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The quest to become a “Qurbajoog”

Qurbajoog, a Somali word which loosely translates as ‘diaspora’, is a word that has gained prominence in the Somali language during the post-war era. The word qurbajoog is a combination of two separate words; qurba meaning ‘outside, abroad or overseas’ and joog meaning ‘stay’. In Somaliland, the word qurbajoog is almost exclusively used to identify a specific group of the Somali diaspora – those residing in the west such as  Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand[1].

Qurbajoog is more than an identity marker; it has specific connotations and conjures specific images . In my recent research in Somaliland, I asked a group of university students to describe a qurbajoog. The answers provided were numerous, but the majority of the responses reveal that the diaspora enjoys high social esteem given the material and non-material contributions this group makes to Somaliland. They were also perceived as having relatively easy access to social and economic resources when they return ‘home’. Although the Somaliland diaspora in general tend to not stay permanently and are “revolving” returnees,[2] the number entering each year has increased over time and a few remain in the country (see graph below).

Graph 1: The yearly number of passengers from commercial flights entering the main airports in Somaliland


Source: Graph created by author using data from various reports by the Somaliland Ministry of National Planning and Development. The secondary axis corresponds with the ‘dotted’ line, which represents the difference between the yearly numbers of entrances and exists. These figures do not represent the ‘qurbajoog’ only. It is the total number of passengers that have entered and exited Somaliland using commercial flights and thus includes other diaspora groups as well as other passengers.

During discussions, a qurbajoog was understood in diametrically opposed sense from a qolqoljoog – a word used to refer to persons residing in the country. The first part of this word, qolqol or qolqolka, refers to a segment of the house, a ‘yard’ or a ‘small enclosed space adjacent to the house’. A qolqoljoog thus refers to those residing in the country and implies those that are inside and who lack the social and economic resources associated with living outside. A qolqoljoog is therefore not similar to a qurbajoog. For one, a qurbajoog has been abroad, they are wayo arag-those who have travelled, seen and experienced many things – attributes that are highly valued in Somali society[3].

When students were asked what they thought were the main differences between a qurbajoog and a qolqoljoog, the answers provided were also numerous. However, two points cropped up repeatedly– a qurbajoog has a superior western education that allows him or her access to good jobs when at ‘home’ and is also equipped with a western passport that allows him or her flexibility in entering and leaving Somaliland. In addition to a host of other characteristics, these two features make the qurbajoog an important social and economic actor with significant influence in the social, political and economic spheres when at ‘home’. These two characteristics were amongst the main features of a qurbajoog that Somaliland youth aspired to acquire.

Although the information provided by students was too general and ignored vital differentiation within this diaspora group, they captured the common perceptions held by young people in Somaliland about the qurbajoog. These perceptions, together with local factors, including the opportunities and constraints facing young people there, have been crucial in shaping youth ideas about social mobility. In fact, this combination has created a narrative about social mobility: to become successful in Somaliland one has to leave and return as a qurbajoog endowed with a western education and passport. The quest to become a qurbajoog is why young people embark on tahriib – a dangerous journey to Europe via the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea.

This paper uses field data collected in Somaliland from January to October 2013 and from June to September 2015. The data used in this paper is largely qualitative and sought to capture the perceptions of young people about the constraints and opportunities they face, and the strategies they employ to navigate their environments. The paper is set out as follows: The following section briefly discusses the Somaliland youth, followed by an analysis of the two features embedded in the quest to becoming a qurbajoog – the quest for western education and a western passport. The next section discusses the utilisation of tahriib as a way to reach Europe and to realise the strategy of becoming a qurbajoog. The last section concludes the paper.

The Somaliland youth

Somaliland youth, similar to their counterparts in the other Somali regions, constitute the majority of the population[4]. Although this group at present has improved access to education across all levels compared to the period prior to the war, it continues to face significant social and economic challenges. First, over three quarters of young people are unemployed[5]. High levels of employment are however not limited to the youth population. The overall employment-to-population ratio in Somaliland stood at about 23 percent in 2012[6].

