People often ask me what it’s like to have a twin brother. I tell them: there’s this special connection that the two of you have.
You instinctively feel what the other person is going through – even if you live thousands of miles apart, like Hassan and me. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t have a twin, but whenever Hassan is upset, or not feeling well, I’ll somehow sense it.
The same is true for Hassan. He’ll just know when something isn’t right with me. Then he’ll pick up the phone and call me, ask how I am. Or I’ll call him. From the moment we were born, on March 23, 1983, we were best friends.
My parents met while my dad was on a trip back to Somalia from the UK, where he was studying and working.
They later settled down to married life and shortly after, me and Hassan were born. Hassan came out first. Twenty-nine years later, my wife Tania gave birth to twin girls. Hassan even married a twin. You could say that twins are in our blood.
People have described my childhood as poverty-stricken and surrounded by bullets and bombs. That’s not really true. In the memories I have of Gebilay [my home town in Somaliland], there were no soldiers in the streets, no bombs going off.
Although, as it turns out, we did have a lucky escape. One day my mum sat Hassan and me down and told us both that the five of us, including [my younger brothers] Wahib and Ahmed, would be leaving Gebilay to live with our grandma and grandad in Djibouti.
Our dad wouldn’t be following us, however. He had to return to England – for his studies and his work. I accepted this without protest. Every young kid wants their dad around. But I had seen very little of him while growing up. He always seemed to be away working and we didn’t have a chance to build that bond.
Besides, Hassan, my best friend as well as my twin, would be coming with me. Djibouti has a hot, humid climate and for several months a year the temperature can hit over a hundred degrees. On the really bad days the soles of our feet would get blistered from the baking earth.
A year after we moved out of Gebilay, Somali forces under Siad Barre bombed Hargeisa and Berbera. The cities were flattened. Water wells were blown up. Grazing grounds were burned. Tens of thousands of people died. Many more fled to Kenya and Ethiopia. The war hadn’t been the reason for our move, but we had a lucky escape.
Dad occasionally visited. I can understand why he wasn’t able to visit more often. But that didn’t make it any easier to accept.
A few people in our neighbourhood had TVs, and we watched programmes whenever we could. My favourite was Esteban, a French cartoon series. Every day at 6.30pm on the dot I’d find a TV to watch it.
But the city suffered almost daily power cuts, and more than once I’d sit down to watch the latest episode and then – phhtt! – the power would cut out. So I’d sprint out of the house, racing across the streets and running towards the lights of a friend’s house where I knew the power would still be working.
A few minutes later, same thing. Power cut. I’d dart off again in search of the next house where I could watch the programme. Sometimes I’d have to rush between three or four houses across the city just to catch a single episode. I guess it was pretty good training for a career in distance running.
I got my first experience of school in Djibouti when I was five. Kids like Hassan and me were required to attend the local madrasah each morning from eight o’clock through to midday. The madrasah was a long, narrow room built next to the local mosque.
Our teacher was an old man with a shaven head and a stern look. If he spotted you misbehaving, he’d march you to the front of the classroom and start whipping you on the backside with a cane. It sounds pretty shocking now, but this was the norm. The cane had the desired effect. None of us dared step out of line.
Our studies focused on the Koran but we also studied French and local history. Some mornings at the madrasah we’d take turns to read out passages in front of the class. This was hard for me because I couldn’t read or write and I suffer from dyslexia.
I’d spend the evening before class learning the passage until I had it committed to memory. The next morning I’d ‘read’ in front of the teacher and kids, with my eyes glued to the page to make it look as if I was reading rather than reciting. Most of the time I got away with it.
Unlike me, Hassan had a natural talent for learning. He had a sharp mind. This is one of the few ways in which we were different.
After our grandfather passed away, grandma [Ayeeyo in Somali] decided that she wanted to move to Almelo, in Holland, to live with aunt Nimco and build a new life for herself. I was upset. I loved my mum, but grandma had been the one who’d looked after Hassan and me for most of the time we’d been in Djibouti. I was closer to her than anybody except Hassan.
After she left I told myself, ‘I have to find a way of getting to Holland to live with Ayeeyo.’ I just couldn’t imagine a life without grandma. My mind was made up. I would build a new life there. And Hassan would come with me.
My wish seemed to come true when mum took me aside one evening and explained that we would soon be leaving Djibouti. We were moving to Europe to begin a new life.
I wasn’t upset to leave Djibouti. As I understood it, we’d all be going to live with grandma. Mum added that first we had to go and visit my dad in London. I thought she meant we’d be staying with our dad for just a few days.
I didn’t really give any thought to the implications of moving to Europe – having to learn a new language, making new friends. I was too young. I simply wanted to be close to grandma.
Much has been written about the circumstances that led to Hassan and me being separated for the best part of 12 years. The truth is this: the original plan was for all of us to travel to England as a family.
But shortly before we were due to fly, Hassan fell ill, which meant he wasn’t able to fly. We couldn’t cancel or change our flights because there were five of us booked on that plane and that would have meant losing an awful lot of money.
It was decided that my mum, Ahmed, Wahib and me would fly to London while Hassan recovered with our extended family in Djibouti. The plan was always to go back and get Hassan after the rest of us had settled down.
I was consoled by the fact that we wouldn’t be away from each other for very long – a couple of months perhaps. Had I known how many years would pass before I’d see him again, I would have been heartbroken. But as far as I knew, Hassan falling ill was a temporary hitch.
At least, that’s what I thought.
