With Web, a Lifeline Home
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
Dayib Mohamud Sheikh lives on a calm, tree-lined street in Silver Spring, and his aging mother is thousands of miles away in a turbulent war zone in their native Somalia. Yet for the past three weeks, he has lived through her nightmare morning, day and night.
One day, he learned his mother's house was hit by a missile. She was fine. Another day, the fighting was nearing her neighborhood in the capital, Mogadishu. He was not so fine. Yesterday, Islamic militias captured Mogadishu.
He scoured Web site after Web site, driven by one question: Is my mother safe?
Then he picked up the phone. He would soon find out.
For nearly three weeks, Mogadishu has been the scene of some of the worst clashes since U.S. soldiers withdrew from Somalia in 1994 after a failed intervention.
But unlike then, the chaos in the East African homeland is closer than ever for thousands of Somalian immigrants in the Washington region and across the nation. Technology is propelling the conflict into their living rooms and offices, providing a painful ringside view of the crisis as well as ways to help relatives in danger.
It's the latest manifestation of how immigrants in the region, from Ethiopians to Salvadorans, from Liberians to Iranians, are increasingly connected in real time to violence and political upheavals unfolding in their home countries.
"Everything that happens in Somalia is now instantaneous," said Dahir Amalo, 43, a mortgage banker.
Today, several dozen Internet sites follow every twist and turn of the conflict. They post digital photos of the chaos, blogs and round-the-clock news. It's easy to listen to online radio and video broadcasts from the BBC and Voice of America.
Expatriates have bankrolled Internet cafes in Somalia and helped build one of the most reliable and inexpensive phone networks in Africa, where cellphone and online use is rapidly growing. It's cheaper for Somalis in Mogadishu to phone the United States than the other way around, said immigrants here. And they use text messaging, e-mail and instant messaging to further cut costs.
Sheikh knows. He has become a virtual sentry, monitoring his mother's safety with every click of his mouse.
"If it gets worse, I'm planning to get my mother out," Sheikh, 47, an account manager for a private tourism operator, vowed last week.