In 2013, Barkhad Abdi shot to fame for his portrayal of a Somali pirate in the blockbuster film “Captain Phillips”.
Abdi, who starred opposite Tom Hanks, was nominated for an Oscar that same year. Despite his gripping performance, it wasn’t an easy role for Abdi to play.
“I couldn’t relate (to my character), honestly, but I could empathize with him. He was a young man lacking an opportunity who had basically grown up in a shattered country, and he saw the gun as the solution,” says Abdi.
Though he was born in Mogadishu, Abdi left Somalia at the age of six following the outbreak of a civil war that is still ongoing. His family fled to Yemen and ultimately settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota after winning a visa lottery.
“I knew how Somalia was, even though I was a kid. I witnessed the worst part: the civil war,” he says. “I could imagine a guy that is around my age that was in Somalia the whole time, and now just so happens to be a pirate.”
Abdi returned to his home country for the first time this year as a Goodwill Ambassador with Adeso, an African charity and development agency. CNN’s Inside Africa accompanied him on the emotional journey.
The pirate dilemma
Pirating around the coast of Somalia has decreased in recent years, thanks in part to multinational patrols. Still, some of the problems within the country that led to piracy in the first place exist. During his journey, Abdi spoke to some fisherman, who explained that large foreign fishing boats have made it hard for them to earn a living.
“There are foreigners heavily fishing around this place. And they have big ships and machines and they are taking all the fish. And there is nothing we can do about it,” complained one fisherman he spoke to.
Another former fisherman named Omar said he fears for the possible repercussions of Somalia’s fledging fishing industry.
“It’s possible that piracy could come back because all the fishing workers are out of work,” he told Abdi.
Sense of pride
One of the biggest surprises for Abdi was how much the country has grown in his absence.
“When I was in Hargeisa at the airport, I bought a Coca Cola, and I decided to read and see where this thing came from. I realized it was bottled there in Hargeisa, Somalia,” he recalls. “It shows that there is a lot of rebuilding, and the country is coming back slowly one step at a time. I want to be part of the change,” he says.
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