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Somali Canadian caught in Kenya led charmed life

The Globe and Mail
August 14, 2009

For a Somali, Suaad Hagi Mohamud – the young woman who has spent nearly three months stranded in Kenya because of false accusations of passport fraud – has led a preternaturally peaceful life. With a mild-mannered optimism and more than a few happy turns of fate, she managed to slip past the famines and wars that would destroy so many of her generation.

Now, she's about to return to the sort of uneventful life she has led for the most part. She's been told to have her bags packed by FRIDAY evening, when Canadian officials are to pick her up for an expected flight back to Canada.

In spite of her recent troubles, Ms. Mohamud's outlook is sunny.

“I have so many happy memories,” she said this week.

At 18, she married the man her family had chosen for her – the son of friends in Somalia, and a Canadian citizen. While many of her generation languished for years in refugee camps in Kenya hoping for asylum in the West, Mohamud moved without incident to Toronto, where her home still is, and where she worked at a courier warehouse by night and showered attention on her 12-year-old son by day.

But her luck changed for the worse on May 21. She was checking in for a flight home after a two week visit to her mother in Kenya, when an airport official accused her of posing as the owner of the passport she carried. The Canadian High Commission in Nairobi agreed that Mohamud was an imposter and destroyed her passport, sending her into the netherworld of undocumented status in a country thousands of miles from her home in Toronto.

Over the following months, she would log long hours in meetings with immigrations officials, sleeping in shabby hotels, a detention cell, and, when the High Commission refused to issue her with valid travel papers, in a Nairobi courtroom, where she was charged with carrying false documents and travelling illegally in Kenya.

A month into her ordeal, awaiting trial, Mohamud found herself living alongside convicted felons, in a notorious Nairobi prison. Her stubborn optimism broke.

“I had one big question: What the hell am I doing here?” she said.

Indeed, up until May, Mohamud's life had been a sort of study in dodging drama.

Growing up in the sun-blanched seaside city of Mogadishu in the 1980's, she spent weekends on her businessman fathers' 5,000 acre ranch in Afgooye, playing tennis, frolicking in the family pool and pleasure boating on the Shabelle River.

“It was a heyday for Somalia,” Mohamud said. “It was a great [time] to remember. Whenever school closed, Dad took us to the farm.” Ms. Mohamud dreamed of becoming a fashion designer.

But those days were destined to end. As rifts opened between clans, and young men began to arm themselves in the lead up to a brutal civil war, her family, which had contacts in the government of Mohamed Siad Barre, was able to flee Somalia. Then, war tipped the country into the stateless violence, and hundreds of thousands of refugees ended up in violent, cholera-plagued camps that eventually covered Afgooye.

Her family settled in various places around the Horn of Africa. It's a region that conjures images of drought, famine and war for many people, but has left only the happiest impressions on Mohamud.

In the scorching desert of Djibouti, she remembers trips to the beach. “Everywhere you go, the sea is close.”

When her parents arranged her marriage to a Somalian who had emigrated to Canada, Mohamud took it in stride. She had dreamed of living in Canada.

“Even when I was a little girl, I fell in love with Canada,” she said. “Whenever I would see the flag, deep inside I was having the feeling one day I will go there.”

In Toronto, she took a sewing course and beautician training. In 2006, she got the warehouse job she has today. She still dreams about going to school for fashion design but she's hardly bitter.

“I'm doing well.”

Mohamud didn't want to discuss the possibility of legal action against the Canadian government.

“To be honest, I don't want to talk about that,” she said. “I hope that Canada does not treat people the way they treated me. I believed we were all equal. I wish I knew why they did it. I wouldn't have to keep asking myself.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said THURSday the federal government will get to the bottom of why Ms. Mohamud ended up stranded in Kenya.

“Our first priority as a government is obviously to see her get on a flight back to Canada,” he said. ”I think our officials and agencies are working hard to resolve what is not an easy case.”

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