How the Internet Became a Home for Displaced Somalis

Somalis are one of the most displaced ethnic groups in the world, but the internet has helped them preserve their relationships and culture.

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May 12 2016, 10:00pm

Photo by Amaal Said

The largest population of Somalis in the United States lives in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, about an hour and a half from where I grew up. There are Somali enclaves in London, Toronto, Columbus, Seattle, San Diego, and Melbourne. But the place I've always felt the most at home, surrounded by other Somalis, isn't really a place at all—it's the internet.

Somalis are one of the most displaced ethnic groups in the world. Civil war ravaged the country in the early 90s, forcing people out of their homes. By 1992, there were at least 800,000 Somali refugees in nearby countries and two million more displaced internally, according to Forced Migration Online. Most of those people never moved back.

As Somalis were forging new communities across the world, the internet was becoming a household service—and for a population that was thousands of miles from their friends, relatives, and hometowns, it became a lifeline. Every kid with Somali immigrant parents can tell you about their mothers using PalTalk, an early chat service, to hear friends describe their new lives in new cities and compare advice about how to raise their kids in a western society. As Somalis settled in foreign cities and grappled with the possibility of losing their sense of identity and culture, social media was like an extension of the motherland, connecting millions of Somalis to one another.

For those of us who grew up online, in countries outside of Somalia, the internet is as much a part of our culture as our ethnic identity. On Vine, you can find Somalis connecting to each other with tags like #SomaliVine. On Twitter and Tumblr, all one has to do is look through the tags #Somali and #Somalia to see Somalis posting news, bickering about politics, and telling jokes. Sometimes, the content doesn't even have anything to do with Somalia; it's just a way of saying, "We're here, and so are you."

One of the most popular online spaces for younger Somalis is Snapchat, where accounts like SomaliTV and MY252 show Somalis from around the world asking and answering each others' questions, telling stories, and showing off their daily lives. Flipping through the videos, you can hear different dialects, see different fashion choices, and glimpse into the drastically different lifestyles of Somalis in different cities. We all live different lives, and the videos offer a glimpse into what life would've been if our parents had fled to a different country.

When the people who share your cultural background are spread so far apart, the internet becomes an important place to express solidarity. Somalis have used Twitter to analyze and critique racism and Islamophobia; we've contributed to the #BlackLivesMatter conversation, we've raised awareness about the #SomaliaDrought, and we've rallied behind #SomaliXishood (xishood means "shyness") to critique the expectations for Somali women to be docile and quiet. Last year, after an academic journal on Somalia was found to have no Somalis involved, Somalis used the hashtag #CadaanStudies (meaning, "white studies") to challenge the way academia erases black voices.

Being Somali and in the West means dealing with Islamophobia, anti-blackness, and xenophobia. It's not easy to be black or Muslim in the United States, or many other western countries. But online, there's a space for us to deal with our own cultural trauma, while celebrating the complexities of our own identities.

Like many cultures, Somalis have historically passed along traditions and stories through word of mouth. Today, older Somalis still gather around to tell jokes and stories or listen to well-known Somali poets, like Warsan Shire, read her poems. But for younger generations, we find that sense of belonging and cultural identity on social media. It's not a homogenous identity, and we're still learning to parse the complicated meaning of home. But we're doing it together.

Follow Najma Sharif on Twitter.

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