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"Unrecognized"

What if teens living the world's invisible spaces could join their peers in the global community

"Inclusion elevates us all."
-Elaine Hall
Gulf of Aden
The Gulf of Aden on the coast of Somaliland
Lazily scrolling through my news feed last summer during a rare moment of hammock-lounging downtime, a curious headline caught my attention. Something about the president of Somalia wanting to develop their tourism business to help boost their economy. I confess, I had little knowledge of Somalia, but the words “Somalia” and “tourism” somehow seemed incongruent.

Somalia and civil war? Congruent.

Somalia and al-Shabab? Congruent.

Somalia and refugees, pirates, drought? All congruent.

But Somalia and tourism? Incongruent.

Closer scrutiny, however, revealed the article wasn’t about Somalia at all. Correction: Somaliland.

Somaliland? A Disney-esque theme park outside Mogadishu, perhaps? A cultural exhibit at a Festival of Nations event?
Walking through the streets of Somaliland
Street scene of Hargeisa, Somaliland
According to Google, Somaliland is a country located in the northwest corner of the Horn of Africa. After breaking away from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland formed its own nation with a well-functioning democratic government, military, police force, and even currency. Throughout the continent, Somaliland is noted for its peaceful atmosphere and stability, but remains formally unrecognized by the rest of the international community. With its natural desert beauty, white sandy beaches along the Gulf of Aden, ancient caves filled with 7,000 year old Neolithic art, friendly people, and an overall chill environment (if desert heat is your thing), other than being located near one of the most volatile regions on the planet and, of course, being totally unheard of, Somaliland has everything a budding tourism industry needed.

I swung out of my hammock. Adventure was calling.

By August, my plane was touching down in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. My GSD travel partner, Andy, and I were met by our friendly, English-speaking guide, Bedri, for a week of blazing across deserts in our land cruiser, climbing through the ancient caves of Las Geel, collecting shells along the beaches of Berbera, buying exotic fabrics in the markets, eating goat curry on the patio of our luxury hotel, petting camels, and more. It was an adventure that would send Indiana Jones into a jealous fit.
Looking out into desert
Looking out from the Las Geel caves
Cave paintings in Somaliland
Cave paintings at Las Geel
The highlight, however, was a serendipitous visit to the Abaarso School— a private boarding school for Somaliland’s best and brightest. We spent an hour chatting candidly with adorable girls Amira and Nimco, and awesome guys Abdisalam and Abdiqani. These kids were bright, funny, and so cool. They spoke perfect English, and shared their thoughts on everything from which countries they were following in the summer Olympic Games in Rio, to the latest episode of Game of Thrones, to the nail-biting drama of the Trump vs. Hillary US presidential election.

Like teens everywhere, they had all the latest social media apps on their smartphones— but what struck me was, despite being so informationally connected to everything going on internationally, they were unrecognized by the rest of the world. Unrecognized teens living in a country nobody knows about, in a corner of the world that nobody really thinks about (unless it’s something bad being reported).

I wondered what it must have felt like to be one of these brilliant kids watching the world from their TVs and devices with all they have to offer— yet unable to participate. How can this generation of future leaders contribute to the world if they are not included?

These questions catapulted us on another spontaneous adventure as the four teens toured us around Hargeisa, introducing us to important and interesting sights. From shopping centers, hospitals, and national monuments, to arcades, amusement parks, and ice cream parlors, it was part Somaliland tourism commercial, part digital “message in a bottle.” A shout out to the rest of the world, proclaiming: Hey! We are here! We are fun! Notice us!
Abaarso students playing together
The four Abaarso students at the park
After I returned to the US, I stitched together a little music video of our adventure, threw it up on YouTube, and emailed it to the teens. They forwarded it to everyone they knew, and over the following weeks we watched in anticipation as the view counter climbed. Would it go viral, we wondered? Would there be comments back from kids on the other side of the world who saw their “message in the bottle” and were excited to include them in their lives somehow?

Unfortunately, the video stalled out around 200 views— reaching the extent of their networks— but we will keep trying. The rest of the world needs these kids to join them. It won’t be a party until they get there.
Welcome to Somaliland tourism commercial
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Dina petting camel in Somaliland
By Dina Fesler
Listen to podcast
Listen to Podcast episode: "Unrecognized"
Operative responses page
GSD Operative Daisyblog paperclip
GSD Operative Daisy
Last year, I was admitted into the National Junior Honor Society. Each student-member needed 50 service hours in order to maintain membership. Fast forward 8 months, a ceremony was held to share what everyone did to earn those hours. I learned the most common way of earning hours was by going to Feed My Starving Children events. I didn't know much about these events, but this summer when I heard a Feed My Starving Children event was happening in my area, I decided to check it out.

The goal of the event was to send food to families in Somalia who were suffering from a drought and famine. I wanted to understand more, so before the event I did some research. I learned that the famine had mainly hit the entire horn of Africa where poor, rural, families depended on their own subsistence farms for food. Because of drought, they are starving, but because the country is considered a failed state struggling with civil war, terrorism, and corruption, they have little else to build their lives on.

When I first showed up at the event, the leaders rallied us all up and praised us for being there. Then they showed us how to bag the food and where our stations were. Then they cranked the boom boxes, and we got to work. It was so easy, just put the vitamins, dried fruit, soy, and rice into a bag, and presto! It was also fun, with your fishnet hair things and the upbeat music. By the end, they showed us where the food went, and what it did.

But I couldn’t help but wonder, what happened when the food was gone within 2 days?  I wondered how the Somali teens receiving the food felt. Were they grateful? Satisfied? Curious? Did they know where the food came from? Did they feel helpless because they couldn’t take care of themselves?  Do they feel a sense of degradation being dependent on strangers in another country?

I also wondered what other American teens at the event thought. Did they understand the root cause of why things are the way they are— beyond feeling like heroes for simply packing food?  Did they realize that this event is nothing more than a short-term solution and that we need to do more than just give them food to really help them?  Did they even want to know?

Here in America, we attend events like Feed My Starving Children wanting to feel a part of something important, and to feel good about ourselves for helping others. But often we leave with innocent ignorance. Our society has allowed children and teens to feel that simply packing food for poor people is enough. That once the food is sent away, all the problems are solved. But that's not true. Sure, the food will keep these children alive, but don't they need nourishment for their minds too? Don't they need something to feel proud of, and to feel like heroes too?

When I learned about these brilliant teens in Somaliland, I realized they not only have the potential to change themselves, but the future of their communities as well. If they were able to participate with the rest of the world, they would be the most capable people to create longer lasting solutions in that part of the world. They would  be able to help lead the way to a new future in that region that could someday put Feed My Starving Children out of business (in a good way).

But if they are excluded from the rest of the world, the cycles will continue. A cycle of ignorance among American teens. A cycle of poverty, hunger, and starvation of the mind and body of these Somali teens as well.
World map