Ilwad Elman is no stranger to change. She left Somalia in 1992 as a young child with her mother and two sisters to seek refuge from the conflict that had begun in the country the year before, leaving behind her father, activist Elman Ali Ahmed, who is known as the Somali Father of Peace even today.
It was the last time they saw him. Tragically, he was assassinated in 1996.
The still-ongoing civil war in Somalia grew out of resistance to the military dictatorship run by Mohamed Siad Barre beginning in the 1980s. By 1991, the Somali Armed Forces had recruited various armed rebel groups and overthrew the Barre government.
Just a year later Ilwad and her family fled war-stricken Somalia and lived for a few years in a refugee camp called Tango in Kenya — now called Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world — before seeking asylum in Canada, where Ilwad grew up and stayed until 2010.
Almost 20 years after leaving Somalia, Ilwad returned to her home country and is now responsible for designing and overseeing the peace and human rights programs at the nonprofit her parents founded in 1990, called Elman Peace.
She runs the organization with her mother, Fartuun Adan, and together they work to promote peace, cultivate leadership, and empower marginalized groups, furthering the mission and legacy her father left behind.
The Daughter of Peace
Ilwad is connected to a legacy of peacemaking. When her father was a child, he was neglected by his family and worked by polishing shoes on the streets of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
He later became the recipient of social support services provided for years following Italian colonization and had the opportunity to study in Italy. He went on to receive his Master’s degree in Germany and became an electrical engineer before returning to Somalia and setting up businesses in the 1980s.
Ilwad says her father’s difficult upbringing inspired him to return to Somalia to give back and promote an enabling, positive environment for children in the difficult position he once experienced.
“Most of [the businesses he created] were electrical shops and mechanic shops, and he was hiring only young people that were orphaned on the streets,” Ilwad said, in an interview on Sounds Good. “He was teaching them the skills, getting them off the street.”
Elman’s entire workforce was made of youth who had an upbringing similar to his own. He wanted them to have a new status in society and enjoy opportunities he benefited from after receiving an education. And he hoped that by teaching them valuable trade skills, these children would have access to other options besides joining the war.
When the civil war broke out, Elman shifted to helping not just youth who were abandoned or battling drug addictions as he had focused on before, but also those who were being co-opted into clan-based militias and giving them an alternative to escape a life of violence. This is around the time he coined the phrase that’s now central to his legacy: “Drop the gun; pick up the pen.”
“He was so successful in doing this that he was demobilizing young men and even children by the thousands,” Ilwad says. “[His phrase] can still be seen marked up in the ruins of different streets in Mogadishu.”
Ilwad was still a young child when her father was assassinated and says she was too young to understand the gravity of both his presence and loss at the time. In fact, she doesn’t even have memories of her father.
“Everything that I really know about him and his impact has been passed on to me from both my mother and from other people around the world,” Ilwad says.
“I don’t have any actual memory of him or being with him, but I just feel so fortunate to be able to learn about him continuously through these stories and anecdotes and encounters that people cherish so much.”
But even though she doesn’t have any direct memories of her father, she stays connected to him through the work she now does with her mother at his namesake organization.
A World Away from Home
Growing up in Canada, Ilwad was largely disconnected from what was happening in her home country, but she was always curious about returning to connect to the place she was born.
“The only real thing that we ever saw about Somalia was always on mainstream media, and that is no different [than] how it’s depicted today: suffering, war, famine, conflict,” Ilwad says.
“Just a failed state. And for me and my family, we felt even more attached to Somalia even though we were not physically there because we just lost so much.”
“We felt even more attached to Somalia even though we were not physically there because we just lost so much.”
The disconnect between the attachment she felt to the place she was born and the heartbreaking stories she heard about it left much to be desired. Ilwad didn’t have any positive representations of her country to cling to — just stories of her father and the work he and Fartuun started together.
“My mother has been the biggest time vault, if you will, of those memories [of my father],” Ilwad says.
“She has really dedicated her life to his legacy and to us — my sisters and I — and it’s because of her that I’m also back in Somalia now trying to do my part and honoring his legacy.”
When the sisters had grown into teenagers, Fartuun returned to conflict-laden Somalia to continue the work her husband was killed.
She returned at a crucial point in the war, around the time Ethiopian troops had seized most of the southern region from a loose formation of judicial systems called the Islamic Courts Union, which briefly brought some order to the country but later splintered into other militant groups, most notably al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group al-Shabab.
Ilwad and her sisters would sometimes lose contact with their mother for weeks at a time, and seeing media coverage that showed turmoil in Somalia left them with the question: Why did their mother return?
“I just couldn’t wrap my head around it, and I really just wanted to know she was OK and to see for myself what it is that is really happening there,” Ilwad says.
“Every time we’d speak to her she’d be so positive. Then we’d hang up the phone, look at what’s on the media, and that does not reflect at all the courage and the positivity that she carried when she was on the phone with us, so I felt like she was just trying to make things lighter so that we wouldn’t worry.”
But Ilwad did worry. She was so worried that in 2010 she decided to go visit her mother in Somalia. The plan was to stay for one month — no more than three months.
At this time the conflict still heavily raged, and the majority of Mogadishu and south central regions of the country were controlled by al-Shabab. When Ilwad arrived, she was confronted with everything she had seen growing up on TV.
