At her upstairs apartment, 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