Finding Khalid
February 21, 2009

Meet Khalid, a seven year old from Somalia who captures the spirit of Trócaire’s Lenten appeal highlighting internal displacement

FEBRUARY WAS ALWAYS an eventful month when I was a child. It was the month of my birthday parties, of sugary Pancake Tuesdays, of giving up sweets and it was the month we all got our Trócaire boxes from school. For 40 days and 40 nights, the box sat on the window sill in the kitchen, and every Sunday I fed my pocket money through the slit on the top.

Khalid Salat Shikh Ali on this year's Trócaire box

I’d shake it until it got too heavy to lift, and I’d compare it to my sister’s. Which was heavier? Who was going to give the most to the “black babies” from Biafra, we wondered.

So it was with both pleasure and curiosity that I accepted the offer from Trócaire to travel to Somalia and photograph the boy who was going to appear on the front of the 2009 Trócaire box.

A quick Wikitravel search threw up the following message: “WARNING: Somalia is NOT a safe place for tourists to travel under any circumstances in 2008, as inter-factional fighting can flare up with little warning and murder, kidnapping and other threats against foreigners are a real danger.” We flew northeast from Nairobi to a dusty town on the Somali border with Kenya. The pilot had trouble landing the first time, because animals were roaming across the runway. We drove past pockmarked signs and an abandoned bullet-riddled car. We were only allowed to enter Somalia for an hour at a time. After that, our safety couldn’t be guaranteed.

Since 1999, the Trócaire box has featured the image of a child who is directly affected by a development issue. Twelve-year-old Nangiro Amodoi, a herder from Kenya whose livelihood is affected by increasing droughts, was featured in last year’s climate-change campaign. The aim of Trócaire’s 2009 Lenten campaign is to highlight the issue of internal displacement. There are approximately 25 million internally displaced people (IDPs) around the world. Of these, 12 million are in Africa and approximately one million of those are in Somalia, amounting to 10 per cent of the population.

In December 2006, the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union (ICU), who had ruled the country relatively peacefully for six months, were ousted by the Transitional Federal Government with the aid of US-backed Ethiopian troops. In Mogadishu, Ethiopian forces were fighting an Iraq-style insurgency against Somali Islamist and clan militias.

We arrived at the first IDP camp. Established in 1997, the people had been living here with 11 years of hope for a return to their homes etched into their jaded faces. Past the school, funded by Trócaire, a barber was cutting a boy’s hair with a razor blade. Women were collecting water from the water tank, while children were playing football in the sand – children who had been born here and remembered no other life. This was not going to be where we would find a boy who had any memories of life outside a refugee camp.

The following day, we crossed the border again and headed for the main town of Bulla Howa. Despite the dangers, Trócaire still works here, through its local partners, supporting a school in the town and the main hospital.

We all saw Khalid around the same time, aged seven and with the most beautiful brown eyes. First, we had to find his mother to ask her, an easy task as we were the only show in town, with a swelling entourage around us.

REFUGEE Khalid Salat Shikh Ali, with his sister Asma, at a refugee camp in Somalia

Falis Ibrahim was 30 but looked much younger, her chubby face tightly squeezed into her olive green hijab. She had lived a middle-class life in a four-bedroomed house in Mogadishu with her husband, a teacher, son Khalid and his four siblings, including his baby sister Asma.

Houses all around Falis’s neighbourhood were being shelled as fighting intensified throughout 2007. The final straw came in August when her neighbour’s house was hit by a missile, killing her and her three children.

Falis gathered up her belongings and the children and set out on the road to Afgoye, 30km south of Mogadishu, where a quarter of a million people were living in squalid makeshift camps, the highest concentration of IDP’s in the world after Iraq. Her 500km journey to Gedo, where she is originally from, took more than two weeks. She arrived in Bulla Howa, where we found her, living with two other families, 17 people in total, in a one-roomed house.

“You can imagine how difficult life is,” she tells us. “You don’t need to be able to understand Somali language to understand this – before, I lived in a private house. I had food, water and money to care for my children. Now I live here. I have nothing, my home is in an IDP settlement.”

Falis kindly agreed to allow us to photograph Khalid. I took pictures of him playing football with his brother Faisal, holding his baby sister Asma and with his mother and other sisters Najamo and Fardwsa. Neatly dressed in a colourful striped top, brown trousers and orange flip-flops, Khalid was not the picture of a refugee. He looked just like a normal young boy who wouldn’t be out of place playing with his peers in an Irish school yard. He hadn’t yet developed the weary unkempt look of longer-term refugees like the ones we had seen the day before. His journey as a refugee had only begun.

This month, one million Trócaire boxes featuring Khalid will be printed, his brown eyes looking straight at us. Eyes that have seen things that were too painful for his mother to speak to us about. Eyes that speak of experiences beyond those that should be witnessed by a young child.

For 40 days and 40 nights Khalid’s face will adorn mantelpieces, window sills and kitchen worktops across the country. His eyes peering into cosy concrete houses with kitchens and toilets, just like the one he used to live in.

To find out more about Trócaire’s Lenten campaign and to make a donation, see

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times


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