Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Abdi Ismail

By Hugo Wang


Abdi Ismail has worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross for over 12 years. He has been on the ground in Afghanistan, Colombia, Liberia, Iraq, and most recently Yemen. As a child, he fled from civil war in Somalia; now, he helps people who suffer from armed conflicts. Mr. Ismail brings a wealth of experience in humanitarian work to the World Fellows program at Yale.


This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


I know you’ve worked in a number of places: Somalia, Afghanistan, and most recently Aden, Yemen. If you had one minute, how would you introduce yourself and your work? 


First of all, it’s a pleasure to be here. I’m glad you reached out, and I look forward to this conversation. A lot of people ask me what I do and why. One of the things I always go back to is exactly this: why I do what I do. 


I work in the humanitarian field. I’ve been working across different regions, from Afghanistan to Colombia to Africa to the Middle East. The reason I do what I do is because I have found myself in exactly the same position as the people I’m trying to help now. I have lived through the experience of conflict. I have lived through the experience of being a refugee, living in a refugee camp, and sustaining myself on what humanitarian organizations provided. 


I don’t say that I have a full understanding of what people are going through, but I can definitely relate to many of the people that I work with. We, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), provide assistance and protection to many of them. 


I understand you grew up in Somalia. There was a civil war when you were around age 10 and you had to flee to the Hartisheik refugee camp (in Eastern Ethiopia). Could you describe your personal experience there?


When you’re a kid, everything in life resembles a game, in a sense. I did not grasp the full extent of the challenges or the problems back then. However, that experience shaped me in many ways, and I still keep it in my mind today.


Back when I was a refugee in this camp with my siblings, most of the time we were running around different sections of the vast camp – which hosted thousands of Somali refugees – or playing football. I also remember hardships like queueing up to get biscuit handouts from a blond lady who was wearing a Red Cross emblem on her chest. Living conditions in a refugee camp were not exactly good or easy. We were in a small tent, maybe 4 meters maximum, and the tent had 12 residents. I also remember difficult hygiene conditions – the lack of water and the sensation that food was never really enough. 


I have these little memories, and thinking back, they represent some of the main motivators that eventually led me to become a humanitarian worker. Furthermore, my family life involved moving around often, and I was fortunate in that my step-father was a humanitarian worker. He was a doctor working in the city where I was born, and he eventually started working in various locations, not only in Somalia but also in Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, and many other countries. 


So on the one hand, I had this lived experience of being a refugee. On the other hand, I also had a role model in my step-father who, as a doctor, was doing roughly what I would end up doing. Of course, I’m not a doctor myself, but the values, sacrifice, and generosity that he showed are some of my own guiding principles today. 


Let’s move forward in time to your experience in school. In high school and university, did you have opportunities to explore your current field of work? What advice would you give to current students who are interested in humanitarian work? 


When I was growing up, there were few opportunities to explore avenues for what I might do later on. However, what I had were the examples and the exposure from traveling with my step-father and our family. I vividly remember that when I was in high school, my family went to the city of Goma, in the eastern region of DRC, where my step-father was working. It had been 2 or 3 years after the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, and many Rwandan refugees were living in the region. My step-father was providing medical assistance with a humanitarian organization there. We spent three months of our summer break in eastern DRC, which allowed me to see exactly what he was doing and how it impacted the people. Seeing my step-father’s work was a source of inspiration for me. 


Soon after, I became interested in doing the same type of humanitarian work. I was fortunate enough to already speak Somali, Italian, and French – my love for languages and being exposed to different environments was cultivated through the experience of traveling with my family. 


You speak quite a few languages, right? Do you speak any other ones beyond the 3 you mentioned? 


I speak 5 languages fluently: Somali, Italian, French, English, and Spanish. I’m learning a 6th one right now, which is Arabic. I’m taking a short break from studying it, but I will pick it up again at the beginning of next year, Inshallah! Arabic is a fascinating language and, as many people say, it takes a lifetime to master it.


When you speak the native language of a country, how does that factor influence the humanitarian work you do there? 


