Scan the internet for recent headlines involving Somalia and the return is pretty grim. Violence and unrest are the common threads, expected even. So when Ilwad (Elle) Elman voluntarily returned to Mogadishu, the Somali capital, three years ago while conflict still raged in the city, she was determined to be a positive force for change.
Elman runs the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Mogadishu, Somalia with her mother, aiding victims of rape and sexual assault, as well as rehabilitating child soldiers by teaching them vocational skills. Her holistic approach — implementing psychosocial counseling, skills training, and emphasizing the importance of sports, art, and literature — has empowered an entire generation of Somali youth to become agents for peace.
She draws inspiration from her father, an ardent peace activist in the 1990s who coined the popular Somali mantra "Put down the gun, pick up the pen.” Unfortunately, he was assassinated in 1996, but his words and the sentiment behind it live on in Elman and her work.
This year, Elman is targeting the biggest problems facing youth in Mogadishu—formerly renowned as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, a failed state, and among the most dangerous cities in the world. She’s hard at work establishing a center for Somali youth, set on creating a safe learning environment where kids can learn the necessary social and economic skills they need to succeed.
The desire and potential of young people to become agents for change is remarkable in Somalia, Elman says.
“I have designed and implemented programs with great success that have supported thousands of disengaged combatant children and youth throughout south and central regions in Somalia,” she says, “and every year my case load grows bigger with higher numbers of young people disarming, desperate for alternative livelihoods.”
Elman has been successful in placing a consistent 85 percent average of young people in alternative livelihoods that deter them from contributing to armed conflict. The center even follows up with the youth that leave its doors with ongoing mentorships to check in on their progress and well being.
“After more than 20 years, it seems the world is finally focused on Somalia and the human needs in it,” Elman says. “The youth must be prioritized.”
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