Dual nationals might not be welcome in Australia’s parliament – the Barnaby Joyce citizenship saga has reminded us all of that.
But meet Ibrahim Ahmed Reigal, an Australian who sits in the parliament of Somaliland.
Mr Reigal divides his time between his constituency in the breakaway republic on the Horn of Africa and his family home at Sadlier, near Liverpool in Sydney’s southwest.
The 72-year-old former school teacher and civil servant arrived in Australia as a refugee in 1995 but later returned to Somaliland to stand for election.
“I was once a refugee but now I am an MP,” he said. “I’m very proud of that.”
The former British protectorate of Somaliland declared independence from the war-torn nation of Somalia in 1991 but is not recognized as a separate state by the international community.
Even so, Somaliland has its own currency, its own police force, collects its own revenue, issues visas, administers courts and runs public services.
Like many refugees, Reigal has a compelling life story.
Amid civil war and political turmoil in Somalia during the early 1990s Reigal was thrown in jail with many others from his local region.
“I was beaten and tortured very badly,” he said. “I was lucky to survive because many Somalilanders were massacred and buried in mass graves.”
Reigal’s wife and seven children fled following his arrest. He would not see them again for five years.
Reigal was eventually released from jail but no longer felt safe in his homeland. He made his way to Australia, via Thailand, to seek asylum. After several months in immigration detention at Villawood he was granted refugee status.
Reigal sought help from the Red Cross to find his family and after a long search they were located in a refugee camp in Thailand.
Reigal’s face beams when describes the day he was reunited with the family at Sydney airport.
“Happiness is too small a word to say how I felt,” he says.
“What can I say – I nearly died of happiness.”
After settling in western Sydney Reigal worked as a teacher’s aid, a translator and as a security guard. He also became active in Australia’s Somaliland community.
Things changed when he travelled to Somaliland to visit his elderly mother in 2004.
Many friends and associates urged him return and stand for parliament.
“At first I refused because I did not want to be away from my family,” he says.
But those pushing for Reigal to enter Somaliland politics lobbied his wife, Amina, and she agreed he should take up the challenge.
“She said ‘don’t embarrass me, you have to go’,” he says.
The self-declared Republic of Somaliland is home to about 4 million people and is relatively peaceful compared with nearby regions of Somalia. Somaliland’s elections are hard-fought and widely respected.
Reigal was elected to represent the area where he grew up in eastern Somaliland in November 2005 and continues to serve as a member of the ruling Kulmiye Party.
He spends about eight months a year in Somaliland and returns to Sydney when the parliament is in recess.
“This is my way of making a contribution to Somaliland,” he said.
“Many schools and other services have now been established in my electorate because of my lobbying.”
This year severe drought has pushed Somaliland to the brink of famine and Reigal’s constituency has suffered severe food shortages.
“Many people have been left with nothing and the environment is badly damaged,” he said.
“But, thank god, people are helping each other very generously.”
Reigal is very grateful for the protection and opportunity he and his family have received in Australia.
But he would like his adopted country to be “more connected” with Somaliland which is in great need of development assistance and investment.
“I think Australia could do more to help,” he said.
Reigal also hopes Australia will one day recognize Somaliland as an independent nation.
“That is my appeal,” he said.
Matt is a senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.