Somali Refugee Finds Opportunity and Love in Rwanda

By Catherine Wachiaya

Ali Abdi fled conflict in Somalia two decades ago and is now a proud business owner and father in Rwanda’s capital.

As Ali Abdi walks briskly down a winding path towards his shop in the old industrial area of Kigali, he stops to greet people along the way. Fluent in the local language, Kinyarwanda, the Somali businessman easily passes for a native Rwandan. After all, he has lived in the Rwandan capital for two decades.

“Sometimes I forget I am a refugee. I only remember when I see my card or when someone calls me a refugee,” he says.

Ali fled Mogadishu 20 years ago, as war raged in Somalia, and found refuge in Rwanda.

“When I left Somalia I was confused but I just kept going,” he recalls. “When I got to Rwanda, I stopped running.”

Like many newly arrived refugees, he was unsure of where to start. “When I came here, I didn’t know the language,” he adds. Despite his jitters, he was fiercely independent and believed he could take care of himself.

In Kigali, Ali was doubly lucky – he found an enabling environment which buoyed his keen sense of entrepreneurship and he met Mukagashagaza, a Rwandan woman who later became his wife.

“I met my wife and we have helped each other,” he says. “She is from this country, so she has taught me a lot and now I am self-reliant.”

Ali identified ways to earn an income and applied for an identity card and a business license through the Rwanda Development Board (RDB).

“Rwanda is a peaceful country and people do not discriminate,” he explains. “I blended in and because I was allowed to work, I decided to start a small business.”

He started hawking phones and various goods in the city and after a while he opened a small shop where he sells basic products like packaged food and cleaning supplies. He credits Mukagashagaza with helping him further navigate the new environment and adapt to life in exile.

His business is conveniently located in the city’s old industrial area where trucks ferrying goods from Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya transit. This ensures a steady supply of goods for his business, which in turn means more revenue. With the license to operate his business, Ali is able to pay taxes to the Rwandan revenue authority.

“I live like any other citizen of this country,” he says. “The government allows us to live and work here and we have IDs, so we can pay taxes.”

Hosting over 150,000 refugees, Rwanda is offering a conducive environment and opportunities for refugees by adopting a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to refugees.

Refugees like Ali have the right to do business, access health services and insurance, banking and education. With more than 12,000 refugees living in cities like Kigali, such access is promoting their integration into Rwandan urban communities.

Ali’s hard work over the years has paid off, enabling him and his wife to save money to buy land and build a home for their family.

“I can take my children to school and I already have a house and a shop,” he says with pride.

Ali adds that refugees don’t have to live in camps only.

“I know I am a refugee but I also know I can be independent and help myself.”

The couple is focused on giving their children the best life.

“I want my children to learn so they don’t face the same problems I did,” he says. “I must make sure they have an education and they have a good life.”

Source: UNHCR

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