Second, socially, the Somaliland youth occupy an awkward position. Even though they have been active in milestone events in the history of Somaliland,[7] they have a limited say in the day-to-day affairs of Somaliland. The perception that young people are inexperienced, make rash decisions and cannot be trusted with important matters, is widespread. A popular Somali has it, nin yari intuu geed ka boodo ayuu talo ka boodaa which can be roughly translated as ‘a young man makes mistakes (as easily) as he jumps over a log’, captures this social perception. In politics, it was only recently that the age to run for district council office was lowered from 35 to 25[8]. Youth often have to ask elders to be their daamin to ‘respresent and vouch’ for them before they can be employed.

It would be incorrect to assume that young people in Somaliland are passive agents. Similar to youth in other parts of the world, Somaliland youths employ several strategies to navigate their environment and improve their social position. Through higher education for example, they now have degrees, something that elders often do not have – “now I have a degree I can speak and people listen because they know I have the knowledge” pointed out a university graduate[9]. With their degrees, they also hope to find employment. However, given the intense competition for the few well-paid formal sector jobs, and the labour market’s preference of foreign education, they often are not successful.

Somaliland youth have formulated a strategy to overcome the challenges they face. This strategy involves leaving Somaliland and returning as a qurbajoog endowed with two important resources – a western education and a passport. Using migration as a strategy for upward social mobility is not unique to the Somaliland youth. Internal and external migration are strategies commonly employed by young people in other African countries[10].

The quest for a western education

From the late 1990s, education provision in Somaliland across all levels has grown dramatically. This growth, which has mainly been driven by non-state actors, has significantly widened access to education (provided households can pay the fees) compared to the period before the war.  The growth of education provision across all levels has however gone hand in hand with changing perceptions about the value of education being offered. For the university sector in particular, the initial growth from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s was highly welcomed, and households placed tremendous expectations on post-graduation outcomes. In 2013, over two-dozen universities were operating in Somaliland. However, as the number of universities continued to grow rapidly and chaotically, concerns about the quality of education on offer arose.

Graph 2: The number and distribution of universities across Somaliland


Source: Original map created by a cartographer at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. The author edited the map and added the content from field data. Each blue ball represents a university. A total of 28 universities were operating in Somaliland in 2013/2014. About 15 of these are in the capital city, Hargeisa.

The high expectations placed on post-graduation outcomes were gradually replaced by ambivalence, especially as opportunities after graduation became limited. Furthermore, the ambiguities regarding whether Somaliland degree certificates were recognised outside Somaliland also contributed to anxiety. By the beginning of this decade, a combination of limited state involvement  in the higher education sector, coupled with the perceived low quality of education, gradually started to change perceptions about the value of university education. Increasingly, young people and their families began to see university education in Somaliland as something to do whilst waiting for something else. The excerpt below from a focus group discussion in Borama captures this dilemma.

My elder son recently told me, mother, I know I’m just starting university but I really do not see the point. All the older graduates are still sitting on their verandas doing nothing […] my younger son who is finishing secondary school this year decided he does not want to study in this country. He said only people who study abroad are employed when they come back […] there is no future in Somaliland[11].

The uncertainties surrounding the benefits of university education in Somaliland is further accentuated by the high value attached to western degrees and other foreign degrees in the local labour markets. Employers systematically prefer holders of foreign degrees. Foreign degrees are perceived to be of superior quality and their holders are perceived to not only have a better command of the English language, but also supposedly better attuned to the western ‘work ethic’. Although degrees from western countries are considered the ‘best’, employers also prefer all other degrees obtained outside Somaliland to those obtained in Somaliland.

The quest for a western degree as a motivation to become a qurbajoog can also be seen as a way for youth from less affluent households to respond to the perceived low quality of the local education system.  As young Somalis from better-off households are able to pursue higher education in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, India, Pakistan or Malaysia, they are not motivated to demand improvements in the local education system, while young people from poor households are left with a system that they can do very little to improve. The strategy to leave Somaliland and become a qurbajoog therefore provides an exit strategy for young people from poorer households. If successful this strategy not only provides access to western education, but may also allow lead eventually to a western passport, as discussed below.

