“Europeans have no idea how powerful a passport is”
Fri, 17/11/2017 - 12:40
We spoke to Kim Abdi, a Somalian refugee and independent expert in transgender refugees and international protection.
Farah Abdullahi Abdi (Beledweyne, Somalia, 1995) arrived in Malta from Kenya in 2012 after travelling for nine months through Uganda, South Sudan, Libya and the Mediterranean. He was just 16 and struggled to survive the tough journey and the human traffickers. The account of what happened to this young man and the reasons which drove him to leave his family behind are explained in the book Never Arrive, published in 2014, with 20% of sales money going to help the refugee community in Malta.
Hardship made him grow up, writing helped him get over his traumas and reaching Europe has allowed him to be free, feel safe and go through the gender transition process. Farah is now Kim, a 23 year old woman living in Berlin with her partner and fighting for the dignity of migrants and the rights of children who, like her, flee in search of safety. She says she’s lucky, and in fact what she’s been through in the last five years has a fairy tale feel to it: she had a blog in the newspaper Malta Today and now writes for the Telegraph; Forbes has listed her as one of the most influential people under 30 in Europe, and she has won a couple of awards, one of them promoted by the Queen of England. “When I met her, in 2016, I thought: ‘Just four years ago I was in a little boat crossing the Mediterranean and now I’m in Buckingham Palace! Am, I dreaming?’”.
In order to be who she wanted and be at peace with herself, she had to leave behind her mother, who she has a complex relationship with and is often in touch with. “I love her with all my heart, whether she accepts me or not. I think she’s the most incredible woman in the world, powerful and very strong”, she affirms. Kim has been fortunate enough to find two adoptive figures along the way, who protect her as her mother did when she let her go: the European Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and the President of Malta, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca. She tells us about it in the office of the Associació Acathi, during a stay in Barcelona to attend a working meeting on child and LGBTI refugees, organised by Asil.cat.
In your Malta Today blog you denounced how if you’d had a visa it would have cost you just over 400 euros to fly to London. In contrast…
It’s very complicated. When you come from Somalia, a country without a government, and which has been in crisis for the last 27 years, you haven’t got a passport which is recognised. It’s impossible to get a visa, it’s impossible to fly to Europe, because all the countries are afraid if we go we’ll request asylum. It’s not like having a Spanish and European passport and going wherever you want. For us, it means a really tough journey, to get out of danger. A simple document can change a life, and many people in Europe don’t know how important it is to have it. I travel a lot now. I still haven’t got European citizenship, but I have a travel document for refugees from Malta and every time I go to the airport I look at the Europeans with their passports and I think: “They have no idea how powerful that document is!”.
And I imagine you had the 400 euros to travel.
I spent 12,000 euros on a nine month journey of suffering, which included being put in prison and not knowing if I would die. I spent 12,000 euros when I could have spent 400 and gone by plane easily and landed in London eight hours later.
“In Kenya I had everything I wanted, I didn’t leave for money, I left to be happy”
You speak a lot about your mother in your writing. You were just 16, but she let you leave.
She let me leave because I was really unhappy, I was slowly perishing, because it’s really difficult to be transgender, gay, LGBTI in Kenya, Somalia, Africa, and even in some European countries. I was slowly dying. Many people in Europe think that if we come here it’s to take their jobs and their money from them. I didn’t leave for money, in Kenya I had everything I wanted, I left to be happy. I was slowly dying in a safe home, surrounded by my family, even though they couldn’t understand my pain and I couldn’t explain it to them.
Couldn’t you have waited till you were older?
I wanted to leave when I was 12! I said it at the time and my mother didn’t let me. She told me: “You’re crazy! I still don’t let you go to school on your own, when you’re two stops from home, and you want to cross six countries and the sea!” But four years later, when I was 16, I felt the same and wanted to leave. She didn’t understand at that point why I was leaving. But she saw the sadness in my gaze, because I was really, truly, depressed.
Did she help you?
Yes, with money. Obviously I didn’t have any. She was the one who helped me.
Were you aware the journey would be as tough as it was?
I expected it to be difficult, but…. It’s like when somebody close to you has cancer. You can understand them, you can feel sorry for them, you can help them but really you have no idea how they feel and what they must be going through. So when I started the journey I knew it would be tough, that it could be difficult, but you don’t discover how tough until you go through it. It’s really very difficult.
Did it frighten you?
I was scared at times, but looking at it now in perspective I realise when you’re only thinking about surviving each day, fear is the last thing on your mind. You just think about surviving: How will I manage today? Will I be alive tomorrow? Things happen so quickly! You have to move from one place to another, you have to hide, you have to get in a lorry, you have to pay this or that, it’s all so fast that you haven’t got time to think of feel anything.
What did you learn from it?
Now, when I look back, I think it was the worst thing that can happen to you, because you shouldn’t have to go through that when you’re 16. A 16 year old boy should have a chance to live his childhood, to go to school, to be loved and be free to do anything. But if it hadn’t been for that journey, I wouldn’t be the responsible adult I am today. I’m 23, but it’s as if I was 40.
What was it like arriving?
