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Journalist who fled Somalia hasn't given up hope for country

Abdulkarim Jimale is a sophomore at Marquette University, studying international relations and journalism.

Journal Sentinel Online
Tuesday, August 07, 2012

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A boyhood friend-turned-militia fighter told him to leave the country or face death.

He knew this was no idle threat, not in a place like Somalia, in the Horn of Africa. He had lived through the unraveling of a society, some of his relatives murdered during years of civil war and anarchy. As a local journalist working for an Arab-based news channel, he had covered the fighting.

So, he fled Somalia with $250 in his pocket, a bottle of water and a pack of crackers, making his way hundreds of miles by bus and by foot to safety in Kenya.

It was 2008. He was 18 years old.

Now, Abdulkarim Jimale sits inside Marquette University's Alumni Memorial Union and tells his story.

He's a college sophomore, studying international relations and journalism. Small and lean (as a child, he was malnourished), Jimale wears glasses and speaks in a voice that is soft, level and sure. It's Ramadan, and Jimale, a Muslim, is fasting.

"Yes, of course, it's really hard to live alone in a foreign land," he says.

He misses friends and family in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.

Playing soccer in Milwaukee reminds him of being home. Here, he can play on soft grass fields. In Mogadishu, he and his friends played on an airport tarmac near the sea.

"It was just deserted," he says of the airport. "We had no idea who destroyed it, why it was destroyed. We were just innocent at that time."

In 1991, the collapse of Somalia's governing regime ushered in an era of chaos, with clans fighting for territory and power. The violence that engulfed the country became part of Jimale's everyday life. Ask him if people were killed in his neighborhood and Jimale says it is like asking "if you have coffee shop on the corner."

Guns were everywhere, he says.

Through it all, he tried to carve out as normal a life as possible. He attended school, walking an hour each way from his home. He learned how to operate and service computers. At 16, he got a job fixing computers for the Arab broadcaster Al Arabiya.

Soon, his journalism career blossomed. He learned to operate a video camera and went out on stories.

"Every day there is a war," he says. "You have to go to the front line. For us, it was normal. For the guy from Dubai or the other Arabs, it was really scary."

In Somalia, journalists are targets. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 42 journalists have been killed in Somalia since 1992.

Jimale says militias from all sides tried to recruit him to their causes, including al-Shabab, a militant Islamist group with ties to al-Qaida.

"They started threatening us," Jimale says.

In March 2008, he was in the central part of the country on a story when he received a phone call from a childhood friend who had become a fighter. The message was chilling: "You have to leave the country or we're going to kill you," the friend said.

"No one can save you from these people," Jimale says.

He fled. It took him four agonizing days to reach Kenya. He used $250 he was given by friends to pay a broker to get him from the border to Nairobi.

"When you reach Kenya, that is the time when you feel safe," he says.

In Kenya, he got a job working in a market. He also completed a yearlong English language program and enrolled at the East Africa School of Media Studies. He worked with several media outlets - including the Somali National Post newspaper and Islamonline.net, and also reported on the growing number of Somalis living in Kenya.

His stories included interviews with a Somali pirate and a child soldier.

Through his reporting, he met Michael Ranneberger, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, and was connected to a U.S. State Department leadership program for journalists in Washington, D.C.

He came to the United States in 2010 and was amazed by what he saw and experienced. During an interview with the BBC, he expressed his admiration for America. Word of the interview filtered back to Somalia and he received threats via email and phone.

Panicked, Jimale traveled to Detroit and tried to get to Canada to seek asylum. He was turned back by Canadian authorities, detained by the U.S. and sent to the Calhoun County jail in Battle Creek, Mich.

It was there that his case came to the attention of David Koelsch, director of the immigration law clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Koelsch met with Jimale, verified his identity and story, and worked to gain him asylum. Two months after Jimale was detained, his asylum application was granted and he was released in January 2011.

"For me, I kind of derive a lot of hope from this guy," Koelsch says. "Here is a young man from probably one of the worst countries on the face of the earth and he's doing things, not to better himself, but for the future of Somalia. He sees a way that if he can shed the light on what is happening over there it will make the situation better."

Hearing that Jimale had a cousin in Milwaukee, Koelsch made a quick connection. He called Marquette and helped arrange for Jimale to enroll in the school.

His first weeks in classes were difficult, Jimale says. But he has grown accustomed to the style of study at an American university and says he feels very welcome at a Catholic Jesuit institution.

Jimale says he hopes to "become a bridge between the Christians and Muslims, the Somalis and the West."

After graduation, he wants to return to Somalia to open a radio station so that he can reach people through the media, helping build a strong country.

As he speaks, high school students are touring Marquette's campus. He is asked what he would tell those students about the college.

"It's a great place to change your life," he says. "I didn't have a hope to go to a school like this before I came to Milwaukee and America. At least they can make your dreams and give you hope."

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