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Architect finds a sense of belonging for his family's homeland, and for himself

Art Daily
Sunday July 11, 2021

The first time Omar Degan set foot in Mogadishu, in October 2017, he quickly grasped that it bore little resemblance to the picturesque cityscape his parents, Somali refugees who had fled to Europe, described to him growing up.

Instead of an idyllic scene of whitewashed buildings and modernist architecture set against the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, he found a new Mogadishu, one that had emerged in a rush to rebuild after Somalia’s civil war. Concrete roadblocks and blastproof walls remained pervasive, and camps for displaced people abutted multicolored condominiums with barely a hint of local styles or heritage.

For Degan, a 31-year-old architect, that dissonance echoed a loss of cultural identity that he has since worked to restore, and that he hopes others will increasingly embrace in the process of rebuilding the wounded city.

In his four years in Somalia, he has created through architecture a new style and sense of what the country is and can be after decades of civil war and terrorism, mixing traditional themes with more modern ones like sustainability.

“I wanted architecture to bring back the sense of belonging that was destroyed in the war,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I wanted people to take ownership of a space and feel proud. I wanted to bring back this sense of Somali-ness and manifest that through design and architecture.”

That sense was something he had also been yearning for personally.

Degan was born in June 1990 in Turin, in northwest Italy, to parents who had left Somalia a few years before the war flared up. Growing up there, he said, he never felt that he fully belonged — caught between his identity as a Somali man with roots in a war-torn nation and a Black Italian citizen in a country that didn’t fully embrace him.

“In university,” he said, “there was even this challenge where even the professors would say, ‘Oh, you speak very good Italian,’ giving you the reminder that you don’t belong.”

His parents wanted him to study medicine, but that dream died after his mother cut her foot one day and he couldn’t bear the sight of the blood. He liked to sketch, though, so he pursued bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture at the Polytechnic University of Turin, where he specialized in emergency architecture and post-conflict reconstruction.

Although Somalia was on his mind when he chose that focus, he said he was also influenced by a drive to find meaning in life and to learn skills that he could use for the common good.

Despite that underpinning, he said he didn’t consider taking his work to Somalia out of security concerns. Instead, he worked for several years in West Africa, Latin America and Asia before moving to London for an intended career break. There, he shared quarters with a cousin who was looking for help building a community center and a mosque back home in Somalia.

Degan agreed to assist her with the design but told her, “There’s no way I am coming with you.”

But she was persuasive and a month later he was on a flight to Mogadishu, ready to put his skills to use in his family’s home country.

This year marks three decades since Somalia’s strongman president, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre, was deposed, setting off a brutal civil war. Mogadishu — along with many other Somali cities — was ransacked by clan warlords, armed teenagers and later terrorists who destroyed government offices, looted cultural centers and decimated its Islamic and Italianate landmarks. In the process, they also robbed the city of what Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah called its “cosmopolitan virtues.”

Over the past decade, with the return of a semblance of stability, Mogadishu has slowly begun to transform. New apartment blocks and shopping centers have sprouted, the national theater and stadium have been renovated and historic monuments have been restored.


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