Sir Mohamed Farah is a track distance legend. The British runner, born in Somaliland, holds an unprecedented 10 global championship medals, including four Olympic golds. There are statues of him in England. He has honorary titles that have been bestowed upon him by Queen Elizabeth II. And this week, in news that has created shock waves in our supposedly shock-free culture, Farah revealed that he first came to England at the age of “8 or 9” as the result of human trafficking. In the process, he rewrote what was assumed about his history, his family, and even his name.
Farah, now 39, had long said that he arrived with his parents as a refugee. But in a BBC Documentary to be released Wednesday, he says, “Most people know me as Mo Farah, but it’s not my name, or it’s not the reality. The real story is I was born in Somaliland, north of Somalia, as Hussein Abdi Kahin. Despite what I’ve said in the past, my parents never lived in the UK.”
Farah then tells a harrowing story of being separated from his family after his father was killed in Somalia’s civil war. He was sent to Djibouti and then brought to England “by a woman” thinking that he was going to stay with a family, but instead she gave him the name Mohamed Farah and sold him into domestic servitude. Again, he was “8 or 9 years old” when this all occurred.
“If I wanted food in my mouth, my job was to look after [the children of the home], shower them, cook for them, clean for them,” Farah recalls. “And [his captor] said, ‘If you ever want to see your family again, don’t say anything. If you say anything, they will take you away.’” This was his life until he confided in a physical education teacher named Alan Watkinson, who took him away and put him with a Somali foster family, and “everything got better.”
Farah is still haunted by the experience, saying that, at age 39, it is time to confront his past publicly. He said to the BBC, “For years, I just kept blocking it out. But you can only block it out for so long.”
Farah said that he is coming forward precisely to raise awareness about the realities of human trafficking. Despite all of the honors Farah had received, he risked his citizenship by saying that he was not in fact a refugee. The British government quickly said in a press release Tuesday that Farah would not be targeted and “to suggest otherwise is wrong.”
As for the woman who trafficked Farah and the well-to-do family with whom he was placed, they are not named, and one wonders how long that is going to be the case. Farah has been a hero throughout the world for his story of being a refugee who rose to Olympics success, for being a proud Muslim accepted in the highest echelons of British society, and for his standard-setting greatness. When it comes to long-distance running, he is the sport’s Michael Jordan, its Serena Williams. The revelation that his name and background were a ruse created by a human trafficker will ripple throughout the country, raising questions about not only the systemic exploitation of African children but also the effects of colonialism and civil war on populations that often go unseen and unheard.
Farah is aware that his story gets to be heard because he could run distances like no one in the history of the sport. His use of his platform to speak for those unheard should burnish his reputation for heroism and self-sacrifice. We can only hope. Parts of the British right have long attempted to torment Farah, claiming that because he was a refugee from Somaliland he was not really British. Now that Farah has revealed that he came to British shores in a state of bondage, his racist critics should crawl back into their sewers, and Farah should be celebrated for a courage even greater than what he displays in the final thousand meters of grueling competition.