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How do you tell people that you are not actually who they think you are? This week, world-famous British sportsman Mo Farah did so, taking the brave step of revealing that his real identity is not actually Mohamed Farah who moved here as a refugee with his parents, but Hussein Abdi Kahin, trafficked to the UK as a young child to be used as a domestic household slave. In a heartfelt documentary, The Real Mo Farah, aired on BBC One yesterday, he candidly stated: “Despite what I’ve said in the past, my parents never lived in the UK. When I was four my dad was killed in the civil war. As a family we were torn apart. I was separated from my mother, and I was brought into the UK illegally under the name of another child called Mohamed Farah.” Farah’s first name was emblematic of his sporting persona: a knighted Olympic champion and four-time gold medallist. Many of us still picture his arms curved in an “M” shape, an iconic British sporting image debuted at the London 2012 Olympic Games. So what does Farah’s brave admission tell us about the reality of child trafficking and the dehumanising experience of the UK’s immigration system?
Told in his own words, Farah recounts a grim, emotionally traumatic childhood in Hounslow, London. Believing he was going to live with relatives, he recalls the contact details he had for his family being ripped up in front of him. “From day one, the lady, what she did wasn’t right. I wasn’t treated as part of the family. I was always that kid who did everything.” He cooked, cleaned and looked after the other children from the age of nine, only being allowed to attend school from year 7. In the documentary, he wrestles with the anxiety and sadness of not knowing what happened to the real Mo Farah, whose name he took when he was illegally trafficked into the UK.
Juxtaposed with the increasing cruelty of the British state’s position on immigration matters, particularly towards those racialised as non-white, were empathetic people from Farah’s community who sought to help him escape exploitation. His teachers were concerned by his behaviour in school, which seemed disruptive and erratic, and he appeared dishevelled, though he excelled consistently in sport. He admitted the truth to his PE teacher Alan Watkinson, who contacted social services. A schoolfriend’s mother called Kinsi took him in and he lived happily there for seven years. His school later appealed to the Home Office, claiming British citizenship as an asylum seeker so “he can run in the World Athletics Championships and represent Great Britain”. The real Mo Farah was still in Somalia and had in fact never been to the UK at all.
Experiences like Farah’s are a reminder that Black and brown faces in high places will not automatically mean a better life for those marginalised in this country.
Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK) is a leading children’s rights organisation working to protect children from trafficking and transnational exploitation. CEO Patricia Durr told Refinery29 Unbothered: “It is hugely important and empowering for young victims of trafficking and exploitation in the UK and across the world to know that they are not alone. It is also important for raising awareness and understanding of the reality of this crime against children and the risks separated and unaccompanied children face.” ECPAT UK is very clear about the immense psychological impact trafficking can have on children and funding for mental health services in general is poor.
Farah of course is hugely protected by his fame and celebrity: the Home Office has reportedly stated it will not seek to remove him of his UK citizenship. His value as a sportsperson and cultural icon puts him in a very different category from the thousands of others trafficked to Britain who do not have the financial means or social status to as easily retain or gain citizenship. Child trafficking is often an unspoken issue within mainstream media — which seems to prefer more facile and dehumanising debates when it comes to reporting immigration — but it is actually on the rise here in the UK. The UK’s official system for identifying victims of trafficking and modern slavery shows that 5,468 potential victims were exploited as children in 2021, which is more than a 10% increase on the previous year (4,946). In 2019-2020, only 2% (17 out of 754) of children who were exploited and trafficked to the UK were granted leave to remain, to which they are entitled under international law. The prevailing myth is always that migrants are here to “take advantage” of the UK’s benefits system and soak up scarce resources; rarely are they seen as human beings rightly seeking a better life. Those without any power or celebrity to leverage are likely to fall at the sharpest end of our immigration system.
Knowing who you are and being able to share your own story with others is an essential human experience. The impact of suppressing such integral information about yourself, even to your closest loved ones, must be immense and is no doubt a direct result of the hostile environment engineered by subsequent British governments. While the Conservative party congratulates itself for having such a “racially diverse” leadership race, experiences like Farah’s are a reminder that Black and brown faces in high places will not automatically mean a better life for those marginalised in this country. Many of the candidates running to replace Boris Johnson have committed to continuing plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda instead of giving them the opportunity to settle here, an utterly inhumane policy that Amnesty International has called “a clear and shameful abandonment of the UK’s responsibility under the Refugee Convention… that is destroying the asylum system and putting vulnerable people through an intolerable ordeal.” When the Windrush scandal broke in 2017, it was revealed that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, largely from the Caribbean and who had lived in the UK for decades, had been wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights. The Nationality and Borders Bill, which gives the UK government unprecedented power to deprive British nationals of their citizenship, is likely to be ratified by parliament. Durr makes it clear that the bill “significantly narrows the opportunity for identifying child victims of trafficking, particularly for unaccompanied children.” The landscape for many with an uncertain immigration status looks bleak.
It feels like quite a poignant and heavy burden to bear, for these individual Black men to have to fight what are actually collective issues that those in power should be seeking to solve.
Farah is joining what feels like a long list of Black British athletes who use their public profile for issues connected to social justice. From Marcus Rashford fighting for hungry schoolchildren to Lewis Hamilton’s statements on racial equality or footballer Troy Deeney calling for better inclusion of Black history on the national curriculum, many Black sportspeople end up becoming the faces of such campaigns as they are likely to have experienced these issues in their formative years. As writer bell hooks acknowledges in the book We Cool: “Historically, entering the world of professional sports was a profoundly political endeavour for Black men…if you wanted to enter that world you had to be willing to push against racial barriers and there was no way to escape the political.” It feels like quite a poignant and heavy burden to bear, for these individual Black men to have to fight what are actually collective issues that those in power should be seeking to solve.
Farah’s story ultimately feels like it reaches a happy conclusion. In a beautiful moment in the documentary, he is reunited with his birth mother and family who are still living in Somalia. Farah is accompanied by his own son, whom he has touchingly named Hussein, after his original name. He must be feeling an enormous sense of relief at being able to be honest about his true story.
Durr makes it clear that the dangers for others are still prevalent. “The government must increase opportunities for identifying child victims, provide more training for frontline staff, ensure that child victims are granted leave to remain in line with their best interests and build a culture of belief, understanding and trust so that children can feel supported and confident that they will be protected and cared for in the UK – no matter who they are, where they are from or how they got here.” Hopefully, Mo Farah’s story will shine a deserving light on the plight of child trafficking victims. The fight continues to ensure all victims get the support, rights and justice they deserve.
This story was originally published on Unbothered UK
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