Lion — May 2013
Change Language:
Giving Back and Going Back
Jay Copp

When Mursal Ismail Isa stares at his face in a mirror he thinks he looks older than he is. He knows that’s an odd thought: he does not actually know how old he is: 38? 39? That’s about right. The nomads he roamed with in northern Somalia as a youth once offhandedly mentioned he was born in the dry season either in 1975 or 1976. But how could they be sure?

Maybe he always looked older than he was. Maybe as a boy of 13 he looked 16. He doesn’t know. There are no photos of him, no mementos at all, of his past in Somalia.

Isa’s mother never told him his age. She died when he was young. A nomad told him once that his father was believed to be in Mogadishu in the South. Isa was fairly certain he at least had cousins in that city.

So he waved goodbye to the nomads and set off toward Mogadishu. He owned nothing but the clothes he wore. Maybe he’d find his father. Perhaps his cousins would welcome him. One thing was certain then: his journey was dangerous. A 1,200- mile journey in Somalia was and remains perilous. There is no central government, no law and order. Somalia is a failed state, one of the poorest and most violent in the world.

Day after day, Isa trudged great distances. He ate sparingly. One day he waved at a truck rumbling toward him. The truck stopped and he climbed aboard–pure luck. That was the end of his good fortune. Further down the road, gunmen waved their arms for the truck to halt. They may have been guerillas or perhaps just random bandits. Without provocation, they shot the driver and then killed a kind man Isa had befriended. Before more shots were fired, a quick-thinking passenger grabbed the wheel and the truck sped away. Isa stared ahead numbly.

Isa reached the north after 45 tense days. He located his cousins but they shrugged when he asked for help. So he traveled further to the noisy city of Mombasa and found a job as a dishwasher in a cramped kitchen. The open fields and clear skies of his nomadic days were long behind him. He worked 13 hours a day, seven days a week, for less than a dollar a day. He ate little, just enough to retain his strength, and slept with friends to save money.

Isa was not quite sure if this could actually happen but he clung to the notion that an education would deliver him from his mind-numbing drudgery. He met a kind man, a teacher, who patiently taught him English at night. Proud of his progress but stuck where he was, Isa was now the rare dishwasher in Mombasa who could read and write.

Isa never missed work, until he became violently ill. He returned to work after three days, and the owner promptly fired him. Isa was crushed–and free to pursue his future. He knew it was time to leave Somalia, time to leave Africa. He knew English. England was a land of work and opportunity. There he would make a new life for himself.

For reasons he never understood, the authorities refused to let him travel to England. But he discovered Sweden would accept him. At last, in 2003, he arrived in Sweden, somehow ending up in the very northern part, in a small town named Kiruna. Fluffy white flakes fell from the sky and landed on his ragged sneakers. He brushed off the white stuff, cold to the touch but oddly non-harmful, almost endearing.

Up and down the street, people with light skin and blonde hair went about their business. Isa crossed his arms to ward off the chill. He wore a thin raincoat over an old T-shirt and shivered uncontrollably. But inside he was smiling. Nine years ago he had left the nomads. He admired the tidy homes people lived in, their orderly lives, their businesses, churches and clubs. He was done washing dishes. He would join their society and work with his mind, not his hands.

Isa moved to Borlänge, the home of many other Somalis. Suddenly he was the one who could teach and help lift others out of a rut. He worked for an adult education group and became a go-to guy for Somalis. He took them on doctors’ appointments, talked to government officials for them and explained local customs.

Isa met a woman he liked. The two married and had children. People in Borlänge knew Isa. He earned respect as a solid citizen, different for sure and yet the same.

Part of his new identity was a fixed birthday. Swedish immigration officials had asked him his date of birth. He blurted out: Oct. 22, 1981. In Somalia, birthdays are not celebrated. It was a different story in his new homeland. Last Oct. 22 Isa opened his email and read birthday greetings from 50 friends.

Isa was settled in. But something tugged at his heart. His current life was a wonder. He turned a knob and fresh, clean water, as much as you wanted, rushed out. He believed Somalis deserved the same conveniences, the same chance at health and well being. Among his friends were members of the Borlänge Lions Club. He instinctively understood they were his best bet to reach across continents and change lives in his homeland.

Here was the problem: Somalia once had Lions clubs. But the civil disorder shattered routine social bonds. The last Lions club disbanded in 2007. Isa was undeterred. He asked around. Talk to Manoj Shah, a past international director from Kenya, he was told. Isa was confident of success. In a developed society, among a group such as Lions, good intentions and connecting with the right people resulted in progress.

Isa contacted Shah and then traveled back to northern Somalia to meet with doctors, university teachers, educated people. They were interested but puzzled. “What are Lions?” they asked. Isa told them Lions would help people help themselves. He gave them a goal: start a club to build a water well in Puntland, where children die young and an elderly person is someone who is 40. The well would serve 18,000 people. Half would come from Puntland. The other 9,000 would be nomads.

The Armo-Puntland Lions Club chartered last year with 12 men and nine women. The Borlänge Lions will support them in building a well. Lion Isa serves on his Swedish club’s committee for the water project.

Borlänge is an arts community. The club asks artists to sell their work for the club’s benefit at an annual exhibition. At Christmas, the club holds a market to raise funds. Isa volunteered at the market, part of a holiday season once unknown to him, in a town and country where he once was a stranger and for a service club he had never heard of most of his life. Residents scooped up gifts and goods, a way to brighten their holiday season, a kind of pipeline to deliver water in a distant land.

Isa finished his shift at the market and wandered out the door toward home. The snow fell on his overcoat, and he smiled.