Since 1990, Somalia has never known peace. Yet there is so much potential in the country.
One such is in a sport where the country’s basketball team is out to present a better image of the East African state.
In a country where the youth form 70 per cent of the population yet there are no job opportunities, many have turned to crime, drugs and worst still terrorism.
But a group of youth, mostly made up of refugees who have now settled in the United States came together, formed a basketball team and last week, they represented Somalia in the 2021 FIBA AfroBasket qualifiers in Nairobi.
And they did not disappoint, they won two games against Eritrea and Tanzania and nearly beat hosts Kenya, sending a strong message that something positive can come out of the otherwise failed state of Somalia.
Commonly referred to as the Civil War kids, the Somalia national men’s basketball team has been sending a message of peace through the sport.
Curiously, save for one, the captain of the team who was born in Mogadishu three years before the civil war erupted, none of the other players have ever stepped foot in Somalia.
Some of them do not know how to sing their national anthem, yet, their passion and patriotism for Somalia is unmatched.
“Ours is a unique team,” said the coach Abdikadir Dahir popularly known as Shiikha.
“We are here to represent Somalia because we love our country, regardless of all the negativity associated with it. We are not getting much assistance from the government, but we are just happy to be here wearing the blue colours of our country and representing our people,” he said.
To be in Nairobi, all the players paid for their airfare. Then, Kenyan based Somali businessman Mohamud Jumale Awale, the director of Taaj Money Transfer company in Nairobi paid for their accommodation and transport and also aided in kitting the team.
Most of the players are based in Minnesota, others in Canada while captain Yusuf Qaafow plays in Melbourne Australia.
In Minnesota, most of the Somali youth turned to basketball to build athletic skills and gain self-esteem and fend off negative influences.
The Muslim leaders in Minnesota realized their youth were falling into crime and drugs and set out on a mission to save them from the vices. Some were suspected or labelled as extremists.
Over the past, several have been arrested. A few years back, nine Somali-American men were imprisoned by a Minnesota federal court, after they were found guilty of plotting to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The Muslim leaders through their mosques formed the Somali Youth Development Organisation of Minnesota (SYDOM) which was able to bring most of the youth together.
“When we saw how they are suspected or labelled as extremists, we started to bring them together in order to prevent them from getting involved with drugs. We found a place where they can stay fit and stay busy and avoid negative influences,” coach Shiikha said in an interview.
“It has worked because now we have most of our young boys in school pursuing different careers, then we also have those who want to play professional basketball,” adds Shiikha, a former national team player.
When the war broke out in Somalia in 1990, Shiika was with the national team in Ethiopia representing the country in the Zone 5 games.
“We could not go back home. We came to Kenya as refugees before some of us moved to the US and Canada,” he says.
Most of the players in the current squad were conceived and born in refugee camps in Kenya.
“It is why they are referred to as Civil War kids.”
But that aside, Shiikha says the basketballers are using the sport to send a message.
“Our commitment to make to this tournament is a clear testimony that we can use the sport to bring our country together.”
“To us, it is not just about participating or winning, it is about showing the world that our youth can also engage in other activities rather than extremism for which they are always viewed as.”
Team captain Yusuf Qaafow was born in Mogadishu in 1987 before his family moved to Australia. But he says he is always available to represent his country.
“We all feel the plight of those back home living in abject poverty as a result of the war. We want to shine and inspire the youth back home to take up the sport,” he says.
Abdiqani Abdulahi Jeelo from the Ministry of Sports and youth played basketball before retirement. He says the sport can be used to unite the youth back home.
Basketball has a special place in Somalia. Each of the 16 districts in Mogadishu has a basketball court even though most of them are dilapidated, having been destroyed during the civil war.
“Back home we are embracing sport to bring our youth together. We have facilities, run-down, but they are serving the community for now. This basketball team playing in Kenya is an inspiration to many,” says Jeelo.
Twenty Two-year-old Adnan Gulled was born in Minnesota, he has never been to Somalia but believes his role in the national team will influence the youth back home to take up sport rather than turn to extremism.
“I started playing basketball at the age of ten and I always wanted to represent Somalia,” he says.
“My parents are from Somalia and that makes me a Somalian too so I feel at home playing in the sky blue colours of Somalia,” he says.
Gulled’s parents were sports personalities and represented Somalia before fleeing the civil war. His father Abdirahman Amaan played football for the national team while his mum Deeqo Awil was a basketballer.
Somalia has always had a strong basketball tradition. Prior to the current chaos, the city Mogadishu had basketball courts all over, a vital ingredient in creating a culture of basketball. The Somalia basketball team of the 1970s and 1980s was stronger than Kenya and routinely beat their Kenyan counterparts.
Their national men’s team won the All Arab games in 1979 and was third in 1983 All Africa Games. More recently their women team beat a fancied Qatar in the All Arab Games in Doha in 2011.
Jeelo says back home in Mogadishu, the government is now looking at sport to rid the youth from the temptation of joining insurgent groups like the Al Shabaab.
The Somali Basketball Federation (SBF) also says engaging in sports has been an effective way of keeping the youth off the streets, abusing drugs, engaging in anti-social behaviour and worst still, being recruited into terror groups known to prey on the youth.