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Mo Farah: The Sir Who Was Trafficked

Mo Farah is an Olympic gold medalist and British sports hero. Now he tells in a BBC documentary: As a child, he was abducted to England under a false name.

Only when the woman tore up the piece of paper with the contact details did Hussein Abdi Kahin realize that something was terribly wrong. That's how he tells it today. On the paper were the details of his Somali family. They were the only way for this then little boy in England to get in touch with his relatives. "In that moment I knew I was in trouble."

Today, 30 years later, Hussein Abdi Kahin speaks about this time  in a BBC documentary.

Hussein Abdi Kahin hasn't been called that for a long time. Sir Mo Farah, that's the name by which the whole of Great Britain knows him. Under this name he has won four Olympic gold medals and five world titles. He became the best long-distance runner in the world, a national sports hero, a symbol of a modern, multicultural England. In 2017, the Queen knighted the Somali-born young man who walked to great glory in the colors of Britain. Ever since then, Sir Mo Farah has also been a symbol of successful integration.

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And now he explains in the documentary The Real Mo Farah that his name is actually different. That he was taken to Britain as a boy and forced to do housework. The story of Sir Mo Farah is no longer just a fairytale sports story. It is also a history of forced labor and human trafficking. Farah – he wants to continue to use this name, as the documentary says in the credits – was known until Tuesday as the son of an IT consultant who grew up in England but had since lived in Somalia and started a family. After the start of the civil war in the late 1980s, he moved back to England - Farah, his mother and two of his brothers followed him. Farah told this story in a previous Netflix documentary and in his autobiography. He also told them to his wife, whom he has known since school. Tania Farah only found out that she was wrong before her engagement in 2009: "It was only when I had worn him down with my questions that he said at some point: Watch out, it wasn't like that."

The version that Mo Farah then told her and that he is now making public in the documentary goes like this: Farah's father is not an IT consultant, but a farmer from Somaliland, a de facto independent region in north-west Somalia that is not recognized as a state. The father dies in the Somali civil war without ever having been in England. Hussein, now called Mo Farah, is four years old at this time. To protect him and his twin brother, her mother sends them north to live with an uncle in Djibouti. At some point a woman by the name of Farah showed up there regularly - and after a while Hussein was told he could fly to England with this woman and live with relatives there. At passport control, Hussein gives the name of another child: Mohamed Farah.

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In England, however, Farah is not taken to relatives as promised, he says. Instead he lives in the flat of the woman who brought him to London. Not as part of the family. "More like someone who works for her. If I wanted to eat, I had to look after the children. They shower, cook for them, clean for them. And she said: If you ever want to see your family again, don't tell anyone." During the first years in England, Farah is not allowed to go to school. That doesn't change until you're twelve. He hardly speaks English and is particularly noticeable as a disruptive factor. And yet school is his way out of forced labor. Because Farah confides in his physical education teacher: Alan Watkinson. He turns on social workers and ensures that Farah comes to another Somali family. When Farah got married in 2010, Watkinson was his best man.

It is the first moment in the BBC documentary where the unspoken question arises: what if Mo Farah had not been who he was: an exceptional talent? If he hadn't excelled in physical education class, would his relationship with his teacher still have been the same? To put it another way: How would it have fared if you didn't attract attention with your exceptional performance? According to the Guardian, the number of registered cases of child trafficking in the UK was at least 5,468 last year, almost half of which came from abroad. Some NGOs assume a much higher number of unreported cases. Kate Garbers, who founded an anti-slavery NGO and has her say in the documentary, speaks of up to 100,000 potential victims of human trafficking in Britain. Many of them are afraid to seek help, to tell someone their story. Fear of being expelled from the country. 

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Farah, on the other hand, is on the up and his talent is helping him. He runs away from everyone, first within the school and later at the state level. With reference to the young man's achievements, physical education teacher Watkinson is pushing for naturalization. In 2000, Farah became a British citizen; this name is in the passport: Mo Farah, not Hussein Abdi Kahin. Twelve years later he wins his first two gold medals at the Olympic Games in London. He becomes one of the biggest stars in athletics, and no other athlete is loved by the British as much as he is. Farah is modest, trains obsessively and despite everything, exudes an easygoing attitude. He creates a victory pose that people imitate a million times. With his arms on his head, he forms an M for the name Mo.

If Farah is invited to TV shows, he tells the invented life story. He keeps the truth to himself. One can only guess how great his fear must have been that the identity fraud would be exposed. Anyone can imagine what the British tabloid press would have done in such a case. Farah, who according to this documentary has to be seen as a victim of child trafficking, might have been used for an immigration debate. And the question seems justified: If such a prominent and popular person doesn't dare to tell their story for so long, how are the others doing?

A really great Brit

Now Farah has gone public herself. 30 years have passed since he came to London. Now, at 39, his career is finally coming to an end. He says, "I must tell my story, whatever the cost."

Those are still high in theory, he could be stripped of his British citizenship, which he obtained under false information. But the Home Office announced on Tuesday that nothing of the sort was in store for Farah. Physical education teacher Alan Watkinson, who has so far kept quiet about Farah's story, probably has nothing to fear either. On the contrary, the first voices from British politics are positive. Nadhim Zahawi, who would like to succeed Boris Johnson at the Tories, called Farah an inspirational role model. London Mayor Sadiq Khan spoke of a "really great Briton".

The case of Mo Farah shows how complex the stories of individuals can be and how little they sometimes have their fate in their own hands. In Farah's story, there are still a few unanswered questions at the end of the documentary. Mo Farah, on the other hand, knows the reason why he can now tell his story, unlike so many others: "What really saved me, what sets me apart is that I can run."

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