Skip to main content

Somalis in Europe: Their Stories, in Words and Illustrations

Excerpt from Meet the Somalis
Excerpt from Meet the Somalis: The illustrated stories of Somalis in seven cities in Europe. This collection of illustrated stories gives voice to the Somali community. The stories were told to journalist Benjamin Dix and drawn by artist Lindsay Pollock.

For most of us, getting to know our neighbors can be a challenge. When our neighbors look different, dress different, and talk different, that challenge can get even bigger. Meet the Somalis, a collection of illustrated stories about the real-life experiences of Somalis in Europe, allows readers to do exactly that: meet one of Europe’s most diverse and growing communities. It also gives voice to the Somali community itself; each story is based on the testimonies of Somalis in Europe.

There are no accurate figures for the number of Somalis in Europe but on the whole they are among one of the continent’s largest minority groups. The UK, for example, is home to Europe’s biggest Somali community. There, the presence of Somalis dates back to 19th century, when seamen and traders arrived and some settled in the UK. In other countries in Europe—particularly in Scandinavia—though the Somali community is small in absolute numbers, their significance is much greater. In Finland, for example, the arrival of Somali asylum seekers in the early 1990s was an important event; it has been referred to as the “Somali shock,” Finland’s first experience accepting large groups of refugees. More recently in Norway, the involvement of a Norwegian Somali in the Westgate attacks in Kenya has focused disproportionate and often biased attention on the Somali community there.

Europe’s Somalis can be divided into three broad categories: people of Somali origin born in Europe; Somali refugees and asylum seekers (who came direct from Somalia as a result of the conflicts); and Somalis who migrated to a country in Europe from elsewhere in Europe, such as from Sweden to the UK.

Meet the Somalis tells the stories of 14 different Somalis in Europe. For some, like Mustafa in Malmö, just getting to Europe and away from the conflict in Somalia is enough to sustain him through the challenges he faces as a Somali in Sweden. For Baashi in Amsterdam, after his family incurred a crippling debt to have him smuggled out of Somalia and away from Al-Shabaab’s attempts to forcibly recruit him, an endless cycle of asylum applications and denials await him in the Netherlands. For second generation Somalis in Europe, life brings its own particular trials. In Oslo, Norway, Amiir’s children go on a family holiday to Somalia to meet their grandparents and cousins; the experience raises questions of identity and belonging for everyone along the way. Somali women in Europe also have their own story to tell. In Leicester, in the UK, the energy, activism, and entrepreneurship of Shamso, a lone mother of five, reverberates throughout her story.

Meet the Somalis depicts experiences many of us will never know, like fleeing a warzone with your children or, worse, leaving your loved ones behind; but more often, these stories portray the values shared amongst most of us in Europe, like the importance of family, well-being, and identity in an ever-changing world.

You can read all 14 of the illustrated stories here. Meet the Somalis accompanies a seven-city research series—Somalis in European Cities—examining the experiences of Somalis in Europe in areas such as education, housing, employment, health, political participation, and identity. The research, due to launch at the end 2013, seeks to offer a better understanding of the challenges faced by Somalis in Europe and how they can be overcome. 

Read more

Subscribe to updates about Open Society’s work around the world

By entering your email address and clicking “Submit,” you agree to receive updates from the Open Society Foundations about our work. To learn more about how we use and protect your personal data, please view our privacy policy.