She moved from Canada to Somalia to tell positive stories, but ended up dead in a terrorist attack

Posted at 7:15 AM, Jul 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-15 00:47:09-04

“What a blessing to be back home in Somalia after 30+ years away,” Hodan Nalayeh posted on her Instagram on May 1 this year, in what she described as “her first Ramadan back home.”

But, eight weeks later, she was dead.

Nalayeh was a victim of a brutal terrorist attack that ripped through Kismayo, the normally serene and beautiful port city in Jubaland, about 500 kilometers (300 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu.

She was among 26 people who died after several gunmen stormed the Asasey Hotel after a suicide bomber detonated a vehicle loaded with explosives outside the hotel. The attackers battled with Jubaland’s security forces for 12 hours, authorities said.

Her husband Farid Jama Suleiman — a businessman and former regional minister — also died in the attack alongside three Kenyans, three Tanzanians, two Americans and one Briton.

Nalayeh was a prominent Somali-Canadian journalist who was passionate about depicting Somalia — a country long blighted by war, famine and terrorist attacks, beyond the usual bombs and bullets narrative.

She was the founder of Integration TV, an online platform with millions of views on YouTube which describes itself as “building a community of inspiring and uplifting stories for Somalis worldwide.”

Nalayeh, 43, was a powerhouse on social media, where she used her large following to continue her theme of sharing a side of Somalia rarely seen in coverage of the country.

In her last tweet Nalayeh spoke of a new-found passion for photography, sharing stunning images of local young fishermen in the island of Illisi, near Kismayo.

“It was an incredible day to witness #Somalia’s beauty on the island of #Ilisi,” she wrote in a thread.

Nayaleh was born in Somalia in 1976 but her family moved to Canada when she was six years old.

In an interview earlier this year, she recalled what it was like to grow up in a family of 12 children, as well as the toll moving to Canada had on her family.

“My parents survived in a new country, learnt everything and my dad went from being a high profile governor in Somalia driving around in a Mercedes to working in a parking lot and taking care of his 12 children … My parents were traumatized having to start their whole life over,” she told the African Women in Media (AWIM) platform.

Nayaleh’s family said in a statement released online, that the 43-year-old had “spent her life devoted to serving the Somali people and reporting on positive and uplifting stories.”

“She died serving the Somali community everywhere and doing what she loved most. She brought inspiration and hope to the Somali people through story telling. She will be deeply missed,” the statement read.

Nalayeh had two sons from a previous marriage and spoke openly about the cultural stigma attached to being a divorced single parent.

“Society judges you,” she said. “They look down on women who are single parents, men look down on you because they think you may be an easy catch…They think nobody is going to pay dowry for you. All these crazy ideas like you are just not as worthy when you are divorced.

“But you know what, my journey sharing that with one of my followers and them realizing that life happens to many of us. We can start over, we can learn, we can grow and you don’t have to be ashamed,” she said in the AWIM interview.

In another cruel twist of fate, Nalayeh had recently found love again and remarried in November 2018, sharing pictures of her honeymoon in Somalia on Instagram.

She was heavily pregnant when she died, according to a friend Fatuma Abdulahi — who told CNN they worked together on a personal story for a platform Abdulahi used to run. Abdulahi also made a series of Twitter posts paying tribute to her friend.

Nalayeh’s death has led to an outpouring of grief on social media with many sharing their shock and disbelief at her death.

Through her work with Integration TV, Nalayeh inspired a generation of young Somalis who had previously only seen their country through the lens of war.

“Hodan… was opening up a previously little know or seen side of Somali… Showing us that despite everything that Somalia has endured, its people still have hope, an enduring spirit and a will to make the best of a situation beyond their control,” Jamila Mohamed, who met Nalayeh in Kenya earlier this year, told CNN over WhatsApp.

Mohamed, the managing editor of Citizen TV, recounted that she, too, had experienced a hotel attack during a recent reporting trip to Somalia but escaped unhurt.

“It’s always a risk going to Somalia, always, you never know what will happen next,” she said.

Indeed in an interview with CBC News in 2016, Nalayeh is quoted as saying: “Anyone who follows their passion to help rebuild Somalia knows there’s always a risk of death.”

The author and scholar Khaled Beydoun was among those who paid tribute to the journalist.

“Devastating to hear the news of Hodan Nalayeh being among the victims of the terror attack in southern Somalia. She was beloved by so many, and her work so impactful. Rest in Peace,” he wrote.

While Ahmed Hussen — who’s of Somali heritage and Canada’s minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, described Nalayeh as a “voice for many,” in a Twitter post.

“We mourn her loss deeply, and all others killed in the #KismayoAttack,” he said.