‘You’re famous, what are you doing here?’: The asylum seeker who has gone from Somali TV to a bunk bed in Citywest

By: Sorcha Pollak's face 
Sorcha Pollak
Tue Apr 2 2024 - 00:00

It was July 2015 and Salman Jamal was returning from Mogadishu’s international airport when a massive blast ripped through the city centre street where he was driving. His two passengers, both journalists who had flown into the Somali capital that morning, were killed in the explosion, while Jamal, a prominent TV reporter, was seriously injured in the attack carried out by the jihadist group Al-Shabaab.

Nine years later, he sits in the bustling lobby of a hotel in Dublin’s city centre sipping a cup of coffee while reflecting on his two colleagues – a producer and reporter – who lost their lives in the suicide attack.

“The target was me but they were killed,” says Jamal. “I was a newscaster and I had reported that what they were doing is not right. I said this is not what real Islamic people do, killing civilians. They had told me I was a target, that what I was writing made me a target.

“Journalists from foreign countries reporting for CNN and BBC, they can come to Somalia and report on this and they’re protected. They get bulletproof cars and have security from their embassy. But Somali journalists don’t have any of that protection. Most journalists have fled the country. You have to survive when you work there.”

Nearly a decade on, Jamal still hears the echo of the bomb’s blast when trying to sleep at night. Sharing a room with three other men in the Citywest emergency accommodation centre in southwest Dublin has made sleep even more difficult.

Jamal is one of the 2,585 Somali nationals seeking asylum in Ireland and staying in State-provided accommodation. Somali asylum applications represented 8 per cent of all international protection claims in 2023, behind Nigerians, who made up nearly 16 per cent of all applicants, and Algerians, who made up 11 per cent, while Afghan nationals also represented 8 per cent of applications. Nearly 270 Somalis have applied for asylum in Ireland so far in 2024, making them the second most common nationality, after Nigerians, to seek international protection here this year.

Salman Jamal lost an eye in a 2015 bombing that killed two of his colleagues. Photograph: Alan Betson.

Jamal is also a 39-year-old man – a label increasingly linked to so-called “single, unvetted, military-age men”. The thing is, Jamal is not single. He came to Ireland alone but is counting the seconds until he can bring his wife and three sons – aged 10, seven and four – to Ireland.

“I never thought I’d be in Ireland, it’s my first time coming to a European country. But I knew they would target my kids, my wife, my mum and my brothers if I stayed.”

Following the 2015 bombing, Jamal spent an extended period in Turkey undergoing medical treatment for his injuries, which included the loss of an eye. Jamal eventually returned to Somalia, where he worked as a media adviser within the Somali parliament. However, the threats from the Al-Shabaab terrorist group immediately resumed, he says.

“I thought Al-Shabaab would have forgotten me but they didn’t forget. I wanted to stay in my country and work for my people. I had a vision of becoming a politician. But I was shocked by how bad things were when I got back. I feel guilty, if I hadn’t gone back my father wouldn’t have died.”

In 2022, during a visit to his family home, a gunman appeared at the front door and shot Jamal’s father dead. Jamal realised he needed to leave the country to keep his family safe and paid an agent to fly to Europe. “I didn’t have any other options, my mother told me I had to leave. They [Al-Shabaab] told me ‘you survived in 2015 but you won’t survive again’. They also told me they’d kill my kids.”

In late November 2023, Jamal flew from Mogadishu to Istanbul and on to Dublin, where he applied for asylum. “It was a shock arriving here, I was suddenly a refugee. But that first night I slept well. It was the first time I’d slept well in a long time. I felt safe here.”

Despite this sense of security, Jamal struggled to settle in the bedroom he shares with three other men – a Nigerian, a Romanian and a Pakistani man. “Sometimes they talk on their phones at midnight, sometimes I want to speak to my friends from Somalia, sometimes I want to read the news, but there’s no privacy. Four people sharing in bunk beds is difficult. There’s a lot of people in Citywest, there’s many different nationalities and sometimes there are fights. But aside from that, the food and accommodation are nice.

“There were 50 Somali people already there and they were surprised to see me. They said ‘you’re a famous journalist, what are you doing here?’ I told them as a journalist I can’t work in Somalia any more. No one is safe in Somalia these days.”

After four months in Ireland, Jamal is still awaiting his interview with the International Protection Office. He sends most of his €38.80 weekly allowance back to his wife and hopes to find work as soon as his work permit comes through. “They’ve called to the house [in Mogadishu] looking for me but they don’t know where my family are because they stay in different places. But of course I want to bring my wife and kids here, they’re in trouble there.”

Jamal describes Ireland as a “quiet and clean country” where people can “feel free”. “No man would leave his country and family without a good reason,” he adds, when asked about coming here as a male asylum seeker. “Most men come here seeking a better future and security like me. I agree with the Irish Government to run background checks for refugees and not to welcome those who have committed crimes in their countries. But most refugees bring benefits to the country.”

BY: The Irish Times