Quiet but Brave
At her upstairs apartment in Kennewick, Washington, Fardowsa greeted us at the door — a young Somali lady, tall, dressed in a flowery hijab. She invited us into the living room of the apartment she shares with her mother, Rukiya, who was seated on the carpet and covered with a pile of blankets in the chill of February. Their home is simple, only a small couch along the wall in the living room, a few rugs and mats to provide more seating on the carpet, but they smiled at our arrival and welcomed us in from the cold.
While Fardowsa busied herself in the adjoining kitchen, Rukiya began to talk to me through the Somali translator. As a volunteer for World Relief and a freelance writer, I had expressed a willingness to write the story of any refugee who wanted to share, and Rukiya had stepped forward. She had taken my beginning English class the previous year, was always one of the quieter, more hesitant students, and I was surprised to discover she was the one I would be interviewing this day. My perception of her hesitancy proved to be incorrect, however. With the translator relaying her words to me and Fardowsa making interjections in Somali and English, Rukiya conveyed the details of how she and her daughter came to this part of the U.S.
Rukiya lived with her husband and four sons in Kismaayo, Somalia, where he was a teacher in a madrasah. In 1991, though Rukiya was eight months pregnant with their fifth child, the family was forced with many others to flee during civil war. They made their way on foot toward the border of Ethiopia, Rukiya carrying their infant son on her back, her husband carrying the 2-year-old on his shoulders, the 3-year-old walking hand-in-hand with his father, and the 4-year-old boy walking separately with a group of relatives. The trek would be difficult for Rukiya at this stage of her pregnancy, but they had no choice but to leave their home.
As they walked toward Ethiopia, their group was hit by a round from a mortar. Life changed in an instant for Rukiya. She saw that her husband and the two boys with him were killed by the blast, and she herself was injured in the left leg. It wasn’t until later that someone nearby told her the baby on her back had been killed as well. When she was reunited with the relatives caring for her older son, she found out that he had survived the blast, but he had later been bitten by a snake and died. Her entire family was gone.
Rukiya continued walking with other refugees toward Ethiopia for another month. Shortly before they reached the border, she gave birth to Fardowsa with the help of the ladies in her group. They arrived in Ethiopia while Fardowsa was a newborn, and for the next 19 years their refugee camp was the only life the girl or her mother knew. During that time, they never had enough food rations to keep them from being hungry. Rukiya collected and sold firewood to buy more for them to eat, but it never seemed like enough.
In late 2010, World Relief helped resettle Rukiya and Fardowsa in Eastern Washington, where Fardowsa now attends ESL classes at the local college. Because of a disability in her hands, Rukiya can’t easily perform many basic tasks, such as holding a pencil or cooking meals, and Fardowsa is her care-giver. World Relief helped them find low-income housing and get the assistance they need from the government, and both ladies are grateful that they are able to live here in this apartment together.
When she finished telling me the details of her story, Rukiya shifted the blankets on her lap. The sound of pots and dishes came from the kitchen. Rukiya continued to speak.
She said people often tell her that she must be a very strong lady to endure the circumstances of her life — many people would go crazy if the same things had happened to them. But, she says, the events in Somalia and Ethiopia did change her. She is a different person now from who she was before. The trauma damaged her ability to remember things, making learning English even more difficult for her, and she isn’t able to speak as well as she once could in her native language.
Without my having to ask her the question, Rukiya explained that the reason she wanted to share her story with me and with others is so that she can find justice for what happened to her and her family. She said she doesn’t know who killed her husband and children, doesn’t know who launched the mortar round — but telling people what happened to them is her way of declaring this is not right, and it needs to be made right. Rukiya hopes her story will help other people, not just Somalis, get the help they need in unjust situations. Over the course of an hour on the floor of her living room, Rukiya transformed from the quiet, hesitant student I knew in class into a brave woman who isn’t afraid to share her story to benefit others.
