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Interview with Abdi Aden

Australian Red Cross speaks with its new Ambassador, Abdi Aden.
Interview transcript, October 2015

Q: Tell us a little bit about your story.
I came to Australia as a refugee when the war started in Somalia. Somalia as a country was thriving before the war and my family was not the poorest, and it wasn't the richest, so it was quite a middle class family. I had a young sister and I went to school every day. I did my homework, I used to love doing that. I liked living Somalia with my relatives, I liked to play soccer on the beach, the smell of the food and my neighbours, the culture of Somalia so everything was great before the war.

Q: What was the situation like when you had to leave?
I actually left Somalia not by choice, I just had to flee. My mother was away in Italy and my father was working the other side of Mogadishu and my sister was staying with another family. At soccer in the afternoon I heard this big explosion and then I rushed back to our house and that's the first time I'd seen the war began.

I couldn't find my family so I went with 60 people and joined in 300 people and we start walking towards Kenya. We didn't think we were going to Kenya but we just went that way. Without my parents. I was wearing the same shoes and the same pants and the shirt when I left Somalia so yeah, I didn't go back.

I was very scared, terrified, not knowing what was going to happen next. That's why I know what it's like, fleeing and having nothing with you. I was actually worried about my young sister, my sister two years younger. I feel guilty with that, going without her, but I couldn't cross the other side of Mogadishu. The only safe way to go was to go with this group.

Q: How old were you?
When the war began I was 13 but when I left Somalia I was 15. First we went to the border, there was a refugee camp on the border. Then I decided to come back because seeing the refugee camp was horrible. There was no toilet, no electricity, there was no food to eat. So I had to come back to Mogadishu, back again on the same journey.

It took us three months to get to the border, over 300 people, and five people only made it. The other people said they can't walk. One of the women I was walking with said "Come with me, Abdi, I can't find my family". She had five children and when we got to the border only one child was left, the other four died of starvation. It was horrible to see. I was thinking I have nothing to worry about, she lost her four children.

Q: "How did you come to Australia?
It was a long journey. I left Mogadishu airport to Romania. I'd spent almost a year and then I was in a refugee camp in Romania, but I came to Melbourne when my father's friend helped me to come to Australia.

I didn't find out until six years later about my mother and I didn't know anything about what happened to my family. I thought I was the only one left because I'd heard that they had passed away. And I didn't find out until a year later.

Q: When you landed in Australia, what did you think?
I couldn't speak the English language and it was difficult. I had one guy that I was supposed to see. He told me "You can stay tonight but you can leave in the morning" so it was quite tough not having a home. I didn't have a proper home until 12 months in Australia. I couldn't speak the language, I was worried that I wouldn't get a visa and they might return me back to Somalia. That was my biggest fear.

Q: You didn't have to go to detention?
I didn't. That's what I was worried about, detention and then sent back, that was my biggest fear. I was very happy that I came to Australia, that I made it. When refugees are fleeing often you want to find safety. I knew that it was safe but I hadn't forgotten that if they didn't give me a visa I'll be getting returned back. I was very scared. When I got my visa, things got a little bit better because I ended up going to school.

Q: How did you first encounter Red Cross?
I used to go there before I got my visa, and they used to give me vouchers to buy stuff, that was the first contact. The second contact was that my mother was in refugee camps, and I had to sponsor her, so I used to go to Red Cross tracing department to help me find my mother. Red Cross helped me to find my mother and also helped me get sponsorship supporting letters. So it was huge.

Q: What is your involvement with Red Cross today?
My involvement with Red Cross is working with the In Search of Safety program, which is a really good program talking to young people or anyone who doesn't know anything about refugees. We go to schools and talk about what is an asylum seeker, what is a refugee, and how many refugee people are in the world. It's a really good, very basic, fundamental education when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers. It changes the views not only of young people but also their parents.

Q: What do you want to do as an Ambassador?
I want to support Red Cross because Red Cross do a lot of great work and people need to know what Red Cross does. I'm very lucky for the opportunity to be an Ambassador as Red Cross always supported me through my young teenage years, and then when my mother came. Now I want to give back to the community, especially Red Cross' support for refugees.

Q: How were you made to feel when you came to Australia?
When I came to Australia Red Cross helped me to feel welcome and were very supportive. When I left the Red Cross office and was in the general public, I felt like they didn't know my background and I got treated the same as everyone. I didn't have enough English to speak, I didn't have enough education to go to school, and I didn't have any support. Even finding friends was quite difficult.

Red Cross was my friend, Red Cross was my family. With Red Cross I felt safe every time because people understood me.

Q: How should we welcome refugees from Syria?
Syrian refugees need to be welcomed a lot of different ways. The primary one is education, to support people to be educated, especially young people, and even the parents. We also have to be inclusive with refugees when it comes to sports and community things they do to be welcomed.

Unaccompanied minors is really is tough because I was one and I know how it felt. It felt lonely. The first way to help these young people is accommodation, and then finding other young people they can relate to so they feel safe, because young people are actually looking to have fun. They want to explore themselves, so if they don't get that support they're going to struggle. Finding good accommodation is very crucial and finding friends to hang around with, to talk to about how they feel. That kind of youth work is my favourite thing, young people feeling safe, not so much "we gave you this and that's enough".

Q: Tell us a little bit about you now.
I've got real friends. I feel Australian, I am Australian. I've been here more than I've been in Somalia. But I also grow up here, my first time driving, living in different areas, I played soccer, this is home. People remind me that I'm not Australian, but I always tell them that I'm Australian, just to remind them. It's a very happy place to be and Melbourne is my favourite, the weather is always cold but it's a great place to be. Because Melbourne is the first time I came to Australia, it's my place. I feel this is home. I cope alright, I just try not to complain.

I have three children and my wife, and my mother lives not far from us. The boys, my kids play basketball, they play sport. So yeah, life is good. Melbourne is a great place to live.