Somalia – November 6 2020

The identity crisis effect on mental health in Somalia

By nature, human beings have a deep desire to know who they are to feel valued, respected and connected. People acquire identity from various sources and this forms the foundation that helps them to move forward with self-confidence.

The Somali people derive their identity and sense of belonging from the clan in which they are born. This is a strict family oriented and patriarchal society, in which children trace their ancestry only from their father’s side - women do not pass on their lineage to their children - and clan loyalty is extremely important and deeply rooted. 

Children whose fathers are unknown lack clan affiliation and are treated as outcasts in this country of 15 million people, where life is lived by the clan. Social isolation is disorienting for these children and has a considerable impact on their mental health functioning and quality of life.

Hassan Muhammed, 27, was a street boy before he found a family to give him a home at SOS Children’s Village in Somalia. His mother was unmarried when he was born; she abandoned him by the side of the road when he was five years old.

“As a street boy, I ate spoilt food or anything I could lay my hands on to survive. I was malnourished and diseased,” recalls Hassan. “My childhood in the SOS family is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I was cared for, given good healthcare, I had time to play, time to practice my religion, and I received everything I needed,” he says.

But, like many parentless children, Hassan had to wrestle with his identity as a young man in Somali society – a question that can lead later to mental and behavioural problems. 

“In Somalia, children born out of wedlock or whose fathers are unknown are branded as a bad omen,” says Noor Kulow, a social worker as SOS Children’s Villages in Somalia, whose job is to help children exposed to traumatic experiences heal from emotional and mental health challenges. “They are called bastards and outcasts and they do not have protection from any clan; most are on the streets – abandoned.”

Later in life, these children can be denied jobs and even find it harder to get married.

“The young people have big dreams and hopes but in Somalia, they need the backing of a clan to succeed in these significant next steps in their lives. The stigma and discrimination against the fatherless is so strong leading to unfair stereotyping,” says Mr Kulow.

Healing and building resilience

Children at the SOS village learn about the identity issue when they are older and able to process this sensitive topic, Mr Kulow explains.  

Questions about their family of origin usually come during their teenage years. Mr Kulow and Ali Mukhtar, an SOS youth leader, guide and counsel the teenage boys individually; girls have a female youth leader.

“We are careful not to harm their mental state when revealing their background,” says Mr Mukhtar. “We have several self-awareness counselling sessions where we impress on them that all people are equal, and with individual effort and hard work, they can rise above their background problem. How people see them is not the main issue, but how they see themselves.”

The mental health support offered by SOS Children’s Villages equips young people with the knowledge and encouragement they need to heal from their trauma and build resilience. Without support, the severity of these experiences could lead to psychological problems.

In Somalia, there is a lot of stigma around mental health. People with mental health illnesses are typically considered possessed by evil spirits, known as Jinni, and look for healing from religious or traditional healers. Seeking psychiatric care is shunned upon, preventing many people suffering mental disorder from asking for help.

Gaining his identity

Hassan says when he learnt his father was unknown, he felt “worthless and empty.”

“I had headaches and I was thinking too much. I wondered why SOS had saved my life,” he says.

Hassan could not concentrate in class. He wanted to drop out of grade nine, but Mr Mukhtar encouraged him not to give up.

“He was a slow learner with anger issues, fighting with others, beating those younger than him and he liked arguing with adults,” says Mr Mukhtar of Hassan. “Through consistent counselling, I managed to help him cope with the reality of his identity.”

As a result, Hassan’s academic performance improved and he managed to gain entry to a university in Uganda. He recently returned to Somalia to look for work after successfully completing a master’s degree in business administration specialising in accounts.

Sadly, Hassan has faced discrimination as he applied for university teaching jobs.

“I showed my credentials but they insisted to know who I am,” he says, “What they need is the name of my clan. I have worked hard. I have studied day and night, and I am qualified except for the experience. Because of ethnicity, they would rather hire an unqualified person than give me a chance to know me as a person.”

Hassan has a relationship with his biological family on his mother’s side but they do not know who his father is. He now lives with his aunt - his mother’s sister for upkeep because he does not have money or a job yet to sustain himself. He has appealed to his uncles – his mother’s brothers, many times to stand up for him but they have refused, as that is culturally unacceptable. Hassan now spends his time encouraging the children and young people at the SOS Children’s Village and answering their life questions, hoping to get a break soon.

“I have learnt that I do not need a biological mother or a father to succeed,” says Hassan. “All I need is support from someone who cares about me. My SOS family educated me, and showed me the success road to follow and that is why I am here today. I plan to gain my identity from the impact I will make in the community.

“We as young people without an identity have to do good so the community can change their perspective about us. I still become upset when people ask about my father, but I deal with that by ignoring them. I manage my life. My SOS family is my support; they are my reference as they know my history and they can speak for me. In-spite of the discrimination, Somalia is my homeland and I will not run to any other country. I will push hard until I make it.”