachta Dála (TD), a member of Irish Parliament. In August 2011, Mr.Costello introduced Ifrah to Michael G. Higgins, the then Labour-nominated candidate for the Office of the President of Ireland. Mr. Higgins supported Ifrah’s emergency appeal for East Africa by signing a picture of Somalia fundraising that was put on sale in an auction. By getting these powerful leaders on her side, Ifrah was on course to getting a government enacted FGM ban in Ireland.
“Right from the beginning, Mr. Costello was very supportive of our causes. He would often attend our events as a guest speaker. Mr. Higgins has equally supported our efforts” said Ifrah.
On November 11, 2011, Mr. Higgins took office as the President of Ireland after victory in the Irish presidential elections. Mr. Costello was appointed as Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the new government moved fast to pass legislation banning FGM in Ireland. The Irish Parliament passed FGM Bill 2011 on March 28th 2012 and President Higgins signed the Bill into Law on April 2nd 2012.
Ifrah is extremely elated by this development.
“FGM is now illegal in Ireland. It can no longer be practiced on Irish soil and no girl can be taken from here to another country to undergo FGM. There is a penalty of 14 years of imprisonment for anyone caught administering FGM on a child. It also means hospital staff would get more training to deal with FGM related issues and there would be support services for the victims” noted Ifrah.
Ifrah has remained in touch with President Higgins and Minister Costello. She was recently invited by President Higgins to his official residence to attend the appreciation ceremony for the passing of the FGM Bill. During this milestone event, she presented President Higgins with the Somali flag.
Ifrah’s work is not limited to fighting FGM. She has worked overtime to help alleviate the suffering of the poor in her native Somalia who have endured prolonged conflict and recurrent humanitarian crises. Last year, she directed and featured in a fund raising video to raise funds for the victims of the Somali disaster. UNICEF endorsed her “Emergency Appeal for East Africa” video whose entire proceeds went to the Somali famine relief. She also appeared in a televised national debate on the role of Western aid in Africa. In 2009, her efforts led UNICEF to venture into Hargeisa, Somaliland, where the security situation is tenable, to initiate school and water projects.
“Here in Ireland, I have helped raise funds for hospitals. When Somalia was struck by famine last year, I felt obligated to raise funds on behalf of our children and people who were dying from hunger” said Ifrah. She is currently lobbying for Irish Aid to set ground on Somalia. The Irish nation is known for its kind gesture toward Somalia. At the height of the 1993 famine, former Irish President, Mary Robinson, visited Somalia to lend support to the victims of the humanitarian disaster. It was a bold move by Mary Robinson given the alarming security situation at the time, in a country torn apart by warring factions.
Ifrah is extremely proud of her Somali cultural heritage. “I work with different nationalities to bring them to my culture” said Ifrah. Her inroads into fashion have prompted her to serve as a cultural ambassador for Somalia. The models walking the catwalk in UYI fashion shows are usually clad in colourful Somali traditional attires.
In other events, Ifrah has presented on Somali culture and history portraying a positive image of her home country.
“People have often asked me about Somali pirates. Well, I am not a pirate and Somalia is simply not about pirates. It is a country with a rich culture and history. People need to know about the roots causes of piracy, which primarily stems from young Somali people reacting to the plunder of Somali fish stocks and the dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters” said Ifrah who usually dresses in Somali clothes, cooks Somali food and displays beautiful pictures of Somalia.
Ifrah has also moved to dispel media depictions that treat Somalis in negative light.
“We are not pirates. We are a hard working people. There are many examples of educated Somalis from the Diaspora who have given up comfortable lives in the West to sacrifice for their country. Some have even paid with their lives, like the late Minster of Health, Mrs. Qamar Aden, who left the UK for Somalia and two of her cabinet colleagues. All three ministers were killed in an Al-Shabab suicide attack at the Shamo Hotel in Mogadishu in December 2009, during a graduation ceremony that also claimed the lives of over 20 Somali medical students” said Ifrah who is upset by this senseless violence.
Having demonstrated strong leadership and advocacy skills, Ifrah has always been asked of the possibility of her running for political office in Ireland. She quickly shunned the idea stating that her primary goal in future is to go on the ground to fight for the rights of Somali women and children.
Ifrah is upset that Somali women and children have borne the brunt of violence in Somalia including rape at the hands of Ethiopian forces and local militias while Somali refugee women in Kenya are subjected to all forms of abuse and rape by security forces.
“Somali women are being abused everywhere. Even in the West, Somali women are still suffering. There is no life for us. In the past, our women were victims of clannish war. Today, they are victims of sectarian and political violence. I would like to do something about our women and children.” Ifrah is panning to travel to Kenyan, Ethiopian and Djiboutian refugee camps in the near future to lend her voice to the suffering Somali women.
It would be a busy summer for Ifrah in Dublin, as the UYI will host its own appreciation ceremony for the passing of the FGM Bill at the Dublin Mayor’s Parlour on June 15th. Ifrah has also struck an arrangement with the Turkish Embassy in Ireland, which will host a ceremony on June 30th to celebrate the Somali National Day officially observed on July 1st. At the onset of the Somali famine last year, Turkey has been at the forefront to provide humanitarian relief for the victims of the disaster while it continues to fund massive development projects throughout Somalia.
Having traveled across Europe to conduct youth training and on various speaking engagements, Ifrah said she would like to link up with Somali-Canadian youth in future.
“My advice to Somali-Canadian youth is simple. Represent your country strongly, work hard, follow your heart, help your country and always remember that Somalia needs its youth.”
A mover and shaker in Ireland, Ifrah Ahmed, a true role model to her young peers, continues to work hard on numerous fronts to bring change to the lives of immigrant youth, women, and new communities in Ireland as well as taking up her noble work to the wider European social justice arena.