Maimed by terrorist group, a young man finds new hope in northern Norway

Ismael Khalif Abdulle in Harstad.

Two hundred kilometres above the Arctic Circle hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers are finding a new life in northern Norway, but recently the doors have been shutting on those desperate to start fresh in the High North.


In a small town in northern Norway the young man across the table avoids looking me in the face.

“I’m little shy because of my eye,” he says with a somewhat sheepish grin in the direction of his soda bottle.

The eye in question, the right, is bloodied and a little swollen. The large brown iris seems to float in a sea of red.

A few days ago Ismael Khalif Abdulle took an elbow to the face while playing football, but considering Ismael’s experience with injuries it’s a heartening to hear, if not a little surprising, this is the one he is self-conscious about.

“When I was 16 I lost my right arm and left foot,” says the nearly 21-year-old. “I said no to join the al-Shabab group and that’s why they did it.”

Ismael blurts out this fact with the air of someone telling you an interesting development in the day’s weather. Suddenly and brutally becoming a double amputee was a grim end to an old life and the rocky start of a new one – one that took him out of the heart of Africa and up to the Arctic Circle three years ago.

“When I came to Harstad it was snowy and nighttime – always. There was no day,” says Ismael. “I was freaking out.”

Five years ago Norway was one of the leading countries for refugee and asylum seeker acceptance and the northern part of the country became an unlikely haven for hundreds of young people escaping their homelands. However, in the last three years the numbers have been slipping and Norway has been turning away some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

Ismael grew up in war-torn Somalia.  The country accounted for 3.9 percent of the total number of global asylum seekers in 2013; it was the eighth most common place of origin, down from third place in 2009.

Mogadishu, the capital, was the epicentre of a vicious terrorist cell called al-Shabab. This Al-Qaeda affiliated group is an aggressive recruiter of young men whom they train to become suicide warriors. They have systematically and effectively convinced hundreds of boys to dream of one day detonating themselves for the cause.

One day they came knocking on Ismael’s door telling him it was time to join.

“I didn’t want to be part of them,” says Ismael. “I said to the other young guys this is not your future. I said, ‘go to school, take care of your family.’”

But al-Shabab does not take no for an answer.

After repeated refusals they kidnapped Ismael and three other young boys who had resisted joining. After a few days in captivity they brought them to the city’s stadium and, in front of a crowd of thousands, conducted a public amputation.

Ismael was first to feel the knife cut.

“They didn’t give us any medicine for the pain before they did it. We had nothing,” he says.

After they cut off his hand and foot they left Ismael bleeding and in agony on the ground while they mutilated the remaining three boys. He nearly bled to death.

The four were taken to a house and told to wait for medicine, presumably to fight infection and for the pain. They lay in the house, unmoving, as they were ordered, for three hours before anyone returned.

Their severed limbs were hung in the town square as a warning to others.

But just two weeks later al-Shabab came back to Ismael and said they didn’t feel they had exacted their pound of flesh.

“After 15 days they came back and said it wasn’t enough on my foot and they had to take more,” recalls Ismael. “They used a saw to cut more, higher up.”

Maimed again and knowing his life was in extreme danger Ismael decided to flee Somalia.

After a series of handoffs and encounters with helpful relatives and sponsorship from a Canadian donor, Ismael was eventually smuggled into Nairobi where he made a desperate application, through the UN, to seek asylum in Canada, Finland or Norway.

After two weeks Ismael was accepted in Norway and soon thereafter he boarded a plane to a place where he would buy his first ever winter coat, see snow for the first time in his life and have to learn a new language and way of living – one he never could have imagined before.

The five Nordic countries received 76,400 requests, in total in 2013, with Sweden accepting 70 percent of these applications. This equates to accepting 9 percent of the total global asylum seekers. Norway received 11,500 claims in the same year – a two percent share of the global total. This is down from the over 17,000 Norway accepted in 2009 and up from the all time low of 9,050 in 2011.

For the last three years Europe has been the primary region sought by asylum seekers – in 2013 Europe received 484,600 asylum claims from across the globe. The US and Canada are second.

Canada approved a paltry 10,400 new claims in 2013. That’s a 50 percent decrease from the 20,500 accepted in 2012. They now match Norway in accepting only two percent of asylum seekers who apply to “industrialized countries” as defined by the UN.

This month Oslo played host to a UN-led conference about the ongoing refugee crisis in South Sudan. The assembled parties pledged money and refuge for the terrorized civilians caught in the conflict. It was an important reiteration and reminder of aid in a country where, every year, the doors close a little more on refugees and asylum seekers.