The quest for a western passport

Somaliland youth also noted that obtaining a western passport was a crucial motivation behind their quest to becoming a qurbajoog. Having a western passport, they noted, would overcome perhaps one of the biggest obstacle to travelling legally outside Somaliland. It would also allow them the flexibility to move around and try their nasiib ‘luck’ elsewhere. A 23-year-old man who has recently graduated from university in Hargeisa noted during an interview:

“[…] I’m expected to work hard for my life and provide for my family and my relatives, yet I’m told this [he draws an imaginary box in the air] is the limit of your movements you can’t leave Somaliland. How can a person make a living if he is not allowed to try his luck elsewhere when things here are impossible? It is not possible  […].[12]

As Somalia has in effect been without an internationally recognized government for over two decades, a Somali passport has not been a valid travel document for a long period of time. During this time the perceptions about Somalia being a ‘failed state’ and a haven for terrorists in conjunction with the ‘War-on-Terror’ discourse, has made travelling with a Somali passport incredibly difficult. Getting visas for legitimate purposes, such as education or visiting a family member outside the Somali regions, is often problematic[13]. The continuing activities of Al-Shabaab have also made travelling within the East and Horn of Africa region extremely difficult for young Somalis in particular young Somali men. The situation for young people in Somaliland is even more ambiguous: although Somaliland declared its independence in May 1991, it is not internationally recognized and apart from Ethiopia, other foreign authorities do not accept Somaliland passports.

Apart from travelling limitations, the perception that those with western passports had greater access to better jobs is also pervasive. This was particularly associated with the heavy presence of qurbajoog in the humanitarian aid and development sector. Jobs in this sector are the most sought after due to the high level of remuneration they offer and the social prestige associated with them. It is however unlikely that having a western passport alone was sufficient to obtain a job in this sector. It is plausible that a combination of other factors, such as having a western education also play a role. However, it is might also be true that having an employee with a Somali passport make logistics difficult for international aid agencies, which tend to have their head offices outside the Somali regions.

Apart from having access to good jobs, young people also noted that having a western passport allows a qurbajoog, especially men, easy access to finding a spouse when at ‘home’. Young men in Somaliland argued that it is not possible to compete with a qurbajoog when it comes to finding a spouse.

You spend a year or two talking to a girl. You think everything is going well then she marries a qurbajoog […] it is always a qurbajoog.  All girls in Somaliland want a qurbajoog because if they marry a qurbajoog they go abroad and get a passport […] It does not matter the bad things they do […] I know many girls that get married but the man does not come back to take them to Europe […][14]

How do they leave?

In order for the strategy to become a qurbajoog to work, opportunities to emigrate have to be available. In the section above I noted how travelling using the Somali or Somaliland passport is incredibly difficult. To overcome this difficulty, young people in Somaliland are going on tahriib instead.  Tahriib is an Arabic word that has been used in the Somali context to refer to the emigration of a large number of young Somali men and women (the majority are aged between 17 and 21) to Europe via Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, and across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. In Somaliland, the number of young people ‘going on tahriib’ is rising. Although accurate statistics are lacking, a recent UNHCR commissioned study estimated that some 500 to 3000 people cross the Somaliland/Ethiopia border each month en route to Libya[15].

Smugglers operating from Somaliland and throughout the route facilitate Tahriib. These smugglers operate a ‘leave now – pay later’ approach, which has removed one of the biggest constraints to emigration[16]. Any young Somali can, in effect, embark on tahriib without having to worry about paying the money upfront, or getting permission from their families[17]. The harsh nature of the route and the arrangement young people make with the smugglers, often leads to situations which can be categorized as human trafficking[18]. However, since tahriib is the only viable outlet to leave Somaliland, and since the costs associated with this journey are perceived to be relatively low (given the pay later approach)[19], tahriib has made the quest to become a qurbajoog a viable strategy for young people.