“Everything that I saw shook me to my core,” she says. “When you hear about war or conflict, you never really are able to understand it really until you’re in it. Everything that we see in Hollywood productions — in big movies — was in my backyard.”
“When you hear about war or conflict, you never really are able to understand it really until you’re in it. Everything that we see in Hollywood productions — in big movies — was in my backyard.”
But in the midst of the chaos, she started to understand why her mother had returned. She saw how early in the morning her mother would get up to help others, how many people in the community needed her, and how many children called her “Mom.” She knew her mother was doing important work to restore peace in the region.
“I fell in love with the work that she was doing instantly, and I felt also a responsibility to help her because I saw the level of resistance she was getting, and it was really heartbreaking for me,” Ilwad says.
Ilwad’s short-term trip soon turned permanent when she learned that her mother was facing serious resistance from the uncles on her father’s side of the family.
They opposed her mother’s leadership in an organization named after Elman because as a woman with only daughters, the uncles didn’t believe any of them could carry on his legacy.
The opposition became so intense that at the launch of a new program at one of the organization’s centers, Ilwad’s uncle arrived and fired gunshots in an attempt to disperse people.
That’s the moment Ilwad knew she had to stay with her mother. It’s the same time she realized ways the war was silencing and sidelining women.
“If we as women that are educated, that have come from Canada, and really have the freedom and mobility to leave at any moment with our passport have this level of resistance and challenges that are 100 percent gender-specific, then what does that mean for the 8-year-old girl or the 22-year-old woman or the widowed grandmother in the streets of Mogadishu?” Ilwad says.
“That moment really was a watershed for both of us, and for me it was the turnaround moment that I realized that I need to stay. I’m so much more useful here.”
Ilwad knew she could help empower, equip, and help rebuild communities if she stayed and worked alongside her mother. And the longer she stayed, the better she was able to reconcile the conflict she grew up seeing on the news and the beauty that brought her mother back after so many years.
“It’s a land of many contradictions,” she says. “There’s so much chaos, but so much calm. There’s conflict, but beauty. There’s love. There’s laughter. There’s joy. There’s incredible momentum right now, and it’s a place that’s — after 25, 26, 27 years of conflict — is slowly getting back on its feet. It’s where I was born. It’s the place I feel most grounded, and it’s home.”
Doing Good Work
Today Elman Peace sustains Elman’s mission and legacy of protecting human rights and promoting peace by supporting communities centers through locally driven solutions.
At its core, the nonprofit is a human rights institution. The team focuses on monitoring, documenting, and reporting human rights violations and abuses that happen throughout the country and then uses their findings to inform the different programming and services that they provide.
Fartuun and her daughters also founded the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Mogadishu in Elman’s honor. Fartuun serves as the center’s executive director, while Ilwad serves alongside her as director of programs and development.
Since she’s been in Somalia, the most tangible work she’s been a part of has been with survivors of of sexual- and gender-based violence. She helps oversee a subsidiary of the center called Sister Somalia, the country’s first rape crisis center.
In 2012, Ilwad spoke at Mogadishu’s first TEDx conference, where she explained the role of Sister Somalia in reconstruction within the country through counseling, trauma healing, housing support, and emergency medical care for women in need.
Ilwad has also hosted educational workshops for society’s most vulnerable communities and designed and implemented projects promoting alternative livelihood opportunities.
Her work has raised awareness and even encouraged changes in government policy. In 2015 she briefed the UN Security Council on the challenges Somali women face and now continues to work as a global advocate for Somali communities.
The conflict between al-Shabab and the Somali government and peacekeeping forces still rages on today. We see it on the news: terrorism, child soldiers, and war zones, among other things.
In 2017 a truck bombing blamed on al-Shabab resulted in more than 500 casualties in the capital.
Although the country still faces a difficult road ahead, the first permanent central government since the war founded in 2012 and is making progress toward stability, thanks in huge part to the positive peacemaking work people like Ilwad are leading.
So many people, from child soldiers to community members who have lost loved ones in the war, have experienced conflict. But now many have an outlet for their trauma and are on a path toward healing.
Ilwad is exploring the effectiveness in treating symptoms of trauma through alternative health techniques for people who live in conflict zones, such as yoga, painting, or music therapy.
They’ve even seen success in taking children to the beach to sit and talk in the sand, to float and learn to feel safe in the water, and to go surfing.
“Children can be children again as long as they’re just taken out of this context of violence,” Ilwad says.
“We always try to ask the question: How do you teach or empower a child that’s been stripped of his childhood to be a child again? And sometimes it’s as easy as just having beach days.”
No matter what she’s working on, Ilwad remembers her father and the honor it is to carry the torch to create a better future in the country where she was born and now calls home.
“I learned so much about myself being here,” Ilwad says.
“I learned about patience. I learned about community. All of these very important things that surely I could learn anywhere in the world, but really being here [in Somalia] I feel that everyday I have an opportunity to live with purpose. Everyday I have an opportunity to live intentionally and to serve, and I just feel so grateful for that opportunity. It was scary to make that leap, but anything worth doing takes risks.”
A version of this article was originally published in the Goodnewspaper in 2018. Since its original publication, Ilwad was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.