The real 'Mo Farah': Human Trafficking hidden in plain sight

I will never forget summer 2012. As a Londoner, the 2012 Olympic Games was a time of pride, unity, and excitement. There were many aspects of the London Olympic Games which were unforgettable; from meeting people from across the globe coming to one city, to “Super Saturday” when three of GB’s athletes won gold medals in one day. One of those athletes was Sir Mo Farah, the long-distance track runner. At the time, many were moved by his story: Farah, originally from Somalia, but came to the UK as a refugee, later became a British citizen and ran for GB.

However, that was not the full story. Years later in 2022, Farah revealed the truth behind his story in a BBC documentary. He was not ‘Mo Farah’. Rather, he was born in Djibouti as Hussein Abdi Kahin. His family were farmers living in Somaliland, north of Somalia. In 1993, at the age of nine years old, he was trafficked to the UK, under false papers. He and his family did not know he was being trafficked. In fact, Farah thought he was going to Europe to live with family, a prospect he was excited about. However, a woman, who is not named in the documentary, gave him false papers, and told him to tell Border forces that he was called Mohammed. Later, when they got through the passport control that they met a man who was asking the woman where his son Mohammed was.

It was then that 9 year old ‘Farah’, having just landed in a foreign land, far from family, realised that he had taken this boy’s place.

After arriving in the UK, Farah was taken to the woman’s home in Feltham, West London. There he was made to cook, clean, and look after her other children. He was living in domestic servitude, which is an incredibly sad reality for some victims of trafficking. In essence, these people are made to work in a person’s home doing household chores, and often being on call 24 hours to do so. Domestic servitude is difficult to detect given the fact that the victim is often kept indoors in a private home all day and night.

In Farah’s case, he pushed to be sent to school, and the unnamed woman finally relented. When researching for this article, I told people Farah’s story. Many were shocked saying they wouldn’t have expected it. Farah always seems so happy; being known for that broad, kind smile. It came as a surprise to many to hear that Farah struggled at school, getting into fights in the early days, not concentrating in class and arriving at school unkept. It just shows the reality that there are many individuals who to the unassuming eye live “normal” lives, but in reality, are victims of terrible exploitation.

Farah tells of how he realised enough was enough and told a kind PE teacher about how the woman he lived with was not his mother, and that he had been made to work in her house under a name which was not his. The teacher informed the social and social services were then involved. After that point, Farah lived with a friend’s family, who were also Somalian. He stayed there for 7 years.

The move to a stable home allowed Farah to thrive. A snag came when Farah was chosen to run for GB at the age of 14 years old but he was not a British citizen. His teachers wrote repeatedly to the Home Office so he could obtain citizenship. In one letter, it stated:

“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.”

He obtained British citizenship as Mohammed Farah. However, as we know now, this is not his true identity. As the documentary reveals, he technically would be deemed to have obtained this under false pretences or misrepresentation. As a result of Farah revealing the truth behind his identity now, there was a real a risk that the Home Office will revoke his citizenship.

In the documentary, viewers see Farah meeting his lawyers. They tell him that about the risks noted above. They also advised that Farah’s circumstances meant that the Home Office were less likely to take away his British nationality. Briddock told him:

"In your case, you were obliged as a very small child yourself to look after small children and to be a domestic servant. And then you told the relevant authorities, 'that is not my name'. All of those combine to lessen the risk that the Home Office will take away your nationality."

Thankfully, a Home Office official later told BBC News it would not take action over Sir Mo's nationality, as it was assumed a child was not complicit when citizenship was gained by deception.

There are heart-breaking scenes in the documentary, including Farah visiting his mother and family in Somalia. His mother tells of how she never knew of that he was trafficked and tragically, how the pair did not speak for so many years due to the trafficker breaking off means of contact.

Farah’s story demonstrates the stark truth that there are so many victims of trafficking and modern slavery who have to live in terrible conditions undetected and unsupported. Farah was brave enough to speak out against his abuser, but in many cases, victims are not able to do so. The story whilst tragic in many senses, is also uplifting and inspiring. Farah’s journey highlights that trafficked persons, including those who have undergone extreme hardships like Farah, can and do achieve outstanding things.

The documentary has raised so much awareness that calls to a trafficking charity helpline increased by 20% after Farah’s revelation. This demonstrates the fundamental importance of raising awareness of trafficking. It helps people self-identify and can help others identify possible victims too. This in turn, is key to ensure that victims of trafficking, like Farah, get the support they need.