Language is one of the true game-changers in almost any job. Whether you’re in a humanitarian organization, the peace corps, or the military, if you have the opportunity to interact with individuals on a deeper level by communicating with them in their own language, that gives you an incredible level of insight into the culture and lives of these people.


For me in Somalia, it was a little different since I was born there. I spent the first 10 years of my life there, so I consider it my country. At the same time, it’s not my only identity. For me, returning to Somalia after 16 years and being a humanitarian worker there after having left the country as a refugee was a very emotional experience. 


In 2006, I went back as a humanitarian worker to the home where I used to live in Mogadishu (Somalia’s capital), when it was fully in the hands of the Islamist group called the “Islamic Courts Union” and its military wing, Al Shabab. That journey brought back so many memories. It had been 16 years since I had left as a child. I went back to Somalia as a humanitarian worker with the ICRC again, between 2013 and 2016. I think this experience rekindled my love for the country and galvanized my identity as a Somali. 


Identity is a fascinating topic for me. It is connected to the dilemma facing people who are caught between two different identities, be it nationalities or cultures. Sometimes you feel you are neither one nor the other. In Italy you’re seen as an outsider, and in Somalia you’re also seen as an outsider. Going back to Somalia gave me an opportunity to reclaim that part of my identity, to feel more comfortable with it, and to gain a deeper empathy with Somali culture — the struggle of the people as well as their resilience in the face of so many calamities, natural and man-made. 


I certainly identify with the dilemma you bring up. I’ve had similar experiences as a student from China who’s studying in the United States. Sometimes you feel as if you can’t fully identify with either culture. Speaking of coming to Yale, what drew you to the World Fellows Program, and why did you decide to become a fellow?


I’m glad you’ve asked me this question. My journey toward being a World Fellow was quite fortuitous. The story goes back to December 2019, when I was finishing my mission in Iraq (I was stationed in Baghdad for 2 years, soon after completing my master’s degree at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government). Whenever you’re on a mission in these environments, what you do is try to immerse yourself in the culture, understand the people and their history, and learn their language. I read books about Iraq’s history, its struggles, its psyche, and its identity. 


One of the books I came across was named The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. It’s about the second US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and how that war did not catapult the country into democracy, as everyone had hoped. It actually resulted in the opposite: conflict, violence, and sectarian strife. Long story short, I found the book incredibly well-written and fascinating. It was a first-hand account from someone who had been in Iraq and had been an advisor to the commanding US generals there (General Ray Odierno and General David Petraeus) during the US invasion. The book’s author happens to be the director of Yale’s World Fellows program at the Jackson Institute. Her name is Emma Sky, and she wrote the book that I read in December 2019. I wanted to know more about Emma, and Google soon led me to the Jackson Institute as well as the World Fellows program. I found the program exciting and decided to apply, not knowing that almost 2 years later I would be here! 


I know you were in Iraq for 2 years and then in Yemen for 1 year. I’m interested in hearing about your work in Yemen. It’s one of the most difficult humanitarian situations in the entire world, as a result of the civil war between government forces and Houthi fighters (Ansarullah). There’s been a breakdown in basic necessities such as hygiene and drinking water. As head of the Red Cross mission, what were your main responsibilities in Aden? 


Yemen is a fascinating, beautiful, and charming country that unfortunately finds itself in the middle of an extremely difficult conflict. I started my mission in May 2020, at the height of the first wave of Covid-19. That was when everyone was starting to panic — the airports were closing, and international flights were being cancelled. 


When I arrived in Aden, the ICRC’s main priority was combatting Covid-19. We started working to open a care center to treat people who had been affected by the virus. At the time, the mortality rate was high, and people didn’t have places where they could receive medical care. Hospitals were closed, and doctors and nurses were dying because they didn’t have proper personal protective equipment. That’s why we decided: doing nothing was not an option. 


