Sunday 5 January 2014

From Somalia to Siberia… on ice… via Sweden.

Somalis are going to Siberia… on ice… via Sweden! They are going to be the first and only African team competing in the World Bandy Championships. 

I had the good fortune to visit Sweden to report on this amazing story for the BBC. 

I went to Sweden with two BBC colleagues, Tim Mansel whose idea it was and who was the producer, and Nick Woolley who directed, filmed and edited this wonderful film:

And here is a report I did for BBC TV:

My TV piece

Click on the link below for my radio piece:

My radio report

Here is a piece I wrote for the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent programme:

Bandy is not a game many people know. It’s basically ice hockey writ large – played outdoors on a sheet of ice the size of a football pitch. So the countries that win World Championships are generally those from the frozen north – places like Sweden, Finland and Russia. But in this year’s world championships beginning in January there’ll be a new contender. They won’t win many games. But they’re likely to win a lot of new friends. Mary Harper has just been to Sweden to meet the national bandy team of…Somalia.

There, stretching out in front of me is a giant, smooth sheet of ice. It’s the size and shape of a football pitch, with a little net goal at either end.

It’s night-time and the sky is pitch black. But the perfect white of the ice seems to glow from the inside, as it’s lit by floodlights which swing above it, stretched across on wires.

It’s still and quiet. I can just make out tall pine trees standing like silent guards around the pitch.

Suddenly the peace is broken.

Figures in bright colours swarm onto the ice. I hear the whoosh and scrape of skates. The thwack of wooden sticks hitting a ball. The occasional thump of a body coming down hard.

This is bandy, Sweden’s winter sport. It’s a bit like ice hockey. But played with a bright pink ball instead of a puck. And there’s that huge pitch, which the players whizz around in this fast and furious game.

The voice of the coach travels loud and clear through the night air. And it’s then I notice something strange. We’re in a small Swedish town, playing a very Swedish game. But the coach is the only white face on the pitch.

Everyone else is black. And they’re speaking a language I recognise. Somali.

This is the Somali National Bandy Team, and its headquarters is right here in the Swedish town of Borlenge. 

In a few weeks time, this team here on the ice is going to Siberia. To represent Somalia in the world bandy championships. The very first time an African country will do so.

Ahmed Hussein is a member of the team. He’s wearing a big red top that billows around his slight frame. He has an impossibly engaging smile, with deep dimples in his cheeks.

“I grew up in Mogadishu,” he says, “where the only thing I knew about ice was as something to put in my Coca Cola”.

From left to right: The producer Tim Mansel, bandy player Ahmed Hussein, cameraman and editor Nick Woolley and the man who dreamed up the idea of Somali bandy Patrick Andersson.
Ahmed tells me that a few months ago, not a single member of the team knew how to skate, let alone play bandy. How a man called Patrick came to him and a group of friends and told them about this weird game.

Patrick is standing on the sidelines. “I was worried about the segregation of the Somalis and Swedes in my town. There were riots across Sweden a few months ago in suburbs dominant by immigrants. Some time after that, I was having a few beers with friends when I came up with the idea of a Somali bandy team. This would get people talking to each other.”

Patrick, Ahmed and the Somali Bandy vehicle which zooms around Borlange

And it certainly is. Something especially important in a town like Borlenge, where close to 10 percent of the population is Somali, and growing every day as there are more than 30 new arrivals from Somalia each month.

A Somali community worker, Mursal Isse, takes me for a walk around the area where most Somalis live. “This is a Swedish Mogadishu,” he says.

'Sweden's Mogadishu' - the area in Borlange where most of the Somalis live

I see a woman in typical Somali dress. A long gown, a large veil. She’s holding hands with her small children. A boy and a girl, bundled up warm in thick snowsuits, their big brown eyes peeking out from tightly tied hoods.

“Aren’t your freezing?” I ask. Shyly, she lifts up the bottom of her veil. Underneath is a big black coat.

Even though it’s so cold and so quiet, so utterly different from Somalia, not one of the Somalis I meet complains about life in Sweden. Many talk of the value of a Swedish education, and the young are ambitious. One wants to be an architect, another a stockbroker.

This is very different from Britain where Somalis often talk of police harassment, of how some of their boys choose crime over school. Of course it’s not perfect in Sweden, but there are lessons to be learned.

Back on the pitch, I ask the coach, Per Hosshaug – a legendary bandy player and five times world champion – how he got the boys to this standard in such a short time.

“They have courage. They have lived through things we don’t even want to dream about. So getting on skates was nothing for them.”

As the team trains for Siberia, I notice a Somali teenager on the edge of the ice. He’s wearing skates, shuffling his way forward. This is the second time he’d ever tried.

A graceful figure glides towards him. Dressed all in black, a short, fur coat belted elegantly at the waist. A black hat decorated with a glamorous black flower. She takes the Somali boy’s hands, and pulls him forwards. Shows him how to skate.

The figure skater who teaches the Somalis how to skate
Like everyone else involved with the Somali bandy team, this Swedish figure skater is a volunteer. She’s going with them to Siberia.

They’re not going to win. They might not even score a goal. But that’s not the point. Something very special is happening on the ice in this small Swedish town, which has nothing to with winning or losing. It’s getting two very different communities to talk to each other, and to live together.