A guest blog post by Farah Abdi on the occasion of World Refugee Day (20 June)
I left home (Kenya) 5 years ago in search of a place that would not only tolerate what I thought was my sexuality at the time, but also celebrate this part of my identity.
I arrived in Malta after 9 months of a difficult and dangerous journey across countries, the Sahara and sea. At this point, I was a wounded warrior masquerading as a survivor. More than a decade of internalized homophobia stemming from my conservative roots had done its damage.
I come from a community (Somalis) that has been emotionally and psychologically traumatized by decades of civil war, mass migration and dislocation. In my community, a girl without a headscarf is a harlot-in-training. Such retrogressive taboos become minuscule in comparison to homosexuality. Being gay is not only an amoral form of psychic and sexual corruption, but also an act of perverse, Western mimicry. Any form of sexual difference is considered not only repugnant, but also devious.
It took me more than 2yrs of intensive therapy after my arrival in Malta to make peace with my “gay” identity. After this, I was supposed to live the proverbial happy ever after life. Unfortunately this was not the case. There was a missing link that I could not verbalize. The risk of sinking into depression sent me running to my therapist once again in search for answers.
Months of deep soul searching brought me to the realization that I was identifying as gay because I was afraid of exploring my femininity. This again stemmed from my conservative roots. In Somali culture, hyper-masculinity is the most desired attribute in men. Femininity signifies softness, a lightness of touch: qualities that are aggressively pressed onto young girls and women. When a woman does not possess feminine traits, it is considered an act of mild social resistance. This applies equally to men who are not overtly masculine but the stakes are considerably amplified. If a Somali man is considered feminine he is deemed weak, helpless, pitiful: the underlying message being that femininity is inherently inferior to masculinity.
In order for me to embrace who I truly was, I had to go through the painful but fulfilling process of unlearning the toxic pillars that root my culture. This was a painful process because it meant cutting ties with family and community. It is extremely difficult for a Somali to do this because family and community gave us a home, when our country did not; when our nation state (Somalia) disintegrated and ejected, those with whom we escaped with became our nation with borders that re-collected us in the enormity of loss. So what do you do when first, the nation, then one’s family and community reject you?
I had always thought of family and community as a fixed, all-powerful entity. I was raised in a culture where family and community was the most important thing. Rightly so. But in order for me to embrace my transgender identity, I had to learn that nothing in life is fixed, especially family and community. Embracing this allowed me the possibility to become my authentic self.
Another challenge I encountered during the process of soul searching was coming to terms with living in a country (Malta), continent (Europe) and world that will readily accept one part of my identity, but force me to discard the other. This is especially true in Malta at a time when it’s ok to be transgender, but xenophobia and racism is at an all time high.
The mother of all cures – time – ended up taking care of this. After 4yrs in Malta, I was becoming Maltese through osmosis. Not through naturalization, integration or registration. The Maltese government and people could deny our rights as refugees and ignore us all they want. I noticed one minuscule change after the other – like consistently saying Isma (a Maltese slang commonly used to get someone’s attention when trying to start a conversation) for example. The passage of time continued to affect the change until I appeared another person all together.
Do butterflies and moths suffer this perplexity? This ‘how did I get here?’ and ‘who am I?’ crisis? They seem to just beat their wings twice and then take to the air. I felt weighed down, burdened, not so much by what I did have but what I didn’t, a dearth that I couldn’t describe. The cloud finally lifted when I looked at myself in the mirror and spoke to my reflection.
“4yrs ago when you first arrived in Malta, you were expatriated, diffident, beautiful, full of longing for a home, and yet hopeful that your new home (Malta) will one day make a place for those like you it rejects, realising that it itself is unhomed – estranged from itself – if it has no place for those like you.”
So clearly I don’t have a problem with who I am today and if my native Somali community or my adoptive Maltese community have a problem with me being me. Then so be it.
*Farah Abdi is a Somali refugee and award-winning blogger. Farah arrived in Malta from Libya by boat in 2012, fleeing fear of persecution. Farah is author of the autobiography ‘Never Arrive’ and a human rights activist. Farah is also the recipient of the International Bremen Peace Award by the German NGO, Stiftung die schwelle, and the Queen of England award for young leaders. Farah says: “I have been told many times by family, friends, colleagues and strangers; that I am a black, African, refugee, Muslim, trans woman; that I am outside the norms accepted by society. That my dreams are a reflection of my upbringing in a decadent amoral society that has corrupted who I really am. As a young trans African, I have been conditioned from an early age to consider my gender identity a dangerous deviation from my true heritage as a Somali by close kin and friends. As a young trans African coming of age in Malta, there was another whiplash of cultural confusion that I had to recover from again and again: that accepting my gender identity doesn’t necessarily mean that the wider Maltese community, with its own preconceived notions of what constitutes a ‘valid’ identity, will embrace me any more welcomingly than my own prejudiced kinsfolk do.”