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The worldly wander of a Somali passport

MARIAM ISMAIL  |  14 FEBRUARY 2020

‘There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again.’ —Rumi. Picture by the author.

In my head, my story is simple! I was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. No complication yet. 

 

Let me add that I am of Somali origin, so I am black. One more thing: when I was 13 years old, my family became refugees in Damascus, Syria. And another: for the past seven years I have been living and working in Geneva, Switzerland. 

 

People I meet always ask: how and where do I place myself? Here it comes. 

 

I am the product of these four Ss: Saudi Arabia, Syria, Switzerland and Somalia. Some call it a colourful, unique mosaic. Or a tapestry, those threads weaving an alluring medley. 

 

But there’s more — which only I, together with my family and close friends know. The critical eyes of some beholders can twist this patchwork into something complicated. Into unwarranted difficulties. Something to be used against me. Something that restricts my mobility and denies opportunities. Something that separates me from my family.   

 

I was born with a passport, but I was not born in its land.

 

I hold my parents’ nationality. I am a Somali, and this is the story of my passport. The passport of ‘The Somali Republic’ — a country I never lived in, and that is my foundational tile, that first thread of me. 

 

Growing up, in Saudi Arabia and Syria, my Somali passport was not my biggest issue. I knew that I was different before I came to know how my passport would be used to deny my capabilities and restrict my opportunities. How I would so often be treated not as myself, but only as a reflection of it.

 

So, when the British Council Centre in Damascus told me I was not eligible for a scholarship because I was not Syrian, I wasn’t surprised. But I was sad and angry. Because for me, Syria was the ‘home’ I never had. The country where I went to high school and obtained my bachelor’s degree. A place I still hold in my heart. And still, I was not one of them. Was I sad? Did I feel inferior? Definitely yes and yes! 

 

Times like these I wished I had a different passport only because I felt mine restricted my mobility to move forward with my life. 

 

Fast forward, I am here in Geneva, Switzerland to do my masters in Humanitarian Action for a year. I received a generous scholarship from the City of Geneva. To come here, like anyone else, I applied for the visa at the Swiss embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I was scared and almost sure I would not get it, as by that time I’ve seen and experienced my share of rejection to my passport. I was proved wrong. I got my visa, moved to this fabulous city, finished my studies, collected memories and got a job in my field. Still holding onto my passport but this time with a Swiss permit. 

 

By nature, I am a family person. I grew up surrounded by eight brothers and sisters. My parents worked hard for us to have the best education and life possible. And so, I wanted my family to come and see me, to celebrate my success in my new ‘home’. To see how far I’d come. I did not want them to experience my new life in Geneva through FaceTime or Imo video calls (WhatsApp calls being blocked in Saudi Arabia). 

 

My brilliant idea — or so I thought — was to send an invitation letter to my sister, Hawa, who is a biologist, first. Why did I choose her, out of the gorgeous eight of them?  Simple: she was an exception, like me. She had already obtained European visas before, and travelled there several times. I thought this was likely to make her application for a visa to Switzerland easier and more legitimate. In this way, I looked to provide assurances that she would not overstay the duration of her visa, and definitely not apply for asylum, or simply disappear — to disprove the stereotypes affixed to Somali passport. 

 

How naïve of me. At the visa centre in Riyadh my sister submitted all required documents, including a proof that I, her sister, am a legal working resident in Geneva. She was told that her Somali passport was not recognised by the Swiss embassy. The same embassy that had issued mine six years before. We were confused and dazzled. 

 

I thought she was lying; this can’t be true, so I decided to contact them myself. The answer was: ‘With reference to your email, please note that Somali passports are not recognized by the Switzerland Embassy therefore we regret to inform you that we will be unable to accept the application.

 

Thirty-two words were enough to crush my hope that my family, especially my parents, will ever be able to visit me in the place I’ve been striving so hard to call HOME. Thirty-two words, measured against my seven years of residence, study, and work in Switzerland. Not so much as a human voice to deliver the news that would make distance even harder and separation more painful. Making hot tears run down my cheeks while writing this. 

 

Of course, there are times I wish I did not have this passport. But it is mine. It is who I am, but not all that I am. I am unique. I am diverse. I am educated. I have potential. I am beyond this. I accept no limitations. 

 

Our passports restrict our mobility to encounter and celebrate one another. While I find myself lucky to belong to a land, I belong to one that is torn by war. 

Mariam Ismail

My name is Mariam Ismail and what you just read above is a glimpse into my real life. Currently living and working in Geneva, Switzerland, in the humanitarian sector.

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