USM students help give Somalis a voice in project for Al Jazeera

Posted on March 30, 2012 in News
By Dylan Martin

Chelsea Ellis | The Free Press
Chelsea Ellis | The Free Press

Mohammed Dini remembers the war-torn situation of Somalia when he left with his family in 1997. Conditions were so bad, people carried around white cotton cloths every day to cover their own bodies if they were killed — a preparation necessary to follow traditional funeral rites.

“A lot of people carry them,” Dini said. “You know what kind of psychological effect that has on people? But the people are resilient.”

To give back to his homeland and engage others like him, Dini, a  junior international relations and political science major at the University of Southern Maine, became involved with a humanitarian project that sought to amplify the voices of everyday Somalis using text messaging and social media technology.

The project, called “Somalia Speaks,” is hosted by Al Jazeera, a Middle Eastern broadcasting network that rose to prominence with its coverage of the Afghanistan and Iraq War following 9/11. The idea was proposed by Ushahidi, a non-profit company specializing in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping.

Dini participated in the project with the African Diaspora Institute, a non-profit organization he co-founded in 2010 that seeks to give back to the “diaspora,” the international community of Somalis who have fled their homeland because of conflict and famine.

“The aim was to give ordinary Somalis a way to communicate their experience with the conflict and the famine,” Dini said. “The news was disappearing from the mainstream media.”

For the past few years, Somalia has been hit hard with famine, poverty and armed conflict between various Islamic militias while a transitional government struggles to gain control. One of the country’s most violent and prominent groups, Al Shabab, claims affiliation with Al Qaeda and controlled most of southern Somlia until August of last year. The country was also hit with a large drought last summer, which led to a famine that has killed tens of thousands of Somalis. The harsh conditions also led to an increase of rape and sexual abuse of women and girls, who were left vulnerable when they traveled far distances in search of food.

Somalia Speaks operated by allowing ordinary Somali citizens to voice their opinions and grievances through text messages sent to Souktel, a social technology organization that helps developing countries using SMS technology.

“You don’t expect the average Somali resident to be on Twitter or Facebook or e-mail,” said Soud Hyder, project manager for Somalia Speaks at Al Jazeera. “This was one way in which they could channel their grievances and narratives.”

The text messages, typed in Somali, were sent to an online interface where volunteers translated them to English. After translated, the messages populated on an interactive map developed by Ushahidi on Al Jazeera’s website.

Dini was one of the key players in recruiting translators when Somalia Speaks first started last December. By networking with friends and members of USM’s Somali Student Association, which he presides as president, he was able to gather 15 translators.

“For the first iteration of Somalia Speaks, the support we got from the [Dini's organization] was very crucial in terms that they understood what was trying to be done and everything else,” Soud Hyder said.

Halima Abdi, a freshman nursing major, said translating the messages was an emotional experience at times.

“Some of them would talk about how they were judged, or how they don’t have freedom, and how they basically feel stuck and don’t know what to do,” Abdi said. “For me, it was a little emotional. It was hard.”

For the duration of the project — which started Dec. 8 and ended Feb. 23 after the London Somalia Conference — Abdi said she spent one to two hours a day translating Somali text messages. When she experienced difficulty figuring out certain words, she said Dini would sit down and help her with the process.

Hyder of Al Jazeera said the Somalia Speaks project was a success because of the response from readers and viewers and the news stories inspired by the text messages.

Al Jazeera has since created an iteration of the concept in response to the viral Kony 2012 video called “Uganda Speaks,” which gave Ugandan citizens a chance to speak their mind about Invisible Children’s controversial social media campaign.

Dini said the project was empowering for his friends and colleagues involved. “How do we tell them thank you? Somali Americans want to thank Al Jazeera,” Dini said. He also wanted to lend credit to Patrick Meier of Ushahidi, who led the software side of Somali Speaks and originally got Dini involved.

“It feels so good that here we have a USM student who is reaching out to help victims of human rights violations in a country where he was born,” said Coordinator of Multicultural Student Affairs Reza Jalali, who has helped Dini with his initiatives since he first came to USM.

Dini has also been a political player on the local level. In 2010, Dini ran for state representative in Portland’s district 119 to advocate for more education incentives in Maine. By doing so, he became one of the first Somali Americans and Muslims to run for state office in Maine.

“He’s such a good model of empowerment. He’s really a good example of that model. We want to challenge students to think beyond Maine and find ways to change the world,” Jalali said.

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