Ismael is one story out of thousands of young refugees who have ended up scattered across northern Norway and whose lives have been dominated by war, religious persecution, and famine to name a few. They arrive in the Arctic Circle determined to start a new life and throw themselves into the community, learning the language, getting jobs and, most importantly, getting an education.

It is this last opportunity that excites them the most.

The day after we met, I visited Ismael’s English class to talk to the students about Canada.

“They will have lots of questions,” he assured me. He was right: as I fielded questions for 90 minutes about what jobs are available in Canada, to what my education was, and how and why I wanted to become a journalist, it was obvious how eager and excited the students were about the new life and opportunities that lay before them.

“We have a great chance in Norway,” says Ismael after class. “I’m just a young guy living in Norway, I get summer vacation, I get a job. I think back on that life…my country was in civil war for 25 years.”

Now these students, transplants from some of the most violent and unstable places in the world, look towards the future with excitement rather than trepidation. One 24-year-old student with a young daughter dreams of being a nurse, a young man from Burma an engineer.

And Ismael, “It’s my favourite job being a journalist.”

He may pick up a pen or a camera one day and start recording the stories of others, but Ismael and his friends also dream of starting a Norwegian-Somali foundation to help more young people caught in the middle of conflict.

“When you go back to Somalia, you can’t go just you. You have to bring something,” says Ismael. “It’s my plan now to help these young children out of the situation.”

Today, when he’s not in school, Ismael helps recent refugees settle into their new Arctic lives by taking them to buy coats, translating banking information or inviting them to play a game of pick up football.

The refugee resettlement program in Harstad, founded by Ola Steinvoll, is five years old now and has helped hundreds of asylum seekers establish new lives.

As we walk through the village square, down cobbled side streets and past the harbour every few steps there is a family who knows Ismael.

“These people…they are my family now,” he says after picking up a particularly adorable toddler wrapped up in a purple jacket and giving her a cuddle.

It’s these types of bonds that are particularly important for the incoming families.

“When you come to Norway it’s hard to get in. It’s not an open society,” says Mustafa Almi, a friend of Ismael’s and co-student, also from Somalia.

“It’s wonderful here and I really appreciate the Norwegian government, [but] Norway is alone,” he says. “They don’t let you know you are welcome. Little things like that.”

Coming from the streets of Mogadishu where the electric blue ocean crashes against white sand beach and the clamour of the market carries for blocks, Harstad must have seemed almost sterile in comparison.

“When I came I became another person,” says Mustafa. “You have peace, but you don’t have the social. It’s very closed and I used to ask why.”

Mustafa describes how in high school, where he and Ismael are headed next year, he’s heard the Norwegians sit on one side of the room and “the black boys – the immigrants – are on this side.”

Norway, like many other countries, is becoming more closed off to refugees. The country has been accused of ignoring its racist undertones, but events like the brutal shooting rampage of Anders Behring Breivik three years ago have forced Norwegians to contemplate the place of race in their society.

It’s an ongoing discussion and, for Mustafa and others, it remains a frosty relationship sometimes.

Ismael doesn’t articulate exactly the same experience. He says “hi” to people in the street and they say “hi” back. It’s perhaps not the frenetic exchanges of his childhood – at one point I was sure a group of Somali boys sitting in a cluster around a table were a few exclamations away from a fistfight, but Ismael assures me over their raised voices, “oh, they are just talking about football” – but it’s a calm reservation that has its upsides too.

“You feel peaceful. You feel what peace is. You see more things and [it’s] a new world,” says Ismael. “I was hearing the guns every morning until I was 18. It became normal.”

Through Norway Ismael has a future. He has built a family, made friends, and learned how to live independently. He is excited to start his first job this summer. In Norway Ismael’s missing hand and foot were replaced, the latter with not one, but three different prosthetics.

“There is one for walking, one for swimming and one for running,” he says; proudly describing how he can still run faster than many of the other kids. I don’t need to ask him to show me. As we climb a hill in town Ismael takes long, quick strides up to the top, leaving me to pant in his wake.

I ask Ismael if he gets sick of telling his story, sick of remembering all the time. He sighs.

“Sometimes. But it also feels good to talk about it and it’s important to tell my story.”

And is he scared of al-Shabab killing him one day for telling the world what happened?

He shrugs, then smiles.

“No – not really. If you are afraid to tell the truth…then you are already dead.”