Pride and perseverence: from nomad to nurse
I was born in Africa in 1982 in the eastern coastal city of Mogadishu, Somalia. My father, wanting a son as his firstborn, was deeply disappointed, so, shortly after my birth, he divorced my mother.
Unable to take care of me by herself, my mother brought me to live with her mother, my grandmother, in the small, primitive village of Balcad, located in the southeastern region of Somalia.
By primitive, I mean very primitive—no electricity, no cars, no phones, no motors of any kind, meals cooked outside over an open fire, herders and farmers living in small domed huts with dirt floors. There, sexual abuse starting at the age of three. By the time I was five, I was trained by my grandmother to herd the sheep and goats out in the grasslands, where I had to chase off not only hyenas and jackals, but boys herding their flocks who saw a young girl out by herself as easy prey.
By the time I was 11, I was taking my grandmother’s cattle deep into the grasslands, living as a nomad for months at a time with nothing to eat or drink except the milk I could get from the cows and the fruit and honey I could find in the wild. I learned how to depend on myself—and only myself. I learned how to endure extreme hardship and loneliness. I witnessed the breakout of civil war as Somalia fell to her knees into utter chaos, everyone fighting against everyone. Thousands fled to nearby Kenya. That’s where I reunited with my mother and for the first time met my young siblings. Together, we escaped to the largest refugee camp in the world—Dadaab, which was run by the U.N., and where I lived for three years.
Each day in Dadaab, I witnessed the passive acceptance of seeing little children with very large stomachs and small skinny legs, dying, too weak to chase the flies away, their eyes pleading for help. I saw mothers and fathers carry the lifeless bodies of their children and loved ones, wrapped in an old blanket or cloth, to bury them outside the camp. There, I also witnessed women fighting each other with machetes or sticks or knives simply over their place in line to get water from one of four wells—four wells for 150,000 people!
Living in that camp helped prepare me for life in America. I learned to read, even if it was a tiny amount of Somali; I learned math, even if it was just adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. I learned how to ride a bus and how to shop. I learned a little about medicine and going to the doctor.
Twice per year, people in the camp could fill out an application to come to the United States. Unfortunately, out of 150,000 refugees, only about 100 got picked each time. The process—from the time you applied to when you actually got on the plane to leave for America—took about a year. Late in the summer of 1998, just like thousands of others with the same hopes, I put in my application. When I learned I was selected, I felt as though I’d won the lottery. Yet, the opportunity to come to America meant leaving my mother and siblings behind.
I experienced a lot by this time in my life, but flying off by myself to a strange land was very, very stressful. But I had to do it for my mother and siblings. The chance to provide them with the money to leave Dadaab gave me a purpose and a job to do. If it weren’t for that, I don’t think I could’ve done it.
By Habibo Haji