Yemen is an environment that has seen the collapse of almost all its health facilities. Currently, there exists very little quality of care for the people. So we worked hard to advocate and negotiate with our headquarters in Geneva. We were soon able to set up a Covid-19 response care center that opened in September 2020. Today, it’s one of the few places in the south of Yemen helping Covid-19 patients with quality medical standards that are comparable to those of Western countries. 


What was the capacity of the ICRC’s treatment facility? 


It was a care center with 60 beds that treated mild and moderate cases of Covid. Overall, the center has treated over 3,000 people up to this point. 


To continue on your earlier question about my responsibilities, the work of the ICRC is multifaceted. It’s not only to provide assistance to people who find themselves in an environment of conflict or violence, but also to monitor the conduct of hostilities between the parties to ensure that, in the event of fighting, the warring parties abide by the rules set forth in the Geneva Convention. That means civilians must be spared, women must not be abused, children must not be recruited into the armed forces, and so on. These are the basic rules upon which the international community has agreed, as set in International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The ICRC works to uphold these rules during a conflict. 


The third aspect of our work is engaging in dialogue with the parties to the conflict, so that all parties understand and respect the principles of the Geneva Convention. It’s a painstaking and dangerous endeavour. At the same time, it’s vital work that the ICRC does, and I am very proud that our dialogue with all parties to the conflict contributes to the respect of IHL.


I understand there was a prisoner exchange that occurred while you were in Yemen. Could you tell me a little more about that? 


Yes, the ICRC facilitated a prisoner exchange in Yemen. The parties to the conflict not only fight, but they also detain each other’s fighters. An important part of our work is to visit these detainees and make sure they’re treated humanely. They need to have access to food and water, and they should be able to see their families. The other priority is that the detainees cannot be beaten or abused. The Geneva Convention was put in place precisely to prevent these crimes from occurring. 


In the Yemen conflict, the two main parties (the internationally recognized government and their opponent, Ansarullah) agreed to exchange, as a gesture of goodwill, detainees from the two sides. The exchange was facilitated by the United Nations and was very complicated because neither side wanted to send the detainees they held first. They wanted things to happen simultaneously because they did not trust each other. Under these circumstances, because of its neutral, independent, and impartial mandate, the ICRC was brought in to facilitate the exchange. It was the logistical actor that brought more than 1,000 detainees to the agreed-upon locations. 


In the longer term, there’s definitely a hope to facilitate peace treaties between the government and Ansarullah. What are some ways in which you think the two sides can come together and agree on peace? What can other actors such as the UN and the US do to help? 


Perhaps the biggest challenge in the conflict of Yemen is the fact that this conflict is not binary. The war is really about several sections of the Yemeni society fighting over what kind of country they would like to have. Some groups want an Islamist state. Other groups want separation between northern and southern Yemen. Then there’s the internationally recognized government, which wants to re-establish control over the entire country. Depending who you talk to, the solutions for the problems of Yemen are very different. That’s one of the key challenges: the agendas, objectives, and interests of each party are in complete misalignment. 


To the second part of your question, this misalignment makes things very difficult for the international community and the UN. The UN has a special envoy to Yemen; the US has a special envoy; the EU has an envoy too. But no matter how many envoys you throw at the problem, the problem is so complicated to unpack that it is challenging for anyone to find a solution. 


Something that people living outside Yemen don’t usually know is that the Yemeni people are extremely independent. They are very strong-minded; whether they are being supported by a partner, a regional player, or an international player, the actors in Yemen still have an incredible amount of agency. No one on the outside really has enough leverage to compel parties in Yemen to change their ways. 


I know there is currently a group called the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Yemen. I assume that is the separatist movement you mentioned? 


Exactly. The STC adds to the complexity of the conflict because the conflict was previously Ansarullah against the internationally recognized government (if we look at the broad strokes). Ansarullah captured the capital (Sana’a), and the internationally recognized government fled to Aden. However, the government itself has rarely been in Aden and has mostly been in exile in Saudi Arabia. For that reason, the STC emerged to fill the vacuum. Their argument was: the government in exile is not doing anything, so we need to take care of ourselves and seek autonomy, if not outright independence. 


