When Mahad Olad travelled back to Kenya for vacation in 2017, he was hoping to hang out with his family and friends and decompress from a long first year in school. However, that is not what happened.
When he arrived in Nairobi, where his folks have lived since they fled the civil war in Somalia in 1991, he found out that his mother had a new set of plans for him.
“We arrived in Kenya in late May 2017. The very first night there, my mother told me this would not be a summer vacation. She told me that I would not be returning to the U.S. at the end of the summer as planned. She asked me to withdraw from college so that I could be placed under the control of a group of sheikhs whose goal would be to reform my religious beliefs and reorient my sexuality. Somehow, my family had found out my secret and had prepared this elaborate ruse to get me to Kenya,” said the atheist and gay student at the Ithaca College, New York.
On the same night, Olad and his mother were visited by a group of Sheikhs who told him that “being gay and atheist is unequivocally against [his] Islamic upbringing and African heritage.” He knew that he had no choice in the matter and the only way out was to run away.
“I knew I had to get out immediately. I was without access to money or even my passport, so I needed assistance. To buy myself some time, I told my mother that I was willing to go along with her plans.”
He had to lie to his mother that he is going for a walk only for him to go out and call the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), which supports people who have chosen to leave Islam. The executive director was able to connect him to the U.S Embassy in Kenya where he was able to get help and was able to go back to the U.S.
Olad is among the relatively luckier people to escape the ‘camps’ in which deviant Somali children are placed and rehabilitated into acceptable behaviour in a practice called dhaqan celis. Most of the teens are sent to Somalia, Kenya or Egypt where they are taught the ways and traditions of their people and see how hard life is in Africa so that they can appreciate life back in the U.K., the U.S. or Canada.
However, this process has now taken a new turn. According to the Guardian, these ‘rehabilitation centres’ are now places where Somali teens are physically, sexually and mentally abused, and are often told the only way to get out is to get married.
What we are seeing in these communities is that young people who have antisocial behaviour issues, are getting involved in gangs and drugs, and are being sent back to Somalia by their parents for re-education and rehabilitation. The concept in Somali culture, dhaqan celis, means returning to the culture to help them rehabilitate and they are sent to what they call schools but what we call detention centres. We have had reports of physical abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse within these centres, where they are kept in really strict conditions.
-David Myers, joint head of the Home Office’s forced marriage unit (FMU) in the UK.
According to statistics, the number of forced marriage cases handled by Home Office involving Somali children and teenagers have risen by 100 per cent on a yearly basis, raising concerns over the safety of these children. However, not many Somalis in the U.K. claimed any knowledge of these detention camps.
Confirming the existence of these centres, a British-Somali national living in Somaliland told the Guardian: “It is true that parents are bringing their children back here, but there is a reason for this. They are bringing them back so they learn that the life that they have in the UK is the wrong life. Parents do get them married but I wouldn’t say it is forced. It is arranged and their lifestyle is changed.”
He also said that some girls had called an embassy to complain about the abuse at the centres and thus the country was put on Red Alert. He went ahead to say that the girls were lying because they missed the freedoms they had in the ‘western countries.’
In most of these cases, the teens found themselves in these three countries through trickery. Their parents tell them they are going home on holiday or as in the case of Olad, organise for their children in the diaspora to join them for vacation in Africa. Once they land, their documents and money are taken from them and they are put up in these centres.
The detention camps also take the form of drug rehabs, where drug addicts are not only beaten but also fed concoctions as a way of treating their addiction, as seen in an investigative video by BBC Africa Eye.