Sahra leans across the arm rest and whispers that she does not want her face shown in the photo, but that she very much wants to share her story. In fact, she hopes when her daughters graduate from high school to write a book about their harrowing journey from Somalia to Norway ten years ago and the plight of refugee women in east Africa.
“Many women suffer,” she tells me. “Even me.”
Sahra and I are both traveling to Kenya for the first time. As Communications Officer for RefugePoint, I am kicking off a six-week virtual tour of our work throughout Africa while Sahra is meeting her first grandchild – a subject that brings a smile to her face as beautiful as the pink scarf that wraps gracefully around her hairline.
This is Sahra’s first return to east Africa since she and her two youngest daughters escaped Somalia in 2002, which is ironically the same year 2,500 Somali refugees unexpectedly resettled in my hometown in Maine and I began working in the refugee field. She says she has heard of Lewiston and I tell her I have many wonderful Somali friends there while I try to digest the trip she describes.
It was a decade ago and security in the capital city of Mogadishu was deteriorating rapidly. By this time, she had already lost one brother to a bomb blast outside her home and her husband was receiving death threats. To try to protect her children, Sahra sold her deceased mother’s remaining gold jewelery and paid $13,000 to a boat captain to transport her family to Yemen where they eventually applied for refugee protection.
The six day journey was very dangerous. Sahra and the girls hid in the hull of a barge typically used to transport animals, only this time it was humans – hundreds of Somali refugees in search of safety.
“Many people died along the way,” Sahra exclaims. “Mostly elderly and children. There were no windows. It was so hot and people ran out of water quickly.”
Fortunately, Sahra spoke English and she eventually pleaded with the Indian captain to let the family come up on deck for fresh air and freedom from the horror below. He eventually obliged and even shared some water and food with them.
Sahra and the girls eventually arrived in Yemen where they were granted protection and were resettled to the country of Norway – one of the 24 countries worldwide which participate in the UN’s refugee resettlement program.
Today, the family are safe and grateful for their new start. Sahra works in childcare and her now teenage girls excel at school and speak three languages, including Norwegian, English and Somali.
“Today, I tell my girls they can do anything,” Sahra says confidently. “They were so young when we fled that they don’t remember and I don’t remind them. It is too painful. I just want them to have good lives.”
Note: RefugePoint helps other refugee mothers like Sahra escape danger and reach a place of safety and hope. We also share her particular concern for the safety of girls, which is why we have been collaborating with the United Nations and partner NGOs to identify lasting solutions for refugee children- a project we will share more about in upcoming travel posts.
Cheryl Hamilton joined RefugePoint in September 2011 as the new Communications Officer