HARGEISA, Somalia — The Kulan Art Café is a bright airy place with murals and framed paintings by local artists, potted plants, fresh coffee and ice cream, homemade cakes and a menu featuring Western staples like pizza and hamburgers.
In Hargeisa, the capital of the breakaway state of Somaliland, there is nothing else like it. Nor is there anything like it elsewhere in Somalia, which is attracting increasing numbers of diaspora Somalis as the country gradually emerges from decades of conflict.
Among the returnees is the café’s owner Ayan Hussein, a striking woman in her 40s who decided to return to Somalia two years ago.
Clutching her three young children Hussein fled the capital Mogadishu in 1997. They settled in London, first as refugees then as British citizens. The north London suburb of Hampstead became their home, and her children grew up as Londoners.
With an eye for fashion Hussein worked as a freelance stylist, designing weddings for wealthy clients and advising fashionistas on the right handbags to carry. She often worked at Browns, an uber-trendy boutique in London’s West End.
But after 15 years she decided it was time to return to Somalia. “There has to be some point in your life when you go back to look after your relatives and contribute to your country. It’s a beautiful time to come back,” she told GlobalPost over a cup of Ethiopian coffee at Kulan one recent morning.
The more than 20 years of chaos, warfare and destruction that ripped Somalia apart propelled many of its citizens abroad. Today Somalis constitute one of the largest, most far-flung diaspora communities on the planet, with an estimated 1.5 million in the US, Europe and the Gulf States.
In many cases they were the lucky ones. But although they left they continued to support networks of relatives in Somalia, sending back up to $2 billion a year in remittances according to World Bank estimates.
As Somalia’s war begins to subside, the trickle of returning diaspora Somalis is becoming a tide. The more hardy among them head to the capital Mogadishu, where the beginnings of an investment boom have been discernible since Al Qaeda-aligned militants left in August 2011, but where suicide bombings still threaten.
Others, like Hussein, choose the far safer option of Somaliland — a region that has run its own affairs since declaring independence in 1991, but has yet to be recognized by any foreign state.
“I know Mogadishu is getting better but I have family here and it’s safer,” she said.
Diaspora Somalis often bring with them skills, education, money and new ideas, making them better equipped to profit from Somalia’s fragile peace. But they also face culture shock and resentment from those who stayed behind.
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Hussein admitted she finds it easier to identify with others from the diaspora because “they understand the ways of living outside.” Her businesses reflect this.
The inspiration for Kulan Art Café came from watching as her own children struggled to settle into their new home, and wanting to provide something familiar from “our other home,” as she calls London.
“A lot of children from the diaspora, my own included, suffer in the sense that, where do you get pizzas, burgers, ravioli with cheese? There’s no place,” she said.
Hussein’s oldest son Mohamed, 23, refused to leave London but her 26-year-old daughter Sagal, and younger sons Guled, 19, and Gabriel, 5, moved with her.
Sagal and Guled work at the café and also at Hussein’s fashion boutique across the road which stocks imported clothes, accessories, makeup and perfume, but for them the move has not been easy.
“Even though I’m from here I’m also from London so the way things are here, I didn’t expect it. It was a total culture shock,” said Guled, who can understand but cannot speak Somali.
“I tend to make friends with people from abroad,” he said.
In London he was a skater riding the concrete ramps and slopes of Cantelowes Skatepark in Camden, north London. “Here everything is dust. You can’t skate on dust,” he said. The road outside is typical: broken tarmac and dust verges studded with telegraph polls capped by crazy birds’ nests of telephone and electrical wire.
“What I like doing here and what I like doing in London are two completely different things. I had to adapt and change,” said Guled.
Guled misses his skate parks, but for Hussein it’s the green outdoor spaces, running water and reliable electricity that she longs for. And in conservative Somalia she has had to work hard to indulge what she calls “my passions: food and fashion.”
At both her café and shop customers are mostly from the diaspora. They sit at tables chatting in British and American accents drinking $0.50 cappuccinos and sharing $2 slices of homemade carrot cake.
The young women who buy designer jeans from Hussein’s shop have to hide them beneath long abayas.
“It’s difficult because it’s an Islamic country there’s a very thin line and you can easily make a mistake,” she said.