Let’s make a chronological jump to 2014, when Ansarullah started the war in Yemen. Is there anything we can learn from 2014 to prevent similar conflicts from occurring in the future? 


I think for Yemen, the easiest moment to solve the conflict was perhaps at the very beginning. The longer it went, the more complicated it became, and each party became more entrenched in its demands. At its onset, the Yemen conflict happened in the framework of what was going on in the Middle East in general. Between 2011 and 2012, the Arab Spring took place with a multitude of popular demonstrations, anti-regime demonstrations, and anti-authoritarian demonstrations. There was a desire for more freedom, openness, economic reform, and political participation. All of that was taking place in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere as well. I think the international community and the regional players were caught off guard by the large number of demonstrations. The conflict in Yemen quickly shifted, however, from being a popular uprising and a mobilization of the youth to a conflict over power and the natural resources of the country. 


Going back to your question, analysts say that many of the ongoing challenges in the Middle East have to do with the autocratic nature of the regimes there. How can the international community prevent similar conflicts from taking shape and morphing into what they are today in Yemen? The answer is: the world must keep in mind that these conflicts have their roots in lack of democracy, lack of development, lack of legitimate governance, and lack of opportunities for the youth. These structural problems are not addressed by the countries (that suffer from them), and until recently the international community was not holding those countries accountable or pushing them to implement reforms. Without addressing their structural and systemic challenges, many countries in the Middle East face the prospect of violence and revolt. 


In other words, we need to solve at the root of the problem, where the youth are energized but also frustrated by the corruption and lack of freedom. Is that ultimately the fuel for the violence? 


I sense that is correct. The aspirations of the youth are not being met. If you’re in your twenties in most of the Middle Eastern countries (except for the gulf monarchies which are doing well economically), the outlook of your life is quite dim. You most likely don’t have a house and are living with your family; you would like to play a role in society, but you cannot because you don’t have the means; you would like to marry and have a family, but you cannot because everything costs money; you would like a job, but there’s high unemployment. There is no sense of participation for the youth. I think many people have lost hope. They find themselves waking up every morning and wondering: “What exactly is my plan? What is my future?” 


This is the challenge that many Middle Eastern countries face today. In other words, how can we give people a sense of purpose and fulfillment for their aspirations so they can be productive members of society? How do you mobilize the people who have a stake in this social contract? 


One final question: I know you’ve faced many dangerous situations — threats of kidnapping and negotiations with armed militia leaders, to name a few. In those moments of danger and uncertainty, what gives you faith?


There are several things. Fear is certainly there. After a few years of living in these types of environments, you understand that the lives of humanitarian workers are constantly in danger. If you look at the last few years, you’ll see that many humanitarian workers have been killed, including my colleagues at the ICRC. That is always in the back of my mind. But what I’ve realized over the years is: the courage you need to have in those tough moments is given by the fact that you’re there to help the people. You’re ultimately there to provide food to those who would otherwise have difficulty finding their next meal, or a pregnant mother who would likely die giving birth without access to proper medical care, or a detainee who would be killed or abused in prison without humanitarian oversight, or a family that needs to find closure after a loved one has disappeared. 


It seems abstract right now because we’re talking about it. But when you really have the opportunity to meet face to face and lock eyes with these people, that gives you an incredible amount of strength. It motivates you to do something positive for those individuals. 


I also go back to my own experiences. I remember one of the best meals I’ve ever had was after my family and I fled our hometown in Somalia. We were on our way to a refugee camp, and all of us were hungry. At one point we stopped and managed to find some food. There were six or seven of us around a small plate of injera, which is an Ethiopian dish. I had maybe one or two bites to eat before the food was gone. Those two bites were the most delicious meal I’ve ever tasted in my life. Even today, some thirty years later, I still remember it. That’s how hungry I was. These memories, images, and lived experiences stay with you always. They drive you to do better by the people.

Hugo Wang is a first-year in Pauli Murray College. You can contact him at hugo.wang@yale.edu.