Wartorn Somalia has been called the most dangerous place on the planet.
Yet Zahra Mustaf has left her comfortable life in Melbourne to return to Mogadishu where she runs an architecture business, writes Geoff Winestock.
Zahra Mustaf is sitting tapping on a computer in a cafe? in the
leafy Melbourne suburb of Ivanhoe. She is wearing a veil over her hair but her forearms are uncovered. She looks like a fashionable Australian Muslim. As we talk, she says she has some upsetting news from Mogadishu, where she has been living for the past year and where her two children are. The al Qaedalinked terrorist group alShabab had just let off another bomb, this one in the Hotel Maka, popular with government officials. It killed three people. Mustaf says she spoke by Skype to a friend who had a narrow escape. “She was going to meet someone there. She said she was on her way when the bomb went off and she came back. I guess they attacked the hotel because they were looking for certain people. It was very sad.”
Yet a few days after we speak, Mustaf flies back to Mogadishu where she is running a thriving architecture practice called Yaglel Design+Build. She hopes to take advantage of the improving political situation in Somalia. She is one of a small but growing trickle of business people among the 2 millionstrong Somali diaspora who are returning to rebuild their country. Despite the bombings and other terrorist activity, Somalia has its best chance of stability in two decades.
Anyone who has seen the film Black Hawk Down about dead US marines being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, or Captain Phillips, the Tom Hanks film about Somali pirates, or followed the alShabab attacks in September in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, will think Mustaf is crazy for giving up a job as an architect with a respectable suburban Melbourne firm and heading to Somalia instead. Indeed, there are plenty of fellow Somali who think she is crazy for going back. A recent book on the country by James Fergusson was titled The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia.
But Mustaf sees small signs of improvement around her every day: “One simple thing is that it used to be dark. Now there is a law that every household have a light outside. I remember how happy I was after walking from my mum’s house to the shops by myself at 9pm. A friend called me and told me that he took almost a twokilometre walk at night. This is people testing the water, saying ‘let us do this’.”
After coffee in Ivanhoe, Mustaf invites me for lunch at the Bell
Street Mall at Heidelberg West, the centre of Melbourne’s small but tightknit Somali community. By chance we bump into Hussein Nur Haraco, president of the Somali Australian Council of Victoria, who had helped me arrange the meeting. He had been reluctant to talk initially; when I rang it happened to be the week of the Kenyan mall massacres and he thought I was writing a story about Somali Australians going to Somalia to fight for alShabab. He was surprised when I told him I wanted to talk to him about someone going back to Somalia to work in architecture.
As the three of us chat, Nur Haraco says he could not understand why Zahra was going back to Somalia to start a
business. “I am a businessman and I like to take risks but not that kind of risk,” he says.
Mustaf’s story is indeed a complicated one. She was eight years old in 1991 when the regime of leftist strongman Siad Barre collapsed and Somalia’s troubles began. Her father was a lawyer who worked for education NGOs, her mother an English teacher. Mustaf remembers the gunfire and being smuggled away to her grandmother’s house in a safer part of Mogadishu. Her mother was almost kidnapped by a clan militia. But after a 10day escape across numerous front lines, camping under the stars with hyenas cackling and lions roaring in the distance, she found relative sanctuary at her middleclass parent’s country house in an inland town.
The 30yearold’s clearest memories are of swimming in a river, exploring an orchard and the time that armed militia came to the house looking for some young men from another clan; their mother had allowed them to take shelter. She remembers her mother telling the militia there was no need to search the house. Luckily, they didn’t.
The battle between family and regionbased clans and warlords still haunts Mustaf. She will not divulge which clan she comes from because she says it would make it impossible to run a business if the wrong people found out.
The violence ebbed and flowed and in 2001 she met a Somali Australian visiting Mogadishu; she married him and moved to Cairo. She had a child and applied to the Australian consulate for a visa, arriving in Melbourne in 2004. She had a second child, studied English and completed an advanced diploma in design and construction at North Melbourne Institute of Technology. She became Australian. Her kids became fanatical AFL fans. She has photos of a proud moment when her son’s youth club Ivanhoe Juniors played the half time game at the MCG.
Meanwhile this was the darkest time for Somalia. Neighbouring Ethiopia invaded to seize territory and fight the Union of Islamic Courts, a group that ran much of the country. The resulting war destroyed any vestige of organised government and left the door open for alShabab (“the youth”). They swept across Somalia and seized much of Mogadishu, where Mustaf’s parents were still living.
“There were times when I gave up hope of going back and things [getting] better,” says Mustaf. She urged her parents to leave but they refused because they wanted to stay with her grandparents. Later she heard the harrowing details of how they managed to survive. Her brother, for instance, had been injured in an alShabab bomb in 2011 that blew apart the education ministry and killed 100 people.
Then last year, from the depths of despair, things started getting better. A Ugandanled peacekeeping force sponsored by the African Union helped the central government turn the tide. AlShabab had lost credibility because of its violent attacks and its refusal to allow aid workers onto its territory to help victims of a famine. After two decades of trying not to get involved, the US and Europe finally decided they could not allow Somalia to fester as a breeding ground for piracy and alQaeda.
The number of Somalis applying for refugee status in Australia peaked at 7525 in 201011 but has since fallen dramatically. Elections were held in September last year for a government under a new Somali constitution; a moderate diplomat won, edging out an old clan leader. It was a message that was heard among the Somali community here.
As an outspoken, educated woman who had done work translating and counselling, Mustaf was asked to give a speech at a community dinner shortly after the election to celebrate the new government. She was happy to speak because she knew some of the new ministers who had worked with her father. “I said to myself ‘they are going to take the country in the right direction’.”
