Two sisters are using their award-winning podcast On The Things We Left Behind to share their family’s stories as Somali refugees. Their goal is to humanize and empower refugees in the process.
Shurki Aden Camey was 22 years old and studying in Italy when the Somali Civil War broke out in 1991, forcing 800,000 people to flee to neighboring countries and displacing 2 million people within the country.
Suddenly, she became her family’s lifeline. She put her studies on hold to help her older siblings find a way out of the country and tried to send her aunts and uncles any extra money to keep them safe.
Nearly 30 years later, Camey’s daughters, Surer and Saredo Mohamed — aged 26 and 24 — are navigating their own lives.
The two sisters now live in London where Surer is pursuing a PhD at Cambridge University in politics and international studies, and Saredo received her masters in migration and policy from the London School of Economics and is working as a policy researcher.
The careers they each chose to pursue were shaped by their own experiences and influenced their decision to launch the podcast.
“I was sitting in a lecture hall and hearing someone talking about these theoretical things like ‘what do we do with the migrants’, or ‘where should we put the migrants,’” Saredo told Global Citizen. “And I took a second and went, ‘they’re talking about me!’ like these things actually affect me and my family’s life.”
Surer added: “Refugees are human beings, let’s talk about their particular experiences and interactions as humans.”
Saredo and Surer started the podcast after they entered the UK’s first large-scale podcast competition, LaunchPod, in June 2019. They were chosen from hundreds of entries to produce a pilot episode and, after a year of work, they completed their first season of six episodes.
An expert judging panel declared Surer and Saredo’s podcast one of three finalists of the competition.
The sisters take turns hosting each episode, but their storytelling styles are complementary to each other. Some episodes also include appearances from guests who share their own stories about conflict and migration. The personal stories of the Mohamed family and anecdotes from others are used to create an honest, emotional portrayal of the refugee experience.
For the season finale episode of the podcast entitled The Architect, which aired on Sept. 27 and was broadcasted in both English and Somali, Surer and Saredo interviewed their mother, who spoke from the same home that she had to leave in Mogadishu, Somalia.
“We’re kind of tracing [her experiences] out and figuring out what this means at this moment in our lives,” Surer said. “It’s very much full circle.”
“It’s a bittersweet kind of melancholic moment,” Saredo added. Camey’s episode aired exactly 26 years after Camey became a mother, on Surer’s birthday.
Saredo and Surer are actively trying to reconstruct the stories lost in wars and conflict through their podcast. One of their central questions is “in what ways does leaving your country behind shape the life that you rebuild?”
This is a question that has shaped the women’s lives, as neither of them was born or raised in Somalia –– Surer was born in Italy and Saredo was born in Canada. When Surer was five and Saredo was three, their parents moved to the US after their mother found a job there.
The family then moved to Columbus, Ohio, a swing-state that leans conservative, in 1998, and were still living there when the US 9/11 attacks happened. Surer described it as a “very political, intense time,” and Saredo noted that it was also “their formative years.”
The sisters said they experienced “othering” in their early childhoods in Columbus. They described Saturday mornings watching American cartoons and feeling connected to their American friends but also belonging to the growing Somalian community.
“There’s this whole other world you’re a part of,” Surer said. “You feel almost like a translator, you’re in between two things.”
In another episode entitled The Space Between Stories, Surer described what it was like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing My Country Tis of Thee, in a school gymnasium covered in American Flags.
One of the lines in the song is “the land where my fathers died.” Surer acknowledged that her father had come with her to the US and that no one in her family had died in the country. She described the feeling of being asked to sing the song as “being asked to put on someone else’s clothes and walk around in them.”
Although the sisters do not consider themselves as activists, they’re hoping that their podcast will help everyone from world leaders to the average person remember that the theoretical questions about refugees and migrants cannot be divorced from the humans living those experiences.
Surer said: “One of our goals is to have this material out there to start conversations that we thought needed to happen.”
By Sophie Partridge-Hicks