by Rina Brundu. Today (1) the Italian paper Corriere della Sera reported the death of the young Somalian sprinter Samia Yusuf Omar (2), as told by athlete and countryman Abdi Bile. Samia – who during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing “managed a personal record of 32.16 seconds in the 200 metre sprint event, with the crowd roaring in applause” – allegedly died while on her way to Italy on a boat from Libya. The news reports are far from clarifying the matter, therefore I have asked a few questions to Teresa Krug, writer and Al Jazeera journalist, who had interviewed Samia during the past months for the publication of a book about her life.
Q: Teresa, today, 19th August 2012, the Italian paper Corriere della Sera reported that Samia Yusuf Omar, the Somalian sprinter, died while on her way to Italy on a boat from Libya. This news came from Abdi Bile, a compatriot of hers and fellow runner but they appear to be difficult to verify. I, myself, have checked her Wikipedia page this very morning and no mention of her death was made; while I write I have seen that that same page has now been updated with these very remarks I have just made: what can you tell us about her fate?
A: From what I understand, Samia Yusuf Omar died after drowning from a boating accident while traveling from Libya to Lampedusa, Italy. From the broken conversations we had in the months preceding that trip, she said she was looking for a coach in Italy. She believed that life as an athlete would be better in Europe than in Mogadishu. From the news reports—and her older sister, who had the death confirmed by a fellow passenger—I think the boat accident happened early April 2012. However, this did not come to my attention until a couple weeks ago when Abdi Bile informed the rest of the world. Obviously I am very saddened. She’s had so many close calls with death that I have wanted to assume she was somehow still alive. But I haven’t had a response from her in months—and no one has been able to verify they’ve seen her since last spring. Her Facebook account—which she used to communicate largely with others—has had no activity since April.
Q: I have recently visited your blog where you had called for help on her activities but all posts have been cancelled. Can you tell why and, if this is the case, what led to the failure of your and her projects?
A: I became interested in interviewing and meeting Samia after I read about her in a Yahoo article. I was admittedly brought to tears twice when I read about her crossing the finish line several seconds behind everyone else, but to a standing ovation from the crowd. When I discovered that she was born in 1991—the year that Somalia collapsed—and that she had suffered many of the same hardships as most of her countrymen, I decided that her story would make for a great book. She could explain Somalia’s last 20 years in a digestible way for a mainstream audience. I was lucky when I finally met her that she was very warm, extremely funny and quite the troublemaker. I have notebooks filled with stories of her running away from madrasa school—or older kids she had just pranked.
Q: Can you tell us of when you first met Samia and why you decided to “work” with her?
A: We met a few times for week-long interviews in Somaliland twice, where she left her family to come and stay with me and indulge my curiosity. And then once in Ethiopia, which I wrote about for al Jazeera English. The project fell apart—or rather was put on hold—because of a lot of logistical reasons. There was the obvious language barrier—although she spoke increasingly better English.
There was also the fact that we lived in different locations: in the beginning she still lived in Mogadishu—a city too dangerous for a foreigner to “hang out” in during 2010.
I then moved to Qatar. She continued to move to Ethiopia, then make her way through the Sudans until she reached Libya. I lectured her—perhaps not fairly as she was 20—not to make the journey, but she did anyway. In which case she went missing for several months before showing up in the North African country miraculously alive. Many of her companions had supposed died or been jailed/kidnapped along the way.
We spoke sporadically when she reached Libya. I supported her when I could, but she was very bad at communicating. The last message I got from her was that she had been in jail and in really bad shape, but now she was okay. That was back in early 2012. But when I tried to respond, she disappeared on me again.
But ultimately, the book wasn’t HER goal. She just wanted to find a coach. And compete in the 2012 Olympics. And so I let the project fade away. I had planned to pursue it later if she showed interest, but I didn’t want to push it on her.
Q: Should the rumour of her death be true, what is the best memory of her you have and would like to share with others. Furthermore, how do you believe she would like to be remembered? What would be her final message to us all and to the women of her home-country in particular?
A: I think my favorite memory was when I visited her in Ethiopia in April 2011 when she was clearly much more relaxed and optimistic about her future. It brought me more peace to know that she was living in a place where she was in less danger.
But a more telling memory of her is when she tore in the dark after a teenage boy who had stolen her phone. The whole thing happened so fast that I was left standing near the main road in Hargeisa, Somaliland. I was horrified at first when I couldn’t find her, but after a few minutes she gave up and came to find me. At first I hugged her tightly as an overprotective sister would, and then I laughed at how that boy had chosen the wrong person to rob. Not only was she the fastest female in all of Somalia, but she also had the fierce spirit to follow him.
I don’t know how she’d best like to be remembered. I know that she always wanted a better life for her family. And for female Somali athletes.
Perhaps she would just like to be remembered as the rest of us would like to be: that we mattered and made others’ lives a little better.
Note: a heartfelt thank you to Teresa for her kindness and courtesy. My hope is that she will be soon ready to start again with her book-project about Samia’s life as this will help us all to get to know a bit better this remarkable little Somalian woman known as Samia Yusuf Omar.
(1) This interview was first published in August 2012.
(2) Samia was born in Somalia in 1991, the oldest of six children. She came from a poor family and hailed from one of the country’s minority ethnic groups.
In preparation for competitive meets in 2008, Omar trained under difficult circumstances, facing harassment from local militants who did not believe that Muslim women should participate in sporting activities. On account of civil unrest in Mogadishu, she also did not benefit from the consistent coaching, reliable facilities and competitive meets that other elite-level athletes enjoy.
In May 2008, Samia competed in the 100 metre sprint at the African Championships. Only 16 years old at the time of the competition, she finished last in her first round heat.
Samia also represented Somalia at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. She managed a personal record of 32.16 seconds in the 200 metre sprint event, with the crowd roaring in applause.
In 2011, Samia moved to Addis Abeba, the capital of neighboring Ethiopia, where a more robust and established running culture exists. Now a middle-distance athlete, she was due to begin training with former Olympian Eshetu Tura, who was recommended to her by the prominent Qatar-based Somali track coach Jama Aden and the Olympic medalist Mohamed Suleiman. Samia hoped to be prepared in time to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
On 19 August 2012, the Corriere della Sera reported that Samia had died while on her way to Italy on a boat from Libya. The information came from her compatriot and fellow runner Abdi Bile, and was “difficult to verify” according to the newspaper.In response to the news, Al Jazeera journalist Teresa Krug, who had previously interviewed Samia and maintained contact with her, reported that Samia had left Ethiopia in 2011, crossed the Sudan and reached Libya, where she was imprisoned for a time for unspecified reasons. She had hoped to reach Italy and find a coach to train for the 2012 London Games. Krug told Rina Brundu of Rosebud: “From the news reports—and her older sister, who had the death confirmed by a fellow passenger—I think the boat accident happened early April 2012. However, this did not come to my attention until a couple weeks ago when Abdi Bile informed the rest of the world”.
On 20 August, the BBC reported that it had received confirmation of Samia’s death from Somalia’s National Olympic Committee.By 21 August, wider English-language media had begun to pick up on the story. The Associated Press reported that Qadijo Aden Dahir, the Deputy Chairman for Somalia’s athletics federation, had confirmed that Samia had drowned off the Libyan seaboard in July while trying to reach Italy from her home in Ethiopia. Qadijo added that “it’s a sad death…She was our favorite for the London Olympics.”(biography from English Wikipedia).
Featured image, Norman Rockwell’s 1963 painting “The Problem We All Live With”.