There were a lot of things that surprised me about England – but one of the biggest shocks was finding out that Holland wasn’t part of it.
When we arrived in Britain, I had this idea in my head that Holland and England were part of the same country. A bit like Wales. That all I’d need to do to visit grandma was to hop on a train in London and buy a ticket.
The first few days living in Shepherd’s Bush were a real eye-opener for me. It was like nothing I’d ever seen in Djibouti. I didn’t understand a word of English. I tasted chocolate for the first time.
A Snickers bar. I remember taking a bite and thinking that it was the most amazing taste in the world. And the toys... wow! Back home, I owned one toy: a push-wheel thing with a stick attached to the front.
Sleeping in separate rooms also came as a surprise. In Somali families everyone tends to sleep in the same room – it’s not unusual for eight people or more to sleep in a single room.There’s no real concept of privacy. I must confess that I never quite got used to separate rooms.
I counted down the days until we’d leave for Holland to see grandma Amina. A week or so after we had moved to the flat in Shepherd’s Bush, my dad came round.
Instead of taking us out to play on the green like he usually did, he sat the family down and explained to me that I’d be starting school in a few days.
‘In Almelo?’ I asked.
My father cleared his throat and glanced at my mum. ‘Walad – my son – you’re going to go to school here. In Hounslow. You can begin there immediately.’
I was confused. ‘Maan fahmin – I don’t understand. What about grandma?’
‘You can’t go there now,’ dad said. ‘It’s not possible. You will stay here, with me, and go to school in London.’
Then it hit me: I wouldn’t be living with grandma. My parents explained that Holland was this whole other country on the other side of the North Sea, and to visit there I’d need a passport, but the visas that mum, Wahib, Ahmed and me had entered the country with didn’t permit overseas travel.
It sounds crazy, but this was all news to me. I have this tendency to see things in simple terms. I try not to focus on the small print.
Dad returned to Djibouti to bring back Hassan and reunite the family. But after a fortnight he returned home empty-handed. I was devastated.
This also put a big strain on my parents’ marriage. I was only eight-years-old at the time but even then I noticed my mum and dad growing apart.
Years later, I discovered that when dad had arrived in Djibouti, Hassan was nowhere to be found. The extended family he’d been staying with had left the city. Dad just wasn’t able to locate him.
Two weeks passed and he couldn’t put off coming back to the UK any longer. He had a job and a family to support. So he reluctantly gave up the search.
As a young kid, and not understanding the situation fully, I blamed my dad for not bringing Hassan back with him. In my mind, he was responsible for why I wasn’t reunited with my brother. I began to resent my dad. I missed Hassan daily.
Eventually, mum and dad decided to get divorced. As kids, we were all allowed to choose who we wanted to live with. My three brothers [Mahad, the youngest, was born in England] chose to move to Brighton with my dad. For me, things were different. I had already grown close to my cousin, also called Mahad, and he was the closest thing I had to Hassan. It was Hassan all over again. We did everything together and I didn’t want to go through that trauma again of being separated from someone I’d bonded closely with.
I wanted to stay with aunt Kinsi so I could be close to Mahad. My parents agreed. My mum lived just up the road from my auntie, which meant I was able to see her regularly.
Several years later mum flew back to Djibouti to search for Hassan. She went round all the villages, asking everybody – family, friends, neighbours – if they knew Hassan’s whereabouts.
Finding someone isn’t easy in that part of the world. You can’t just pick up the phone and ring around or look someone up in the telephone directory.
You have to physically travel from village to village, knocking on door after door. Mum walked miles upon miles in the sweltering heat. She had to ask scores of people before she finally got an answer.
It turned out that the extended family Hassan had been living with in Djibouti while he’d been ill had gone back to Somaliland before my dad returned.
Not long after discovering this, mum was reunited with Hassan. But it would take another nine years before I saw my brother again.
Day we finally met the void in my life was gone
Hassan’s wedding in 2003 was good timing as far as I was concerned. I’d been thinking for a while that I needed a break from the track. I’d lost some of my enthusiasm for running.
I needed to save up for a plane ticket. Flying to Somalia wasn’t cheap and I wasn’t exactly rolling in cash. Eventually I had saved enough – about £500 – to buy a return ticket to Djibouti City. There was just enough left over to pay for my onward flight to Hargeisa, plus some wedding present money for Hassan and his bride-to-be.
The plan was, I’d go home for a couple of weeks, rest, see my family, and be back in time for the start of the cross-country season.
I flew there minus my hair. Sporting plaits in Somaliland was a big no-no. The tradition for Somali men is to keep their hair cropped short and to grow a beard. With plaits and no beard, I’d stand out like a sore thumb, so I decided the hair had to come off. Out came the clippers, off came the hair. After that, it just seemed easier to keep my head shaved rather than grow it again.
We landed in Hargeisa, I got off the aircraft and looked around. All I remember is Hassan coming up to me, giving me a big hug and a kiss on my cheek and saying, ‘My brother, my brother, my brother!’
Twelve years is a long time to be away from someone you love. It’s hard to describe the joy of that moment. It felt like a part of me had been missing the whole time I had been growing up separately from Hassan. The way I see it is, we’re not different people – we’re part of the same person. At last, the void in my life was gone.
I have this dream that when the races are done and I stop running, Hassan will be there. His family living next to my family. His kids playing with my kids.
Tania and Hoda joking around. My mum will be there too. Me and Hassan causing trouble. All of us together. I’m looking forward to that day already.