Once upon a time, Somalia was a beautiful country. It was a tourist haven, full of amazing beaches and beautiful buildings. It was an Italian colony for such a long time, and that influence rubbed off. The food was excellent and always fresh. But, when the civil war broke out in the late 1980s, it wasn’t a safe place to live anymore.
My family fled because one of my brothers died; a grenade landed in our garden and he was killed. So, we travelled on a crowded boat to Kenya, a journey that took eight weeks. I was one at the time and still being breastfed. I still don’t know when my official birthday is or exactly how old I am. My mother told me that we rationed sugar for food… We’d be allowed to lick sugar off a spoon and that’s how we survived. We also ate flour mixed with water balls. My dad was a good fisherman, so if the captain of the boat would stop in the water, my dad would try and catch something, but that didn’t happen often. It was mainly just sugar. A lot of people on that boat died.
My family fled because one of my brothers died… a grenade landed in our garden
When we arrived in Kenya, my mum worked for a year to save up money for us to get to the UK, and there was nothing to eat. She used to queue up for food rations from NGOs such as UNICEF. If they didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be alive. It’s why I have so much empathy for refugees today. My mum is a true fighter – she’s a better fighter to me.
The pandemic will affect refugees more than everyone else. It’s hard to social distance in the camps. During a visit to two Jordan refugee camps with UNICEF, I saw firsthand how crowded people’s homes were: it’s cramped. If you try and enforce lockdown rules there, the young will suffer – they need schooling and those after-school programmes. These children have already been through so much. More than ever, refugees will be heavily affected. While so many of us worry about our own finances, there will be fewer donations to charities like UNICEF that can help them. Donations are so important. We need to continue to support charities that do such amazing work. If it wasn’t for these NGOs, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
I was given a chance to have a better life that what was left in Somalia, and I want that for other refugees. When I was 12 years old, I walked into a boxing gym for the first time and I fell in love with boxing that first day. I liked having someone telling me what to do – you’re going to do a certain amount of push-ups and sit-ups. I liked knowing that this guidance and structure was going to make me better, both physically and mentally.
I kept boxing a secret from my family for 10 years because of the cultural pressures – I knew they wouldn’t understand or accept it. Mum brought us out of danger, why would I put myself back in it?
My family found out after my brother saw me on an all-female sports show on London Live. I had pleaded with the makers not to broadcast my fight, but they went ahead anyway. I’m now glad it came out because I wasn’t brave enough to sit everyone down and tell them, but I just wish it hadn’t come out the way it did.
My parents staged an intervention and asked me to stop, so I did. It was hard not having boxing in my life and I eventually went back because it was too hard not to… it gave me such release. They say at the gym, ‘leave your worries at the door’, and for those two hours that you do, everything is forgotten.
Mum brought us out of danger, why would I put myself back in it?
The second time my parents found out was through my now-husband Richard. He promised them that he’d discourage me from boxing, which was a lie. Once we got married, it was because of him that they saw how important sport is in bringing people together – in bringing a nation together. Now, my mum is my biggest supporter and fan.
In 2015, I became the first Muslim woman to win an English boxing title and, two years later, I started representing Somalia on an international level. I was hoping to qualify for the 2020 Olympics when the pandemic hit and the tournament was put on hold.
I’ve actually lost three uncles and a cousin to the virus. The hardest thing was not being able to say goodbye because obviously you can’t go to the hospital. My mum had to say goodbye to her brother on FaceTime. Two of my sisters are NHS nurses and my brother is an NHS doctor. My sister-in-law is an NHS nurse. The work they’re doing is just incredible.
For now, I’m training at home in my kitchen, living room and in the car park below where I live. My husband and I are currently fasting for Ramadan and sometimes the training will make me dizzy, so we’ll go for less intense routines. Maybe only one out of two will be sweat sessions.
My life so far has taken me on some unexpected twists and turns. Last year, the Duchess of Sussex chose me as one of her game-changers to appear on the cover of Vogue. I never met her, but we spoke on the phone. She represents all the positive parts of the royal family. I know a lot of people don’t like her… it could be something to do with her being a black woman in the royal family. But it could also be that she wants to hold Harry’s hand in public and that’s not really done – she breaks the rules. She’s also such an independent woman and I think people are scared of that. If you don’t like Meghan, come talk to me. I’ll take you on.
One of the most surprising things to happen to me came about two years ago, when an amazing called woman called Lee Magiday – who produced The Favourite and The Lobster – approached me about making a movie about my life. I said no, because it’s quite personal having your life on show for everyone. But eventually she wore me down and I agreed. Now, I think of her like family – she even came with me to my cousin’s wedding. I love that both producers on this film are women – Lee Magiday and Madeleine Sanderson – making a film about a woman. I’ve just read the outline of the film and I didn’t think it would be that interesting, but the writer Ursula did an amazing job. I don’t know who I’d like to play me, but I’d love for Idris Elba to be in it somehow because I love him. Maybe he could play a shopkeeper or something.
Somali women in general are changing the country – they’re implementing change in fashion, politics and philanthropy. There’s supermodel Halima Aden who wears a hijab, Serena Elba is doing amazing things with NGOs, and of course the Somali sports minister Khadijo Mohamed Diriye. All these brilliant women are doing so much to change how we see Somalia. That’s what fighting means to me.