At this stage she had not seen her Somali relatives for 11 years. Her marriage had broken up and she decided that it was
time to go home. She took a flight to Mogadishu with her children, aged 8 and 12. They landed at Mogadishu airport on December 8 last year and saw a city that had some streets reduced to rubble akin to Stalingrad during World War II. She tried some droll Aussie humour on her parents: “Hey, you guys destroyed the city. You should have looked after it.” Her parents did not quite get the joke.
At first it was only going to be an extended visit but then she sensed the opportunities. A rich Somali who lives in Saudi Arabia had bought a lavish villa on the waterfront and wanted it rebuilt to house his family. The building had miraculously survived the war in reasonable condition but it needed a refit.
A telco named Somtel then contacted her about refitting its head office. The telco sector in Somalia is booming, largely
because it has become the financial industry, too. Normal banking is too dangerous so almost all significant transactions from buying groceries to paying a taxi are settled by a mobile phonebased payment system.
Then a rich Somali investor with interests in the Gulf asked her to design a hotel with 600 rooms and conference facilities for 1000 to cater for expatriates, aid workers and returning Somalis. In a uniquely Somali twist, the hotel won’t be built for a while because there is still a problem with clanrelated gunfire in the neighbourhood, but the investor wants to be ready when the area is pacified.
The name Mustaf chose for her company, Yaglel, is the word Somalia’s traditional nomads use for setting up camel and goat pens and shelters at a desert camp. She employs four
architects, all educated overseas, and three surveyors who have the crucial job of deciding whether a building has been too damaged by the war or if it needs to be knocked down. Mustaf is increasingly the networker and front person, dealing with clients and doing pitches.
A whole new field opened up as a result of helping an aunt do a pitch at the Jazeera Hotel, the beachfront watering hole for the expatriate community that was the target of a bomb attack in 2012. Her aunt did not raise enough cash to build the factory but another opportunity emerged from the event. Mustaf met an official from the President’s office with an interest in education. He realised she was a women with an architect’s training who had, incidentally, sat in on parent teacher meetings at Ivanhoe Primary School.
It is Somali government policy to employ more women in executive positions. The official asked Mustaf to consult on a big project rebuilding schools that had largely been bombed out and closed during the years of anarchy. She started out doing assessments of the schools herself, often seeing children sitting in classrooms where the roofs had been blown off.
Now she is a consultant for the ministry, liaising with NGOs that will provide the funding, and she works with the education ministry writing building standards. There is also talk of reopening the university, but first they will have to convince the Ugandan peacekeepers, who have turned it into a barracks, to move out.
After our lunch of all you can eat lamb and chilli Somali style,
Mustaf and I strolled around the Melbourne mall, which is a mixture of the shops typical of any working class suburb, with a few exotic Somali businesses thrown in. A mini bazaar squeezed into one shopfront sells traditional Somali wedding dresses, there are two Somali cafes, plus a business that sells cheap phone cards and money transfers to Somalia. It is estimated that about 30 per cent of Somalia’s tiny GDP comes from such remittances. Mustaf jokes that she has sent money from her bank account in Somalia to the agency here, rather than from Australia to Somalia. “I think it is a first,” she says.
Clearly doing business in Somalia is anything but secure. At first Mustaf tried to tell her children that the gunfire they heard every night was fireworks. But once when the sound occurred during the day, her children told her they knew it was gunfire and she should stop pretending. There is still shooting at night but she shrugs it off: “Only one bullet. I used to be shocked but now I just go: ‘okay’.”
She is followed everywhere by an armed guard and when she visits schools in outer areas she takes two trucks full of soldiers. There is a security protocol for something as simple as running late for an appointment. Once she called ahead and told a client she was standing at a certain square stuck in traffic and could not make a meeting. Her guard told her never to say on the phone where she was. It made her an easy target if the person she was talking to happened to work for alShabab. When she is working for the government, she has to be especially careful not to establish a regular pattern of turning up to government offices, so she does the education work on different days each week.
All this on top of the challenges of starting a new small business. She has signed up for an MBA by distance education and is reading the selfhelp financial bestseller The Rules of Wealth. Jan Van Schaik, who lectures at RMIT and runs a Melbournebased architecture firm called MVS Architects, informally mentors her. He says one of Mustaf’s biggest challenges is convincing clients that architectural design is important, given all the other urgent issues in Somalia.
Mustaf is trying to arrange a congress of architects in Mogadishu to raise awareness of good design and she is planning an exhibition to highlight one of her pet topics: whether damaged hulks of buildings should be demolished and built again or whether – as Mustaf would like – they should be preserved and renovated to try and maintain a sense of continuity with preanarchy Somalia.
Van Schaik says he is struck by Mustaf’s transition from suburban architectural business to a practice helping to rebuild a wartorn country. “It is amazing that someone can sit there and tell you with this beaming smile and positive attitude that they might be blown up any day.”
Yet this is clearly the fulfilment of multiple dreams for Mustaf: being with family, starting a business and working as an architect, returning home. She says she has wanted to be in design and construction since as a 14yearold she attended a new school triumphally opened under the old regime in Mogadishu. The building was in Spanish mission style with perfect ventilation so no airconditioning was required. The builders had left a scale model of the project and she remembers looking at it and thinking it was so cool.
She would like to go to the school to see if the model is still standing but it is in a part of the city which is still too dangerous to visit. But she hopes to get there one day. “We don’t want history to repeat itself,” she says. “Our parents failed us. The young people from here and from the outside are getting together.”