Somali Diaspora Project returns to Minneapolis


Renowned photographer Abdi Roble and author Doug Rutledge have returned to the Twin Cities to document the Somali diaspora through pictures and stories. They have traveled the world for the past six years interviewing and photographing Somali immigrants and refugees in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Kenya. The duo released a book of photos and essays called The Somali Diaspora (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) and have founded a non-profit organization called the Somali Documentary Project, which tells the stories of Somali immigrants and refugees.

Abdi Nasir, one of the refugees, told his story at the organization’s December 4 fundraiser at the Weisman Museum in Minneapolis. The duo first met Abdi Nasir in Malta.

Nasir, who now lives in Minneapolis, told them about the smugglers who brought him to the middle of the Sahara desert and showed him a dead body. “We need more money, this guy didn’t give us any,” the smuggler threatened.

The threats and poor treatment that refugees like Nasir receive are all too common and the goal of the Somali Documentary Project is to show the great struggles and hardships these people must face to make a new life for themselves.

“Millions of Somalis are displaced and two thirds of them are invisible, that is, nobody knows where they are at; not the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission of Refugees) or any of the other refugee agencies,” says Rutledge. “We want to go track these routes and tell the stories of those who were there.”

Rutledge and Roble live in Columbus, Ohio, home to the second largest Somali community in the United States after the Twin Cities metro area. Cities like Colombus and Minneapolis are the end of the road for most refugees who sometimes have spent years in transit, enduring dire living conditions. According to the World Food Programme, more than three million people face starvation in Somalia while donor countries have cancelled aid for all 12 feeding stations in the country. As a result, the likelihood of another mass exodus is great.

Most Somali refugees who seek help outside of Somalia first arrive in either Kenya or Yemen, says Roble. The population at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is swelling, according to both Roble and Rutledge, who have seen the poor conditions first hand.

“Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world. The camp was built to hold 90,000 people and currently has 300,000 people living there,” says Rutledge. Already-limited access to amenities such as food, shelter and water is depleted more by a population that is growing every month by 6,000 new refugees, and those who are allowed to leave to resettle have dwindled to a trickle.

Across the sea in Yemen, where the other half of the Somali refugees go, the situation is worse. The people living there refer to the camps as “Al Jahima” or hell. Most refugees spend years waiting idle in the camps to leave. The few who manage to leave the camps face a harrowing journey en route to Europe or the United States.

The Somali Documentary Project has formed a partnership with the Twin Cities International School, through which Somali students are trained in photography and writing to document their own communities in Minnesota. The Twin Cities is one final destination in a long and harrowing journey through multiple countries that exploit and disregard these people along the way.

Roble and Rutledge will be in the Twin Cities until February. They hope to raise money while here to fund a trip to Yemen where they can document the beginning of the journey that many Somali immigrants and refugees will make.