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Architect Finds a Sense of Belonging for His Family’s Homeland, and for Himself

When Omar Degan arrived in Mogadishu for the first time in October 2017, he quickly realised that the city he had grown up in bore little resemblance to the picturesque cityscape his parents, Somali refugees who had fled to Europe, had described to him as a child.

However, instead of the idyllic scene of whitewashed buildings and modernist architecture set against the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean that he had expected, he discovered a new Mogadishu, one that had emerged in the haste to rebuild following Somalia’s civil war. Concrete roadblocks and blastproof walls remained ubiquitous, and camps for internally displaced people bordered multicoloured condominiums that bore little resemblance to the region’s architectural or cultural heritage.

As an architect, Mr. Degan, 31, saw the dissonance as a reflection of the loss of cultural identity that had occurred, which he has since worked to restore and which he hopes others will increasingly embrace as the city is rebuilt.

His four years in Somalia have resulted in the development of an entirely new style and sense of what the country is and can be after decades of civil war and terrorism, combining traditional themes with more contemporary ones such as sustainability.

A recent telephone interview with the architect revealed that he desired architecture to restore a sense of belonging that had been lost during the war. “I wanted people to feel a sense of ownership and pride in their surroundings. Bringing back this sense of Somali-ness and making it visible through design and architecture was a priority for me.”

That sense was something he had been wishing for himself for quite some time.

A few years before the outbreak of the Somalian conflict, Mr. Degan was born in June 1990 in Turin, in northern Italy, to parents who had fled the country a few years before. When he was younger, he says, he never felt like he truly belonged, caught between his identities as a Somali man with roots in a war-torn nation and a Black Italian citizen in a country that didn’t fully accept him as a member of its community.

“There was even this challenge in university,” he explained, “where even the professors would say, ‘Oh, you speak very good Italian,’ which served as a constant reminder that you didn’t belong.” He added,

His parents wished for him to go to medical school, but that dream was dashed when his mother cut her foot one day and he couldn’t bear the sight of the blood. In spite of his interest in drawing, he decided to pursue architecture degrees at the Polytechnic University of Turin, where he specialised in emergency architecture and post-conflict reconstruction after the war in Iraq.

Although Somalia was on his mind when he decided on that focus, he admitted that he was also motivated by a desire to find meaning in his life and to learn skills that he could put to use for the greater good of the community at large.

Despite this underpinning, he stated that he would not consider taking his work to Somalia due to security considerations. Instead, he spent several years working in West Africa, Latin America, and Asia before relocating to London for what he hoped would be a brief career break. There, he shared quarters with a cousin who was looking for assistance in constructing a community centre and a mosque in his native Somalia, where he was born.

Mr. Degan agreed to assist her with the design but informed her that he would not be accompanying her to the event.

Her persuasion was effective, and less than one month later, he was boarding a flight to Mogadishu, ready to put his training and experience to work in his family’s homeland.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the deposition of Somalia’s strongman president, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre, which triggered a brutal civil war in the country. Clashing clan warlords and armed teenagers, as well as later terrorists, wreaked havoc on Mogadishu and other Somali cities, looting government buildings, looting cultural centres, and destroying Islamic and Italianate landmarks. They also deprived the city of what the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah referred to as its “cosmopolitan virtues” as a result of their actions.

Mogadishu has slowly begun to transform over the past decade, as a result of the restoration of some semblance of stability. New apartment buildings and shopping malls have sprung up, the national theatre and stadium have been renovated, and historic monuments have been restored as a result of the reconstruction.

The first structure that Mr. Degan saw when he arrived in the city in 2017 was the airport’s black and blue brick and glass terminal, which he found revolting. “I was wondering who built this in a sunny, coastal town,” he recalled thinking back on the experience. I couldn’t find any evidence of our past heritage or hopes in this structure, which I thought was unusual for an architectural structure.”

Sultans, European powers, peacemakers and warmongers have all left their marks on the centuries-old city, prompting him to ponder the following questions: Is it possible to reclaim a war-weary capital without considering the impact of loss? How do you rebuild in a city where terrorist attacks continue to be a regular occurrence? Is it possible for modern structures to take into account the nuances of history, culture, and community?

Mr. Degan, who also speaks English and Somali with an Italian accent, embarked on what he called a “listening tour” of the capital, engaging with young people from the city as well as fellow returnees from the diaspora in order to become more acquainted with the city. His travels took him to major cities across the country, where he examined local designs and made connections with various communities — at one point even milking a camel as part of his research.

He was inspired by the strength he witnessed and determined to practise architecture that celebrated Somali identity and traditions. According to him, his goal is to “recreate in a contemporary way” the sense of belonging that was lost during World War II.

Among his many designs over the years have been a restaurant and wedding hall with expansive terraces, gleaming white walls, and furniture upholstered in the traditional multicoloured “alindi” fabric. In addition, he has designed a mobile health clinic to treat children in rural areas, a school with garden spaces, and a minimalist, airy maternity ward in a Mogadishu hospital, among other projects.

Ms. Degan’s designs are almost entirely covered with white paint, in homage to the city’s historic white buildings, which have earned it the nickname “White Pearl of the Indian Ocean.”

Though he is inspired by historical figures, his designs also reflect contemporary realities: he is currently working on a modern variation of the Somali stool and has imagined a memorial for the hundreds of people who died in a double truck bombing in Mogadishu in October 2017, which occurred just three days after he arrived in the city.

In the beginning, Mr. Degan explained, many people were enthusiastic about what he could do to help rebuild Somalia. Other people, on the other hand, thought he was “crazy” when he started talking about sustainable architecture, environmental damage minimization, and looking to the past to shape the future. Some developers wanted him to work for free, so he agreed to do so.

Laughing, he explained that it had taken him years to get people to understand what an architect does.

The use of social media helps him connect with the broader community. He posts vibrant photographs of daily life in Mogadishu on Instagram, while also criticising the designs of humanitarian organisations and private companies. His videos about Mogadishu’s old town and beaches can be found on YouTube.

“I want to share ideas, communicate with others, and look for opportunities for creativity and suggestions in the community,” Mr. Degan stated. “I don’t think I would be where I am today if it weren’t for it.”

Following the establishment of his own practise in the city, he has taken on the role of mentor for young architects. He published a book about architecture in Mogadishu last year and is currently working on a handbook on emergency designs in Somalia, which will be published later this year.

Mr. Degan described his upbringing in Italy as a significant change from his earlier years, during which he felt “ashamed to be Somali,” according to a TEDx talk he gave in 2019. And Mogadishu, a city that he describes as “addictive,” has served as a stronghold for him.

“Mogadishu gave me a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging,” he said. “I feel at home here, and I want to help create an environment where others can feel at home as well.”

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