For me being politically engaged is incredibly important. I come from a country where the majority of the population are below the age of 54, according to the World Bank. With approximately 1.5 million Somalis living abroad – due to the civil war – it is clear that the diaspora play an important role to the country’s survival, with remittances paying for education, healthcare, public infrastructure and much more. As a young Somali woman living in the UK, I have a strong sense of responsibility to give back to a community that has already lost so much.
It’s important that young people are involved with social issues, we now make up overhalf of the world’s population. The role of young people has never been more vital.
The theme of this year’s International Youth Day is ‘youth civic engagement’ – in other words it’s about young people getting involved in politics and social issues – a topic which is close to my heart. I consider myself to be a young person and an active citizen (I’m 23 years old) because I have gone to Africa as a volunteer and I have become involved in a Somali Women’s Network here in the UK.
Volunteering in Ghana
Two summers ago I volunteered for three months in Ghana as part of the International Citizen Service (ICS) scheme, a UK Government funded scheme led by VSO. I worked on the LIFE Project (Local Integration for Empowerment), which encourages people living with disabilities to be involved in their community.
People with disabilities in Ghana are often considered spiritually sick. There can be a perception that children are born with disabilities because somebody was jealous of their mother. Some say that the way to get the disability out is through a process of fasting, chaining and denying them of their most basic human rights, as a recent BBC documentary explored. I was shocked that just a six -hour flight away from the UK, someone – probably the same age as me – didn’t have basic human rights.
I had the opportunity to lead my own project called Story-Telling, which shares the stories of Disabled People’s Organisations (DPO) on the radio. One powerful story that really resonated with me was that of an elderly man who was born blind. He explained that for the majority of his life he was hidden away from society and wasn’t able to go to school, work or even play with the kids his own age because his family were so ashamed of him. He had to rely on his older brother for daily tasks and if it weren’t for the kindness of his brother, he wouldn’t be alive today.
We found story-telling to be a powerful tool for reducing stigma. Sharing stories is a way to communicate, inspire and motivate people. It is also a way to increase dialogue between contrasting groups. A young man in his mid-twenties from the local community called a radio station to congratulate the DPO for sharing their brave stories. He said that it encouraged him to be more mindful of people living with disabilities.
Having this experience gave me a confidence boost and newfound self-belief that I can help change the world in however small a way.
Back home – Somali women’s groups
Somali women are the backbone of Somalia as they are involved in every aspect of our community: economy, family life, healthcare, education and much more. It is so important for Somali women to be united, as they are a symbol of hope in a country torn apart by over 24 years of war.
I got involved with the Somali Women’s Network here in the UK through my friend and fellow ICS volunteer Ladan Takow. Following her volunteering stint in India she set up the Somali Women’s Network to engage young women in a discussion about education, career choices, politics, justice and other important issues. I got involved with the project by talking to the women about the power of active citizenship and encouraging them to be active in their communities.
I’m an active citizen
Both of these experiences have been really important in my becoming a citizen who is active in shaping her own views and those of her community, as they helped me to learn about different perspectives.
Being active is more than just giving back, it’s about leaving a footprint behind that can have a HUGE impact and make a significant difference to future generations.
I believe that we all have a responsibility for bettering our community so I encourage other young people to find whatever way they can to make a contribution beyond themselves.
Waris Mahad is a Sociology graduate from the University of Roehampton. She has worked in many different NGOs on Human Rights, Disability Rights and Gender equality with a particular interest in East Africa (Somalia) and the UK.