The beauty of comics is their accessibility. People of all ages and backgrounds, education and language can share stories told through pictures. In the past 20 years, comics have become an increasingly popular medium for telling real-life political and journalistic narratives. Maus by Art Spiegelman, Palestine by Joe Sacco, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi are a few of the most well-known examples.
Those books have engaged thousands of readers with themes of conflict and oppression, crossing cultural barriers in a way that academic writing or prose journalism sometimes fail to achieve. Comics are particularly good at stimulating empathy, keeping a reader’s attention even when the topics seem far removed from their own life.
The 14 stories in Meet the Somalis were adapted from first-person testimonies of Somalis living in the European diaspora. The aim was to introduce readers to real individuals from the under-represented (and frequently misrepresented) Somali community.
Artist Lindsay Pollock and I traveled to seven European cities: London, Leicester, Amsterdam, Oslo, Malmö, Copenhagen, and Helsinki. We collaborated with the academics and researchers producing an Open Society report series (forthcoming in late 2013) examining the experiences of Somalis in Europe in areas such as education, housing, employment, health, political participation, and identity.
We met individuals and families from the Somali community—young, old, comfortable and poor, more and less religious, first and second generation, and some who had only recently arrived. We visited their homes, cafés, or places of work and listened to their disparate stories. We asked three questions:
- What was life like in Somalia before you left? How and why did you leave?
- How was the “settling in” phase of life in Europe?
- What is your present-day life like, as a Somali living in this European city?
The process was intimate, human, and frequently quite moving. It was this intimacy that we hoped to carry into the comics: the sense of passing through closed doors, into homes and lives not usually visible to us. To meet people directly who are more frequently encountered through the prism of newspapers, propaganda, or prejudice.
The contributors, knowing that their testimonies would be rendered anonymous in the comics, were kind, candid, and open with us. They expressed fears, sorrows, and frustrations but the people we met were almost uniformly optimistic and engaged—working hard to earn themselves a good life and to take a useful place in wider society.
The material we gathered were adapted into scripts—all true stories, sentiments and opinions expressed by the real-life subjects. Feedback from Somali friends was invaluable in helping us shape the humor and cultural subtleties often missed in research. Inevitably, not being Somali ourselves, there will be errors of nuance or detail in the work. But thanks to the openness, patience, and help of the Somalis we met, we hope that the stories are fundamentally accurate and illuminating.
Following comments and feedback, Lindsay put ink to paper. Referring to photographs we had taken during fieldwork of respondents, places, homes and cafes, he tried to present the world with some verisimilitude.
There is a theory in cartooning that anybody can look at a simple smiley face—two dot-eyes and a line mouth—and see themselves. Our characters are drawn not especially realistically but simply, to invite the reader into the world of the Somali diaspora and perhaps see themselves. In families, just like their own. In mums, dads, men, women and kids, just like themselves.
The focus of the stories may be Somali, but so many of the issues raised affect the wider communities and highlight issues of immigration, identity, memory, and acceptance in Europe. We hope that they also engage us to think about our shared values of love of family, importance of education, and a sense of home.
When people don’t know each other, this is what creates fear, discrimination, and racism. The more people know each other and understand each other’s background, the less fear there is and the less discrimination. It’s important for our society to understand why the Somalis are here, and what kind of experiences they have lived through in Somalia and in the European cities to which they came.
I am the founder and head of the Somali Development Services in Leicester and one of the researchers for the forthcoming report Somalis in Leicester, part of the “Somalis in European Cities” research series by the At Home in Europe project. When Benjamin and Lindsay visited Leicester, I connected them with people in the community who could tell them their stories. Based on the research findings, I was able to tell Benjamin and Lindsay to think about particular issues that we had identified as important for Somalis in Leicester, like housing for example.
Though Shamso [narrator of one of the Leicester stories] never mentions it, you can see it’s a struggle for her to care for her family in her small house. Another important finding involves the resilience and entrepreneurship of Somali women—this comes across in Shamso’s story. The sense of community among Somalis in Leicester is vital—as we can see in Musta’s story—and so is the relationship they maintain with their homeland in Somalia.
I left Somalia in 1990 when the civil war started. My journey was similar to that of many people in “Meet the Somalis.” I came to Holland as an asylum seeker and was recognized officially as a refugee there. Like Shamso and Musta, I had lots to juggle raising my children and finding my own position in Dutch society.
In Somalia, I had studied languages and literature and had been a journalist with Radio Mogadishu, but when I came to Holland I had to start from zero again. I studied social work and the Dutch language and became a social worker.
I have been in Leicester 13 years. Although I had settled in Holland and started a new career and a new life and a new language, when I came to Leicester, it was again starting from zero. I had to set up again, help my children to settle and find new employment opportunities.
Initially I felt that you have to keep proving yourself, but now I feel like I’m home in Leicester. I feel like I have been living here forever. Leicester has a unique way of supporting new arrivals, a way of welcoming them—not just the local authority, which has a welcoming and inclusive policy and which recognizes the diversity of our society, but also the ordinary people of Leicester.
I hope these stories can make a difference in helping people understand the experiences of the Somali community.