A peacebuilder for Somali refugees

By Amy Fallon

Volunteering isn’t that common in Ahmed Tohow’s homeland. A Somali refugee, he lived through a deadly civil war and famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people. But Ahmed, the first African to receive the Rotary Club of Melbourne’s Senior’s Award for 2020-21, has certainly done plenty of that since moving to Australia more than two decades ago.

His choice to devote much of his spare time to helping elder migrants in a new community over the years stem from the obstacles Ahmed himself experienced when he first arrived in a strange country.

“A social worker said, ‘This is your country, if you need anything this is my card’. But it was very challenging for me to call her because I was unable to understand her,” said Ahmed.

“A social worker said, ‘This is your country, if you need anything this is my card’. But it was very challenging for me to call her because I was unable to understand her.”

“It is even worse when it comes to the elders older than me. There’s a lot of challenges – miscommunication, but also cultural shock, social exclusion, and people are prevented from accessing Australian services for many reasons.”
The 48-year-old father, who has a background in peacebuilding and worked for several aid agencies, UNITAF and UNISOM’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia in the 1990s, has volunteered in a range of areas in the City of Banyule, Vic, as part of the Somali senior project, funded by the Banyule Community Health Centre to pay for food and relevant activities. Basic English language and computer support, transcultural mental health and farming; the list goes on.

Ahmed has also assisted elders with accessing services for support on family violence, housing, family relationships and from Centrelink as well as providing information on how to raise children in Australia. Then there’s the historical and cultural tours of Melbourne that he takes new migrants on.

During Melbourne’s recent COVID lockdowns, Ahmed knocked on hundreds of doors and provided families with reusable face masks and information.

“I still can’t believe that I deserve this award,” he said.

“Volunteering was something that I was doing in-between the job that I was doing, to help this community. But I never thought volunteer work was valued. I didn’t know this kind of award existed.

“Supporting Somali seniors is just giving back time and effort to the people most in need.”

Dr Chris Sotiropoulos, the Chair for Health and Ageing Committee at the Rotary Club of Melbourne, said Ahmed had a deep and useful understanding of the difficulties migrants from conflict zones face after coming to Australia.

“Having individuals such as Ahmed who were able to bridge the gap between communities and government to provide safety and comfort to the Somali community, as well as part of the Victorian community during COVID, was really important,” he said.

“Ahmed was one of the leaders in Victoria of that.”

It’s the latest in a string of accolades for Ahmed, who in 2018 received the Ambassador for Peace award from the Universal Peace Federation.

After fleeing Africa for Melbourne in 2000, Ahmed co-founded the Global Somali Diaspora – an advocacy group representing Somali communities living abroad – of which is now deputy chair. 
 He returned to Somalia in 2006, 2012 and 2016, to work for aid agencies and attended international conferences on the country’s development. 
 He worked for the Red Cross and the United Nations in the capital of Mogadishu in the early 90s, when 990 Australian Defence Force personnel were deployed to the country as part of the UN peacekeeping mission launched in Somalia in 1992 after an estimated 300,000 people were killed. 
 Ahmed is routinely called upon by Australian State and Federal Government security organisations to provide advice and support to counter terrorism operations and the management of violent extremism within Australia.
 He is currently the Director of the East Africa Security and Policy Forum (EAS&PF), an advisor and coordinator for the Universal Peace Federation, and a lead researcher at Monash University (Department of Global Terrorism; Department of Politics and International Relations).