Sunday 23 October 2016

'Ireland is home, but I have to change Somalia'

Rachel Lavin

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Ifrah Ahmed outside the GPO.
Ifrah Ahmed outside the GPO.

When she first arrived in Ireland as a 17-year-old refugee, Ifrah Ahmed was frightened and unsure.

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But what she remembers most was the cold - a biting merciless cold, never felt in her native Somalia. Nine years later, the cold is not a problem for the anti-female genital mutilation (FGM) campaigner, who found refuge in Ireland during the Somalian civil war.

Wearing a full-flowing traditional African dress and veil, 26-year-old Ifrah has accessorised with six-inch heels, a grey suit blazer, chandelier earrings and a nose piercing as she poses playfully outside the GPO.

In front of the camera, the former asylum seeker is full of confidence. Of course, she has to be, as she prepares to return home next month to her native Mogadishu, where she will be taking up the role of advisor on gender issues to the Somalian Prime Minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke.

Somalia is currently recovering from a decades-long civil war and is still under sustained guerrilla attacks from Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group Al-Shabab. Ifrah's life will be under threat by her very presence in the country, especially given her outspokenness on women's issues. But for the young woman who counts Mary Robinson as her main inspiration, it is nothing she hasn't faced before.

"I grew up between our home in Mogadishu and the refugee camps. Whenever the militants would enter the city we would move to the outskirts and stay in a tent and when peace came we would move back."

At 17, while living in a refugee camp outside Mogadishu, militants pillaged the camp and she witnessed her sister being raped. It was then she knew she had to go.

Despite stepping off the plane alone in Ireland, she took to her new home quickly. English however was her biggest obstacle.

She dropped out of the Leaving Cert, choosing instead to enrol in English classes full-time to master the language. And one incident in particular which spurred her to get to grips with the language was when she found herself in hospital over a medical problem she never realised she had. Through a male translator and confused doctor, Ifrah learned of the term: FGM.

"For me in Somalia, FGM was a normal practice. What we used to think was FGM is good, it was like you being told you will have a Christmas gift, you will be so excited, you will want to have it.

"I was eight-years-old when it happened to me and was sent to a family doctor for the procedure with a group of nine other girls. Our legs were tied together after and we had to rest in a ward for a few weeks. I remember one of the girls, my neighbour, she died from the bleeding."

The problem with FGM is not just the instant risk of bleeding or infection when the genitalia is cut or sewn, but the long-term consequence of the wounds.

"Before when women got a long-term kidney infection, it was said to be kidney stones. When women gave birth and died of bleeding, they would say she died of childbirth. People are only now understanding the long-term effects of FGM on women's lives."

Now Ifrah had a higher calling. By mastering English she was able to go on and study social studies while raising awareness of the ongoing medical risks for FGM survivors living in Ireland.

It wasn't just the African community in Ireland that needed to be educated on FGM, but Irish medics themselves were confounded by the problem.

Setting up the Ifrah Foundation to support FGM survivors, Ifrah persevered to pass legislation outlawing FGM in Ireland in 2012. Her work brought her to the attention of the European Commission, eventually earning her the title of Humanitarian of the Year at the 2015 Women4Africa awards.

However, Somalia was calling her home. In 2013 she returned home to survey her country after a new parliament and president were installed.

Visiting the Internally Displaced Persons camps she had grown up in she began research into sexual violence and FGM.

So incensed by what she saw she set up a petition and on St Patricks' Day this year she met with the Somalian Prime Minister in Rome and told him how sexual violence needed to be prioritised and FGM should be tackled. Mr Sharmarke subsequently offered Ifrah a job.

Now, preparing to return home after nine years in Ireland, the campaigner is frightened but no less determined. "People say why go? I love Ireland, this is home for me, but I have to change hearts in Somalia and to do that, I must go home to Mogadishu."

Sunday Independent

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