Champion of Local democracy: Ayan Ubhale

This is Ayan’s own story:

I was born and grew up in a Somalia plagued by the horrors of war.  It was wartime and it was miserable. I dreamed of getting an education, but the opportunity just didn’t exist. However, from my dreams, I built my own opportunities, studied and worked – and became what I had always dreamed of becoming in my heart of hearts.

I am open, sociable, and easy to get to know. Positive and full of energy. My friends and colleagues describe me as outspoken, possibly because I’m very direct, maybe not always particularly diplomatic, but I’m always clear about what I think.
I am upset by injustices that impact women, or by children who are exposed to some form of abuse. It arouses strong emotions in me. I don’t like injustice.

I previously worked at the reception centre in Borlänge municipality, where many people got to know me simply as Ayan – a fellow human being who was there for them, whatever the circumstances. Presently, my title is Development Officer, and I work in the International Department of Borlänge municipality, helping people from Kenya, Eritrea and Somalia find a place in Swedish society, although my task is more wide-ranging than just this. I don’t work with a specific group of people from a specific country. I work to develop integration work for all immigrants and refugees.

In understanding the source of Ayan’s strength, we need to look at her childhood home.

While the war raged, my home offered a safe and secure place amidst the turmoil. My mother worked full-time to support the family. In that respect, she was my father’s equal, and this inspired and gave me an energy that I have carried with me my whole life.

I found the courage to educate myself and fight for important issues of justice and equity. For ten years, I worked and studied at the same time. Perhaps ambitious is one way to describe myself. Single-minded and strong are two others.
My family couldn’t send me abroad to study, so I had to work and distance study at the same time. My working life began at home in Somalia with two years of work experience with UNESCO, after which I was employed by the UN.  

I then spent some time in the UK, working for the Save the Children charity, where my male colleagues complained about me to the management, badmouthed me, and did everything they could to stand in my way. A lot of them thought I shouldn’t have a managerial role because I was a young woman. I didn’t allow any of this to get in my way, although there were naturally some dark moments when I felt my hope fail, but my desire to work for human rights has never faded.

In October 1998, I fled the civil war in Somalia and ended up in Sweden. I developed a way of living as a refugee within Somalia. We were forced to move several times, because of the civil war, and terror was a frequent occurrence. As a woman involved in aid organisations, this was particularly pronounced – I received numerous threats and lived under considerable stress.

One might wonder why Ayan is so passionate about working to promote democracy

That’s who I am – everything I went through in Somalia, and everything I’ve experienced as an adult. Studying and learning how good democracy is, at its best, engages me and makes me want to spread the word about democracy issues. The challenges I face in Borlänge are obviously not comparable with those I experienced in Somalia or Kenya. Helping people who come here to learn the language and find a job is the biggest challenge. Teaching them how laws and rules work, and that there are forces here who find it hard to accept cultural differences.

Borlänge municipality has worked with ICLD on local democracy issues for many years now through a range of partnerships.

I really like the partnership with ICLD. It’s not an aid organisation: it’s one with whom we have an ongoing dialogue and developing partnership. We can work together on adapting and developing projects if conditions change. The training courses are good too, with clear methodologies for application and measuring results. ICLD works with Agenda 2030 and having worked with these global goals for many years in Africa, I love being able to continue working with them here in Sweden. I don’t go to work or come home from work. My engagement is an integral part of my personality and background – 365 days of the year.  

In the wake of the 2018 Swedish general election, Borlänge municipality broke down the party bloc boundaries and the Social Democrats, Green Party, the local party, “Care for all”, the Centre Party, and the Liberals all sit on the municipal board with a unified political platform. However, being the Project Manager of Borlänge’s partnership with Lodwar, I don’t see my work being affected. Yes, there have been changes, but the project’s work will continue as normal. I enjoy my work, I’m passionate about integration issues, and I hope to be able to continue contributing to society.

She takes strength from her interactions with people in Borlänge. She’s important to many people and is something of a local celebrity.

Having this as my job is a privilege. Having the opportunity to influence other people, to help other people, is incredibly rewarding. Whether at work or in my leisure time, it doesn’t matter. Nor does my title. When I see how hard things are for others, it reminds me of my own journey. I feel a sense of solidarity and will do whatever I can to help. I’m also a member of various clubs and help them in their dealings with the authorities and with the children’s homework.

To see all personal portraits of Champions of Local Democracy