“In the morning we hugged our family like we might never see them again because every day in Mogadishu journalists may be killed in the crossfire, or murdered by Al-Shabaab” says Ibrahim as he enjoys a meal at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) in Hong Kong. He continues, “For a big story we would bring two or three cameramen to record the scene together in case one was wounded or shot dead.”
The Somali government persecutes journalist who don’t report the propaganda, but Al-Shabaab is a clear threat. In 2009 Ibrahim was kidnapped by the group and never expected to see his wife and five children until he was ransomed by his employer, Universal TV. Undeterred he continued to work from Kenya until mounting death threats posed an imminent danger. In August 2013 he fled to Hong Kong where his colleague Shafi had sought asylum eight months earlier.
“My first encounter with Vision First” Shafi says “was during a demonstration at the Legislative Council when dozens of refugees were invited to a conference room to discuss welfare shortcomings with lawmaker Fernando Cheung. It was a year before other groups also took this advocacy path. The following week Vision First introduced me to the FCC which regrettably turned down my application and made me feel very unwelcome.”
For reasons unclear, the Foreign Correspondent Club was reluctant to accept as members first Shafi and later Ibrahim, despite their credentials and, most vitally, having lost everything to pursue their profession with outstanding courage and integrity. Reporting the reality of the factional Somali civil war, with multiple interests vying for supremacy, can get anyone killed, but exposing the intrigues of Al-Shabaab is a death sentence. “We reported what we investigate. We could not keep quiet. This is our job” Ibrahim explains.
Vision First is dedicated to empowering refugees by strengthening self-reliance within a system constrained by a culture of rejection. In June 2014, non-executive director Robert Tibbo and solicitor Jonathan Man escorted the two Somali journalists to the Foreign Correspondent Club on a mission. They were determined that the prestigious club, established in 1917, admit two foreign correspondents that sacrificed more than most to uphold the highest code of practice of their profession. Respect was due and respect was granted.
“After a year struggling like a beggar, for the first time I feel that I am a journalist again” Shafi rejoices “Refugees are often kept out of sight and denied even the dignity of being human beings. As a member of the FCC now I feel that I am alive again and I am part of the community, even if I cannot work. I want to devote my time and energy to developing the Refugee Union and help other refugees achieve their potential too.”
It is likely unprecedented that refugees on Immigration recognizance were admitted to a private club in Hong Kong. Vision First celebrates this success with the wish that other clubs and societies will value individuals seeking membership for who they are, without tripping over meaningless rules to produce ID cards or passports. Meantime Ibrahim and Shafi are possibly the happiest journalists in town. Congratulations! You deserve it!