As one of the youngest and most prominent voices for peacebuilding in Somalia, Ilwad Elman has already been voted African Young Personality of the Year and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
A decade ago, Elman returned to Somalia, where the majority of Mogadishu and South Central Regions were lost to the Al-Qaeda linked terrorist group Al-Shabaab. It was here – in the wake of a devastating civil war that left 400,000 dead due to lack of food and water, and a generation of young Somalis traumatized by sexual warfare and violent child exploitation– that Elman and her mother opened the country’s first rape crisis center.
The project has since been scaled to nine different regions while the Elman Peace Centre continues to develop programs for the disarmament and rehabilitation of child soldiers and adults defecting from armed groups.
In her short career, Elman has made an impact at the grassroots level and the international diplomatic stage. Her work has recently infiltrated the world of streetwear, offering a blueprint for how designers and platforms can empower activist projects in a meaningful way.
Elman sat down with Highsnobiety in Berlin recently while she was visiting to receive the 2020 German Africa Prize for her contributions to peacebuilding over the past decade. We spoke to her about her collaboration with Daily Paper, the healing power of surfing, and the intersection of activism, streetwear, and rehabilitation.
What sparked your interest in activism?
My mom and my dad were both ardent human rights activists. Before the war in Somalia, they were focused on orphans and youth with substance abuse problems. When the war broke out, those very vulnerable young people were co-opted by the warlords and used as human shields to perpetuate the conflict.
[My parents] had a very simple recipe to building peace at the height of the conflict then, which was “drop the gun, pick up the pen,” giving young people an opportunity for education and skills training in exchange for handing in the weapons.
My father decided to stay in Somalia to continue to do the work, and my mother would leave the country with my sisters and I. Unfortunately, while we were on the traditional refugee route and finally got asylum in Canada, he was killed for the work that he was doing.
My sister and I always knew that there was a higher calling. We were always raised to know that you have to live your life with purpose, but moving back to Somalia and this kind of activism wasn’t one that was prescribed to us. I think the torch of activism was just passed down.
What inspired you to try yoga and surf therapy to help survivors process their trauma?
I don’t know if you’ve ever surfed before but it’s very hard. It commands so much power in the body. We read all this research about how it’s being used to treat PTSD in war veterans and so we were intrigued about introducing kids to the ocean, helping them to feel safe in the water with a partner, allowing them to trust someone and try to float, to focus on nothing else.
We’re working with children in armed conflict and with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. What we’ve found is that, consistently, is that it’s considered weak or ungrateful to even speak about the things that you are so lucky to have survived. [But] is there ever the [post] in post-traumatic stress disorder? When you’re constantly in survival mode, constantly coping?
So we asked, “What are the things that create solidarity and community, and an opportunity to draw parallels between a physical activity and then a mental cognitive kind of situation?” We use that as an entry point of, okay, “When’s the last time you felt safe in the water? When’s the last time you actually laid back in the water and trusted someone to hold you up?” And then that creates a dialogue that you otherwise wouldn’t have.
The same with our art therapy, give a kid a canvas and they will draw what is on top of mind. And we use this in our rehabilitation and reintegration program where kids stay with us. The collaboration that we did with Daily Paper actually took the drawings from some of the kids in our program. And that was, I think, a really interesting collaboration because it created immersive empathy.
So the Daily Paper collab was part of your art therapy project and incorporated illustrations by the kids in the project? How did this happen?
So, I know the founders. I met them on social media, [I was] just supporting and cheerleading the work that we were doing, and they asked, “how can we support you?”
It’s a very conscious brand; they try to tell a story and try to cultivate a community around their consumers. It’s not just about putting on really cool clothes but trying to send messages of solidarity of activism and activating the people that are in their community already.
The art therapy program is somewhere that we see the most impact and the transformational potential in healing society. In the humanitarian context, [art therapy] is still considered too fluffy or soft, and you can never get funding for these kinds of things. It created an opportunity where we could have an unconventional partnership with a brand, to actually tangibly support what we know to be a vital intervention.
Despite the kind of collaborations that we have with UN and government agencies, these things that actually shape identities and bring people together are really hard to get funding for. So that was one of the big achievements of that collaboration: The T-shirts sold out very fast and the [proceeds were] used to fund our art therapy program.
It was really nice to see people from all over the world rocking the tees and they had the kids’ names on the tags. So they also felt really proud to see their creations everywhere.
What advice would you give someone who is looking to get into activism but might not know where to start?
I’m very inspired by the younger generations globally, generation Z. There’s no “activation” that’s necessary. Our world seems to be fraught with more human suffering, whether it’s climate change, manmade or natural disasters, and we’re hyper-connected right now.
The younger generation right now is mobilizing and organizing. We’re moving away from a slacktivism if you will, where you’re just reading an article or liking a post. Young people are actually getting on the front lines now.
I think that my advice for young people that want to be part of the change that they want to see in the world, and this is something I think was also a hard lesson for me too, is that you don’t always have to start your own thing. It’s always possible to also support an existing initiative, being a part of something.
The digital age that we’re in right now provides opportunities for people from all over the world to align along with ideology and values. And sometimes that doesn’t even have to be in-person. We’re creating communities and subcultures and positive identities through online engagement, through social media, through cultural platforms like Highsnobiety, where we can actually pick our own tribe.
That will have reverberations beyond just the traditional field activism that some of us have taken on. So I think my biggest advice is just to educate yourself to be accessible, to put out your ideas because that does actually gravitate and create opportunities for co-creation and collaboration.
Right now we are more polarised than ever. What tools do you find helpful when you’re trying to find common ground on the international stage?
I think we’re definitely in a polarized world right now. If there’s any silver lining to this pandemic, I think it’s that we all entered a crash course in empathy. Everywhere in the world, we essentially stood still at the same time. People were going through the same thing, suffering on the same scale. It shows how countries that are more developed, were maybe for the first time also understanding what loss could look like at such a massive scale as the global south.
I found that it’s useful to lead with the things that I’m for, rather than the thing that I’m against. Because the things that I’m against will come with rebuttal or disagreement. If I talk about the things that I’m for in more of a proactive solution-oriented approach, I feel like that helps create a better sense of understanding.