How one man's family continues his work to bring peace to Somalia

Ilwad Elman, left, and Fartuun Adan spoke at the Global Centre for Pluralism earlier this week. (Patrick Doyle - image credit)
Ilwad Elman, left, and Fartuun Adan spoke at the Global Centre for Pluralism earlier this week. (Patrick Doyle - image credit)

Fartuun Adan and her daughter Ilwad Elman fled war in Somalia in the 1990s, and after being granted asylum in Ottawa the mother-daughter duo has pushed for peace in their home country.

But in truth, their work has been a lifelong pursuit.

Adan took her three young daughters to Canada leaving her husband, peace activist Elman Ali Ahmed, behind.

He was — and remains — a prominent figure in Somalian society because of his work, and a slogan he lived by: "Drop the gun, pick up the pen."

Ahmed was killed in 1996 after he received threats from warlords to stop doing the work of bringing peace to the country.

"They told him you have to stop the work you do," Adan said in an interview on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

The picture was very grim and terrifying. - Ilwad Elman

Ahmed had refused a security detail that was offered to him because he wouldn't be living by the slogan if he was being protected by people with guns.

The determination and integrity that cost Ahmed his life lives on through his wife and daughters.

The Elman Centre for Peace and Human Rights in Mogadishu, a non-governmental agency, was started by Ahmed but has continued to this day because of Adan and Elman's work.

Adan and Elman have been short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize three times and last month the pair received an award in Sweden.

Arriving in Canada

When Adan and her daughters first arrived in Ottawa, she didn't know any English and lived on her own.

"It was hard, but we did well after a few years and my girls grow up. They had a good opportunity in schools," she said.

"I learned the language at least and we were very happy to be here in Canada."

When her youngest got to high school, she decided it was time to go back to Somalia to continue the work her husband had started.

"My mother has always been a fierce custodian of my father's legacy," Elman said.

The way she described him, he sounded like a mythical character. - Ilwad Elman

She said that was a difficult time for the girls left behind in Canada.

"There was no social media at the time. We'd have to use international scratch cards to call her and rely on international media to understand what was happening in Somalia. And the picture was very grim and terrifying," she said.

"To appease my own heart and to understand why she was there when we also needed her, I went to visit her without her consent, actually. And then I stayed because I saw the impact that she was making."

Tragedy struck the family again when Elman's sister — and Adan's daughter — was shot and killed in Mogadishu in 2019.

Almaas Elman was working to continue her family's legacy of bringing peace to Somalia.

Bringing things 'full circle'

The pair returned to Ottawa from Somalia to speak Wednesday at the Global Centre for Pluralism.

Elman said coming back to the nation's capital felt like coming home, and really brought things "full circle."

"I think my upbringing here in Ottawa really has informed a lot of the work that we do in Somalia," she said.

"So it feels good to be back and to be able to share what we've been up to since we left."

A lasting legacy

Elman said getting to know her father through her mother's memories made him seem like a legend.

"The way she described him, he sounded like a mythical character. He had dreadlocks, he only wore pastel colours, and during the conflict only wore white. Committed not to cut his hair until there was peace in Somalia," she said.

"The way that she painted him and the impact that he had — it seemed so huge."

She said people in Canada, especially in the Somali community, would recognize her last name and share their stories of her father.

But when she got to Somalia, following her mother to continue her father's work, she felt the immense effect he had and continues to have there.

"Every single person I would interact with had an encounter, and it was always a beautiful memory and I could see his slogan — 20 years after his passing — 'Drop the gun pick up the pen' still marked on the streets in the ruins of Mogadishu," she said.

"It's incredible to have grown up knowing his conviction and his passion and his impact, but then to see that still live on decades after his passing was moving."