Written by Rebecca Henderson-World Relief Volunteer
Love a good party? Always looking for a reason to celebrate, or for a good laugh? Then volunteering with World Relief might be your thing! Just ask Claudia. She’s been volunteering with World Relief for 3 years and has been part of weddings and births, moving parties, religious celebrations, and welcoming new refugee families into the community. “I’m pretty sure I have entertained a lot of refugees with my attempts to learn words and phrases in their languages,” she laughs. Though there have been many opportunities for her to celebrate with refugees, she has also helped them through the difficult parts of cultural transitions, like filling out the reams of paperwork for which Americans are known. She has helped people with housing, legal and medical paperwork, paying bills, making budgets, and starting savings plans. She quickly mentions to me that the cost of apartments are going up, and off the top of her head, rattles off current rate increases at various apartment complexes in the Tri-Cities, and expresses her concern for the affected families. Although Claudia started off mentoring a Columbian refugee family, she has since mentored Burmese and Somalis, too, and now contributes her time helping the Affiliate Director at World Relief with clerical and bookkeeping tasks.
“I had been praying about a way to volunteer that would be meaningful. One night, at a church meeting, a World Relief staff person stood up to speak about refugees in the Tri- Cities and as soon as she stood up, I knew that’s what I was supposed to do. I didn’t really have many cross cultural experiences to draw from, other than a time in the 1970’s when I was part of a church that helped host a Vietnamese family, or when I worked with a literacy project in California. But I’ve always been one to look out for the less-fortunate. Even in high school, I remember that I always seemed to have more than my friends did and I wanted to give to them. I’ve had refugees over to my home for visits and when they see my extra guest bedrooms they ask who lives there. They are just guest rooms, for visiting family. Many refugees have gone through so much tragedy, and have suffered a lot of trauma just to get here. When they tell you the story of how their government stole their land and killed their family, or when they tell you how they used to live, cooking, cleaning and sleeping all in a shack that is the size of my dining room, it reminds me again how fortunate I am. I am blessed with more than I need.”
Even while we sit and chat about her volunteer experiences, Claudia fields a phone call from a Somali friend who is updating her on a family that just came back from the doctor. Claudia had been out of town all day, and had been wondering how the family was doing. She points to a wooden floral craft hanging above the archway into her dining area and says, “A Colombian refugee painted that. She can do amazing craftwork, and I think she even did some crafts for the President’s wife! She is so talented.” As Claudia and I chat a few minutes to update each other on the news of various refugee friends, including a Somali single mother who recently moved out of town, she says “Guess what? She’s working again as a housekeeper, but she’s also going to college, and so is her son!”
“I’ve learned a lot from the refugees, about myself and about how our cultures are so different. One time recently, I was upset at a landlord about a situation in a young Burmese couple’s apartment and I wanted to march over to that office and get it resolved. My Burmese friend, who is much more gentle and kind than I, stopped me and said, ‘no, I’ll take care of it. It’s ok. I can do it. “
I used to actually be nervous when I first started mentoring and would go visit refugees in their home. I would watch my purse. Now I know they would never do anything to harm me, or to take advantage of me. Once I mentioned to my Somali friends that I had a headache, and after that, each Somali kept taking turns checking on me to see if I was ok. I’m accepted by them and they appreciate me and the help I can give them. They often confide in me about problems or questions they have about American culture. I’ve had many very personal conversations with them, and they sometimes seem much more open than we are in our culture.”
When I asked Claudia about some memorable experiences mentoring new refugees, she described her relationship with many of the younger Somalis, who often call her their mother, or “Mama Claudia.” This arrangement worked out just fine until one day, the Somali woman that Claudia had known the longest made sure to lay claim to Claudia by pointing out to the others, “Claudia is my mama.” As it turns out, they have all found a way to share Claudia, and they often refer to her as their American mother, or in some cases, a grandmother to the new babies. Many of these Somalis have lost their own mothers or will never see them again due to travel restrictions, illness and the financial cost of traveling. Claudia gladly takes on the title as their American mother, and wears it well. She gets out her camera to show me recent pictures of her grandchildren. “I have 3 now, 2 Somalis and a Burmese on the way! It’s so funny to go out in public and have these Somali people call me their mama. When I help them with appointments, the receptionist will ask what my relationship is to the group of Somalis standing there with me. We stop, look at each other, and just smile. I usually end up saying, ‘well, I’m their American mother.’ No one really asks questions after that. Sometimes people might think I do too much or may not really understand how I can work with people who don’t speak much English yet. I’m not trying to blow my own horn. Of course, I’d like to see more people involved, but this is just what I do.”