I got to Europe when I was nearly 17 and it wasn’t like getting here and feeling safe, like at home, with someone to protect you. In many European countries, even the Nordic countries, when you turn 18 you stop having children’s privileges. An 18 year old European can still live with their parents, can study and go to university, and save and become independent at 24 or 25. But when we turn 18 we leave the system and have to pay rent, electricity, water, clothing, transport, as if we were already adults. I mean even in Europe you have to grow up fast, there’s nobody to help you and you have to be really responsible. Other youngsters the same age are saving to buy the next iPhone and pay for their holidays and you’re thinking you have to work. In Malta I had three jobs: I worked washing dishes, as an interpreter and translator for the government at asylum interviews, and cleaning houses, all to get enough money to live safely, in my own flat. It was really difficult, but at the same time it made me strong and independent.
You’re very positive…
Not always. Of course, I’m a human being and there are days when I wonder how I’ll get through, but in a life like this you can’t have too many off days. You complain today but tomorrow you’ve got to get up, have a shower, go to work and carry on the fight.
You wrote that your slogan is: “Work hard and dream big”
That’s right. With my book, my blog, my trips, I wanted to show Europe and the world that refugees are not useless. I wanted to show that we’re human beings, who can integrate, who can work hard and contribute. I started paying taxes three months after reaching Malta, so I was already contributing to the country and not taking away from it. After everything I’ve done I don’t feel I have to prove anything to anyone anymore. This is my life and I live it how I want to. If they accept me, perfect, if not, it doesn’t bother me at all.
“Europe is not paradise, especially if you are black, especially if you are a refugee, specially if you are transgender, especially if you are muslim”
Is Europe like you expected?
No. It’s not paradise, especially if you are black, especially if you are a refugee, specially if you are transgender, especially if you are muslim.
Was the journey from Farah to Kim difficult?
The transition, not really. I think in Europe it’s more acceptable to be a transgender woman than a black woman. That’s especially so in Malta. There’s a lot of racism there. They tell you they accept you as a trans person, no problem, that country accepts LGBTI people, but you’re black and so you shouldn’t write a book, you shouldn’t have a blog, you should be cleaning, working in restaurants, collecting the rubbish, they’re the jobs which correspond to you. I couldn’t take it anymore and I moved to Berlin. I was fed up with it. In Somalia and Kenya it made me mad that people didn’t accept me as LGBTI. In Malta people accepted me as LGBTI but didn’t accept my skin colour. I went from one extreme to the other.
Have you suffered discrimination for being Muslim?
I don’t wear the hijab but sometimes I put it on. I got to Berlin last December, two days after the attack in Charlottenburg [the truck attack which caused 12 dead at a Christmas market in the district in Berlin on 21 December 2016]. I hadn’t been to the hairdresser’s and my hair was not very tidy, and as I had an appointment I put it on. I was waiting for the metro when a woman came up to me and started shouting I had to go back to my country. In five minutes there were at least ten people around the woman telling her they’d call the police if she didn’t shut up. They made her leave. The difference between Germany and Malta is that if anything like that happened to me in Malta, ten others would join in and shout at me to leave.
Is that a Maltese issue, or do you think it applies around Europe?
I think it happens in other places, but less. It even happens in Berlin, but in certain areas, and I don’t go there. In a big city you can live where you want, and I feel at home in Berlin, I feel very loved and supported by people. But if you live on a small island or in a small village, wherever it is, there’s nowhere to run to.
Have you been able to get over all of your traumas?
Over the four years I was in Malta I had therapy. There’s racism in Malta but if you want support, you’ve got it, and I had a lot, I had psychologists, I was able to do lots of things and to write a book with the help of the government, and I’m very grateful for that. But I was living with racism every day and I knew Malta wasn’t the place for me. I worked really hard to save up and to leave. I’ve been in Berlin for a year now and it’s been the best experience of my life. I’ve started the physical transition and in Germany I have insurance, hormones, a doctor and free therapy. I have all the support I need to make the transition safely, at an emotional, mental and physical level.
“For me, feminism means make-up and hairdos, high heels and doing my nails, and I thoroughly enjoy it”
How does being a woman make you feel?
I love being a woman! Today I went to Sephora, the big make-up shop, because there isn’t one in Berlin, and I just went wild. Being a woman means different things for different people. I hated myself for being feminine because I thought if I was too feminine I wasn’t a feminist, because being feminist means standing up for women’s rights, being like men, being really strong. But my teacher in Malta told me nobody can define what feminism is. For me, feminism means make-up and hairdos, high heels and doing my nails, and I thoroughly enjoy it. It fascinates me to go and buy make-up or bras. I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. It’s beautiful being a woman!
You chose your name. Why Kim?
Because of Kim Kardashian. She’s my idol! I’ve been very feminine from a very young age, it’s not the hormones that have made me like that. I had a big bum and the truth is having a big bum as a kid was very difficult. I hated my body and prayed to God to make it smaller, but now it’s the best thing that’s happened to me. A similar thing has happened with Kim, and she likes the same things as me, make-up, hairdos… I still haven’t met her. I might meet President Obama next year and I’ll ask him to put me in touch with her.
Looking at it in perspective, would you do the same thing again?
Even the nine months travelling to Europe?
I wouldn’t change a thing, because everything I went through taught me what I have now. Now I appreciate it ten times more. I give thanks to God, or whoever, for having blessed me. In Germany I’ve found the love of my life. I left Kenya because I wanted to be free, to feel safe and happy, and because I wanted to find the love of my life. And I’ve done it all.