“I woke up and I was being flooded with messages and emails and I thought, ‘What is going on?’” Elman said in a phone call from New York, where she is attending the UN General Assembly.
More official word came later that day: The 29-year-old Somali-Canadian had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Somalia, a non-governmental agency founded by her mother, Fartuun Elman.
She still has trouble believing it’s true.
“It’s an incredible honour to be considered,” says Elman, who grew up in Ottawa after she arrived with her mother and two sisters as refugees.
“I’ve been working in this area, especially in conflict zones where you always have your head down, and you forget that there are people actually watching you and what you’re doing,” she said.
“It’s like a display of solidarity for this challenging work. It’s beautiful and a testament to the entire team that we have here.”
Working toward peace and justice has come at a terrible cost to the Elman family. Elman’s father, Elman Ali Ahmed, was assassinated in the capital, Mogadishu, in March 1996. His campaign, Drop the Gun, Pick up the Pen used education as a way to steer young men away from violence. He was shot execution style in the back of the head, just a short distance from the family home.
Fartuun Elman and the children fled the country, arriving in Canada in 1999. Elman lived here for 11 years, attending Colonel By, Gloucester and Nepean high schools. In 2007, Fartuun returned to Somalia, where she founded the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in her husband’s memory. One of its first initiatives was called Sister Somalia, the country’s first rape crisis centre.
Ilwad Elman knew that one day she, too, would return home.
“We were raised that way,” she said. “My mom said we were so privileged to have the opportunity to be safe and to grow up in Canada. But we also knew we had a responsibility. It was never prescribed on us or forced on us, but we had an understanding that we had a responsibility back in Somalia.”
Elman arrived in Mogadishu in 2007 when she was 19 and immediately began working with her mother. The war was still raging.
“The conflict in Somalia has evolved. When I first went back it literally was a war zone. Out of the 17 districts, there were only two that were controlled by the government. It’s evolved, but now it’s a different kind of conflict,” she said.
“It’s a lot calmer. You don’t feel like you’re in war, but things happen. There are explosions that kill hundreds of people at a time. It’s just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In that sense, it almost feels a little bit more dangerous now than when I first came back.”
The Elmans’ peace organization has evolved, too, branching out into fields such as monitoring and documenting human rights abuses, mentoring young women into leadership roles, skills training, and providing healing and therapy to those marred by years of poverty and conflict. Sister Somalia has grown from simply helping victims of sexual abuse to the prevention of violence against women and working to strengthen the country’s sexual assault laws.
“There have been countless little victories,” Elman said. “All the challenges are still there, but there is progress, too.”
Elman has also worked with the Kofi Annan Foundation anti-extremism initiative Extremely Together and was named one of Africa’s 100 most influential people in 2019. She returned to Ottawa in September for the first time in four years to meet with the Canadian government on international women’s rights.
Elman is on a short list of favourites for the prize published by Norway’s influential Peace Research Institute Oslo, a list that also includes other young people such as Libyan activist Hajer Sharief and Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution” leader Nathan Law Kwun-chung. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also made PRIO’s shortlist, as well as organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee for its work with refugees in the Mediterranean.
The PRIO calls Elman “a worthy candidate” for the honour.
“The importance of youth activism has become increasingly apparent in recent years,” writes PRIO director Henrik Urdal. “Young people are setting the agenda on issues of critical importance for peace and security both locally and globally, challenging established narratives and generational power dynamics … This theme has only become more timely since then, and it is my view that the contributions of young people should be highlighted in this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.”
There are more than 300 nominees for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, with 223 being individuals and 78 organizations. The candidates are as diverse as U.S. President Donald Trump, who was nominated by members of U.S. Congress, to 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, to “fishermen in Kerala” who responded to devastating floods in the south Indian state.
The winner is expected to be announced in Oslo on Friday.