July 20, 2012 7:34 pm

First Person: Jamal Osman

‘I went from minicabbing to film-making’
Jamal Osman©Charlie Bibby

Jamal Osman fled Somalia and learnt to interview people while working as a minicab driver

I grew up as one of six children in the city of Kismayo, Somalia. I know I’m in my mid-thirties – I was born in the late 1970s – but I don’t know my actual date of birth because my parents were illiterate. My dad did not have a stable job and we survived with help from relatives. But we often had no food at all. When the civil war started in 1991, we kept fleeing from violence and moving from one place to another. By 1999, I was desperate.

You don’t think: “I want to be in London.” It’s more like: “Get me out of here.” My family scraped the money to pay human smugglers to get me to Kenya. There, they put you on the plane and tell you what to do at Heathrow to get in. In Southall, I contacted a member of my clan and he took me to the Home Office to seek asylum. My English wasn’t good enough to communicate, but I knew a few words. “How are you?” “Good.” “OK.”

I was put in housing, sharing a room with other Somalis and living on a £35 food voucher each week. You could only shop at Sainsbury’s, which was about an hour’s walk away. We had no money for the bus. But I was very happy because I was safe. After a year I was accepted as a refugee, and then I could work. For five years I had jobs as a van driver, forklift driver, laundry assistant … many different ones, all to send money home.

But I wanted to get back to studying. I did a course to get into university. It was hard, because I hadn’t read for so long – I used to get headaches from reading a couple of pages because my mind wasn’t up to the task. Eventually I got into Kingston University to study journalism. By then I was working weekends as a minicab driver and I started to look for stories while driving around. But when I asked newspapers for work experience, they said no. “What if I just write stories?” I said. “OK,” they replied. “Write them, and we’ll see if they’re good enough.”

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Most of the time they didn’t want my stories. But it was great experience: I learnt how to interview people and what the papers did want. I used my student loan to go to Kenya and contributed to newspapers in Dubai and South Africa. In 2008, Channel 4 contacted me. They wanted to do something in Ethiopia and had read one of my stories from Kenya. I went with them to Ethiopia; I knew it was a make-or-break opportunity for me, so I worked really hard. Afterwards, they said: “Have you got any other ideas?” I said: “Can I go and hang out with Somali pirates?” I went, and the story became international news and everyone used our pictures – I was still a student. I graduated in 2009 and now I have a contract with Channel 4.

In May, I won the One World media award for a collection of films for Channel 4 News. One of them was a report about the so-called “Road of Death” in Mogadishu, where Somali runners train for the Olympics.

Making this film brought back all the reasons why I had to leave the country of my birth. The national sports stadium was destroyed in the civil war, and these athletes, the 5,000m runners, don’t have anywhere safe to train.

In order to run their distance, they have to cross a front line. On one side are official African Union soldiers from Uganda and Burundi. On the other are pro al-Qaeda Islamist militia, who often carry out suicide attacks. The athletes go for up to two days without eating, even though they don’t have a national team. Their only chance is to get “wild card” entry for 2012. Even the locals say: “There are more important things to do in life than running. The Olympics? You’re dreaming.”

Two Somali athletes just got wild-card Olympics entry and are coming to London, and I went back to Somalia to film their reaction. They have sacrificed everything to represent their country. It makes me feel proud – I know that what you have experienced is your motivation in life.

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