June 20: World Refugee Day
Rated by The New York Times as the most important African novelist to emerge in the last 25 years, Nuruddin Farah says he was born in a time in Africa's history when the power of speech lay in the oral tradition, in people's tongues rather than in their pens.
Farah's father, a merchant, helped establish a community school in the Ogaden town of Kallafo, then under Ethiopian control, where Farah learnt to read and write. He was later sent to a Christian missionary school. His mother, a poet, had a great influence on the boy, helping him gain access to hidden, creative energies within himself.
Farah started earning money as a translator, interpreter and scribe. At the age of 11 he delivered a speech he wrote for the visit to Somalia of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. While his teachers were overwhelmed by the emperor's presence, the boy gained confidence.
He studied at the University of Panjab, India, from 1966 to 1970, taught at the Somali National University of Mogadishu and left for further studies at the University of London and the University of Essex from 1974 to 1976.
Farah's flight into exile came in 1976, after Somalia came under the rule of the autocratic Marxist, Mohammed Said Barre. While visiting Italy, Farah was warned by telephone not to return to Somalia. His novel, "A Naked Needle", was being described as treason in Mogadishu. His later work includes a trilogy titled "Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship".
Farah said then that if he couldn't return home, then he would make the rest of Africa his country. He served as associate professor at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and lectured at the Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. He also held the post of writer-in-residence at the Royal Court Theatre in London and was guest professor at universities in Africa, Europe and the United States.
Most of his novels are set in Somalia, and explore political themes. They reflect the ills of misrule in Somalia and vividly capture African politics elsewhere. In 1981, Farah gave a series of readings at a conference in Frankfurt devoted to Commonwealth writers, which caught the audience's attention with his distinctive narrative technique.
Farah has won several literary awards, including the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature (sponsored by the University of Oklahoma). His work is now the subject of study in itself, for example in Derek Wright's book, "The Novels of Nuruddin Farah".
Among his recent writing is "Yesterday, Tomorrow ", a compilation of interviews conducted with refugees, for which he travelled widely across Africa and Europe.
Batulo Mohamed Essak
Batulo Mohamed Essak found herself far from her sunny Somali home, resettled as a refugee in Lapland, yet she managed to adapt her life and skills to her new situation.
The daughter of a Somali diplomat, Essak finished school in Somalia and moved to Moscow to study nursing. When war broke out in her home country, she decided to flee to Finland. Arriving by boat in 1991, Essak was housed in the Lapinjrvi refugee camp, in the southern part of the country. There she learned Finnish so as to communicate with the local community, which stood her in good stead when she was resettled in the northern town of Kemi, in Lapland.
Initially it was not easy to adapt, and the language difficulty was only part of the problem. Essak had qualified as a midwife in Moscow, but her diploma was not valid in Finland. She decided to go back to studying to acquire Finnish qualifications. She was able to re-register as a midwife in 1995. From 1995 to 1998, she worked at the Woman's Clinic in Helsinki, where she had also done her practical training.
However, when her contract ended, Essak could not find a job in her chosen profession. So she used her language skills and began working as a freelance translator for Somalis arriving in Finland, helping them apply for unemployment and other benefits.
Essak feels she was lucky to have received an education in Somalia and in Russia. This brought her to work on a long-term project in adult education for Somali women. She provides information on health education, pregnancy, childbirth, post-natal care, women's diseases and mental health. She helps Somali women integrate in the Finnish community.
Essak has also held lectures in Finland about Somali culture. She currently works full time as a translator for Vantaa Region Community Centre, but hopes to return to work as a midwife, the job she loves.