There is not one Mo Farah, but two. The first is a knighted British national treasure who arrived in London as a little boy and went on to become the most successful male track distance-runner ever.
The second lives rather more quietly in Djibouti, where he followed the remarkable things done in his name on television. He, in a sense, is the real Mo Farah; the one we have known under that name for years was born Hussein Abdi Kahin in a humble farming family in Somaliland north of Somalia and was trafficked to the UK at the age of nine in 1993 under false papers. The little boy didn’t know he was being trafficked by the unnamed lady with whom he travelled. He thought he was going to Europe to live with relatives and, as Farah recalls, was excited about flying for the first time.
What happened next would give Priti Patel conniptions. “We go through passport check and the lady was going, ‘Don’t forget: Mohamed, Mohamed.’ I was like: ‘Yeah: Mohamed, Mohamed’ – ’cause that was on the document. Stamp! Go through. I can see this man standing, just looking around … waiting for them and his oldest son Mohamed. That’s when I realised I had taken Mohamed’s place.”
This is the big reveal of this beautifully made and often heartbreaking BBC One documentary – that the great British icon is an illegal immigrant who has been concealing the truth in his autobiography and in interviews. He even hid it from his wife Tania and his children, one of whom, tellingly, is called Hussein. As Farah says: “Despite what I’ve said in the past, my parents never lived in the UK. When I was four my dad was killed in the civil war. As a family we were torn apart. I was separated from my mother, and I was brought into the UK illegally under the name of another child called Mohamed Farah.”
Once in a flat in west London, Farah was put to work like so many trafficking victims before and after him. “From day one, the lady, what she did wasn’t right. I wasn’t treated as part of the family. I was always that kid who did everything.” He cleaned the flat, showered her children, cooked for them. He was told he could not leave the house to go to school. She only relented later, he recalls, letting him attend school in Feltham from year seven onwards.
As Farah recounts this grim childhood, I can’t help but think that in 2022, Home Office functionaries would put a case like his on the next flight to Rwanda. It’s hard, too, not to draw parallels between Farah’s case and the many Windrush generation immigrants who lived in the UK for decades without the correct papers before being sent back “home”, under cruel Tory-inspired Home Office rules, to lands they hadn’t visited in decades.
Farah’s teachers worried about the little boy with scarcely any English. He got into fights, didn’t concentrate in class, and arrived at school unkempt. It became clear that the woman who claimed to be his mother was not. Eventually Farah confided his true identity to a sympathetic PE teacher, Alan Watkinson. It was Watkinson and other teachers who contacted social services, in turn arranging for Mo to live with a schoolmate’s mother, a Somali woman called Kinsi, whom he came to know as auntie, even though she is no relation. “She really took care of me and I was happy there,” says Farah now. “I ended up staying seven years.”
During that happier time, 14-year-old Farah was selected to run for Britain, but there was a problem. He had no papers to prove he was a British citizen. So the school bombarded the Home Office with letters, one reading: “I’m writing to you concerning a pupil we have at school. His name is Mohamed Farah and he’s an asylum seeker from Somalia. We’d very much like him to obtain his British citizenship so that he can run in the World Athletics Championships and represent Great Britain.” This wasn’t completely true, but the appeal worked and on 25 July 2000, Mo Farah became a British citizen – even though the real Mo Farah had at that point never set foot in the UK.
The most touching scenes come when we meet the Somali women who raised him. First, we see his mother, Aisha, interviewed in the family village, smiling as sweetly as her son, explaining how and why she sent him and his twin brother Hassan from the war zone to safety in Djibouti. She claims to know nothing of how he was trafficked to England, and then we see Farah’s reunion with the woman who gave him a proper home in London, aunt Kinsi. She, in turn, gives him the real Mo Farah’s WhatsApp contact details, prompting a sweet phone call between two guys named Mo.
Finally, Farah visits the village of his birth along with his son Hussein. We see him praying at the grave of his father. We see him reunited with his family, including Hassan. His mother tells him it is sinful to lie about his true identity; Hassan tells him to be proud of who he really is. Those exhortations no doubt made Farah want to go public with the truth even if, as his barrister explains, it’s a truth that opened up a small but scary risk that the Home Office would take away his nationality. I was welling up over these reunions and I hope you were too.
Farah’s story is resonant for the tens of thousands of human trafficking victims now living in the UK. It’s also profoundly topical for those of us who feel the Home Office, in demonising illegal immigrants and treating them shabbily, disgraces the flag that Mo Farah carried so proudly in his victory laps in London a decade ago. The Home Office has now said he will not be returned to his birthplace, which raises the question: how many Olympic gold medals does a person of colour need to win before the Home Office considers them British?
July 14, 2022 at 02:36AM Stuart Jeffries