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A Somali Refugee Reflects on COVID-19

By Hassan Abdullahi, a Jesuit Center community member in Amman, Jordan 

April 29, 2020 — The spread of COVID-19 — and the resulting lockdown — continues to push many families around the world into increasingly insecure living conditions, and the Somali refugees in Jordan are no exception. We find ourselves at the heart of those most badly affected by the lockdown. As urban refugees living in Aman, Jordan, most Somali refugees receive neither financial assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) nor food vouchers from the World Food Program (WFP). They depend on daily labor jobs to win their daily bread and pay rent. Since the lockdown started in mid-March, these refugees cannot earn wages to meet their basic needs. As a result, the effects of the lockdown started to appear within these communities in the first week.

The plight of Somali refugees in Jordan is something I’m very familiar with. As a Somali refugee myself, I have been working closely with the UNHCR officers to help members of my community access services and elevate concerns long before COVID-19. I volunteer with Sawiyan — a community development initiative — and as an English program manager, teaching English classes to refugee learners of all ages, as well as serving as a freelance interpreter to help Somali applicants at embassies.

Having no permanent employment, I have been trying to give most of my time to serving the refugee communities around me. But when the COVID-19 crisis hit, it brought all of my activities to an end, as I found that staying at home and practicing social distancing is the only way to keep myself and those around me safe.

Nevertheless, I have found myself to be quite busy. Three weeks before the crisis struck, I was admitted to the Harvard Kennedy School for a course entitled Leadership Organizing and Action for Change, which will help me better organize my English language project for refugees in Amman. I also found myself organizing an online committee of six Somali representatives to better meet the basic needs of our communities. This meant using WhatsApp to deliver messages to the Somali refugees in Jordan, posting messages in the Somali language, translating important messages from the Jordanian health system into the Somali language, keeping them updated about the curfew instructions, explaining messages from the Jordanian government and the UNHCR and answering questions. Technology has helped us stay connected.

Still, adapting to this unprecedented time has not been easy for the Somali community. Their whole life depends on what they are able to do on any given day, so finding themselves suddenly stuck at home has been crippling. Somali refugees were less connected to the larger Jordanian community before COVID-19. Falling into this crisis, they found themselves struggling to meet their basic needs: food, hygiene kits, medicine, gas and rent. Families are unable to afford gas for cooking. Lacking enough food, some families break the social distancing instructions to share a meal at their neighbors’ home.

Even though the Ministry of Education has employed an online learning system for school children to continue learning, many families struggle to meet the technology requirements. Access to TV screens, iPads, smartphones, computers and secure internet access are a challenge for refugee children.

Unfortunately, this is hardly new. I wish people knew more about the vulnerability of these Somali refugees in Jordan and their feelings of being disconnected from the humanitarian community both before and during this difficult time. COVID-19 has totally changed their lives and exposed them to more insecure living conditions.

There are more than 870,000 Somali refugees living in the Horn of Africa and Yemen — and 2.1 million Somalis are displaced within Somalia itself. Many of the Somali refugee families in Jordan have been refugees throughout their life, fleeing from war in Somalia in the 1990s to nearby Yemen, then escaping after war broke out there to seek refuge in Jordan. The United States was the leader in resettling Somali refugees from around the world — resettling nearly 10,000 Somalis each year from 2014 to 2016 — but, due to a ban on Somali refugees, the chances of resettlement in the U.S. have largely decreased. This leaves limited spaces for resettlement in other countries. I fear that after COVID-19, governments will apply new policies to the resettlement of refugees, which may continue to limit the number of people coming from outside their borders to prioritize the recovery of those who lost their jobs during this crisis.

I am deeply grateful to the Jordanian government and His Majesty King Abdullah II, who has shown commendable leadership with the limited resources this country has to offer in order to protect equally all human beings living on the soil of the kingdom during this difficult time.

The Jesuit Center community has also been a helping hand, a welcoming place where refugees feel safe, welcomed and respected. Although we cannot interact physically during COVID-19, this community has been a source of prayers and moral support. Members of the Jesuit Center have continued to check on the safety and wellbeing of one another, sharing health messages and updates.

God is merciful and compassionate, so long as we are keeping one another in our hearts and caring for those in need of support during this difficult time.

Learn more about the work of the Jesuits in Jordan.

Hassan Abdullahi is a UNHCR community representative, an engineering graduate, English teacher and Somali refugee. A graduate of the Jordan University of Science and Technology, he is a professional civil engineer and social worker. For the last four years, he has volunteered with different international and national organizations in Jordan.

Hassan has been working as a freelance English-Arabic-Somali interpreter with the United Nations Migration Agency, IOM, for the past three years, where he conducts screening interviews with IOM and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers, respectively.

He also works as a volunteer translator with the International Refugee Assistance Project, a U.S.-based legal organization providing free legal assistance to refugees in the registration, protection and resettlement process.

Hassan has lived in Jordan for the last 10 years, unable to work. He dedicates his time to improving the lives of those around him.

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