The widely held perception that qurbajoog are highly valued and respected within the society and enjoy greater access to social and economic resources when they return ‘home’, coupled with the social and economic constraints young people face in Somaliland, has led to the emergence of a strategy and narrative regarding social mobility for young people in Somaliland. The core of this this narrative and consequent strategy is the necessity to leave Somaliland and return back as a qurbajoog armed with a western passport and education. This strategy to leave Somaliland is facilitated by tahriib – a dangerous but only viable option for young people to reach Europe and realise their aspiration to become a qurbajoog. This is captured in a popular saying amongst the youth, tahriibta maanta waa qurbajoog berito ‘those going on tahriib today are the qurbajoog of tomorrow’.


Nimo-ilhan Ali is a Somali student currently pursuing her doctorate studies at the School Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation scholar. She can be reached at:



[1] Although the Somali diaspora is not confined to the western countries and the size and impact of the near-diaspora residing in other parts of Africa, Yemen and the Gulf is significant, these groups of diaspora are not referred locally as qurbajoog. Instead, they are referred using a host of other words that tend to include the location or country of their residence i.e. jaaliyaad carabta referring to the Somali ‘community in the Arab’ countries.

[2] Peter Hansen, “Revolving Returnees in Somaliland,” in Living Across Worlds: Diaspora, Development and Transnational Engagement, ed. Ninna N. Sørensen (International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2007), 131–48.

[3] C. Rousseau et al., “Between Myth and Madness: The Premigration Dream of Leaving Among Young Somali Refugees,” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 30, no. 4 (1998): 385–411; Cindy Horst, “Buufis amongst Somalis in Dadaab: The Transnational and Historical Logics behind Resettlement Dreams,” Journal of Refugee Studies 19, no. 2 (2006).

[4] Officially a number of age-based categories are used to define the Somali youth: 15-24, 14 to 29 or 15 to 30. In reality though youth in the Somali society is determined less by age and more by specific life milestones that individuals achieve at different stages in their lives i.e. getting married.

[5] SLMoP, “Somaliland National Development Plan (2012-2016)” (Hargeisa, Somaliland.: Somaliland Ministry of National Planning and Development, 2011); SONYO, “Somaliland Youth Status Survey” (SONYO, 2011).

[6] ILO, “Labour Force Survey Somaliland 2012: Report on Borama, Hargeisa, & Burro” (Nairobi. Kenya: Precise Trends Research & Consulting (PTR & C) & ILO, 2013).

[7] For example the famous Dhagax tuur ‘stone throwing’ demonstration by young people in the early 1980s against the sentences imposed by the military regime on members of the Hargeisa group (See Bradbury, 2008)

[8] Somaliland electro laws Article 33(4) amended by a presidential decree on 13 December 2011

[9] Interview with a graduate of Amoud University, Borama August 2013

[10] T. Langevanga and K. Gough, “Surviving through Movement: The Mobility of Urban Youth in Ghana,” Social and Cultural Geography 10, no. 7 (2009).

[11] Focus group discussion with mothers of university students. Borama 24th of July 2013.

[12] Interview with a recent university graduate. Hargeisa. July 2015

[13] A few young Somalis however do obtain scholarships to study in Turkey. In addition, young Somalis from better-off families also go to India, Pakistan, Malaysia to pursue higher education

[14] Interview with a 23 year university graduate. Hargeisa. August 2013

[15] Altai Consulting, “Mixed Migration: Libya at the Crossroads. Mapping of Migration Routes from Africa to Europe and Drivers of Migration in Post-Revolution Libya” (UNHCR, November 2013),

[16] Nimo-ilhan Ali, “Tahriib: Somali youth and the precarious journey to Europe. An investigation into ‘tahriib’ and its implications to families in Somaliland and Puntland,” Rift Valley Institute, 2016 (forthcoming).

[17] Ibid

[18] RMMS, “Going West: Contemporary Mixed Migration Trends from the Horn of Africa to Libya and Europe” (Nairobi. Kenya: The Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, June 2014).

[19] Although young people are aware that their families will have to fork out large sums of money at a later stage and are aware of widespread incidences of family having to stress-sale assets to raise this money, the fact that they themselves do not have to worry about this cost at the beginning of their journey, significantly reduces their considerations of the direct costs associated with tahriib. During discussions they often noted that their “relatives will pay” and their families will always find a way to raise the money.

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