by Kate Kooyman
Theresa Latini is taking a short break from her rotation on The Twelve. While she’s away, we welcome Kate Kooyman. Kate is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who serves in the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Witness in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thank you, Kate.
Women’s Day was March 8, and leading up to it my friend Dana, founder of Treetops Collective, shared the stories of several refugee women in West Michigan (photographed by Matt and Kristin Photography). Their courage, grace, and testimony stunned me. The image of God is in these women, and their stories are gifts. Here is one such story. You can find the others at Treetops Collective.
Asha is a 23 year old Somalian woman with three beautiful children and an important story to tell. Although she held very little back in our interview, she requested her photos be anonymous to protect her privacy. We are grateful for her courage in sharing painful parts of her story so that our community can catch a glimpse of what many women experience before resettlement.
When we reached the age of five we had to go to Madrasa where we learned about our Islamic religion. It’s like school but we only learn about religion. So, I and my brothers and my sisters, the five of us went to Madrasa that morning around 8:00 and then when we came back around 12:00 we just found the house and everything collapsed, ruined. Nobody was there and we didn’t know where our parents went and I started to cry and my sisters and brothers, they all were crying, and I left. I was looking for my mother and my father. They didn’t realize I left and I was the youngest, I was five years old.
So when I left I think they found some people and they also left. People were running, nobody was staying there, people were running. When I came back home, nobody was there, even my brothers, my sisters, they had left. So one of my neighbors, she’s called Miriam, she took me with her and she also had her kids, one of her sons was also missing. Everybody was just running for their life.
They took me with them and then crossed the border to Kenya, we traveled by donkey, two nights and two days we spent on the way. No food, nothing. Only gunshots. Everywhere in Somalia wherever we were crossing those villages and those cities, they were all fighting. There was no peace. So we came all the way to the Northeastern Kenyan border and crossed the border and stayed in Mandera district for 8 years.
I didn’t have a mother, no father. I didn’t know if they were still alive, if they survived. I didn’t know anything about my family. As I was growing up I didn’t even know the names of my father or my mother. I was five years old and I was shocked and I forgot everything. I didn’t even know where my parents were.
I had been going to school but when I reached eight years, Miriam told me that I had to work for her otherwise she will throw me out, and I had nobody else. She’s my only person that I can call a parent and she told me to stop going to school.
I stopped going to school. I had to cook for her sons, I had to clean up, I had to do everything. And in Kenya nobody cares about a refugee. They will even tell you to go back, so I cannot report to anybody, I cannot tell anybody, I’m just a refugee who’s lost, so I just had to do whatever she asked me to do.
After a while Miriam left me. She took me to a friend and she said, ‘She can work for you as a housegirl.’ She left me with this lady, Habibah. She was doing every evil thing to me. Her and her sons abused me. She was beating me up. I still have all the things that she did to me in my body. Her sons were in their twenties and I was thirteen. When I told her her sons abused me she would say ‘You are lying, my sons cannot do that’ and she would beat me up and she would say, ‘Try to tell anybody and I’m going to beat you.’
So one day the neighbors realized what this lady was doing to me and they told me there is a refugee camp in Northeastern Kenya called Kakuma. They gave me the bus fee and I left her one day. I didn’t take anything from her house, not even my clothes; I just ran away. That’s how I ended up in Kakuma refugee camp. That neighbor gave me a phone number of a friend who stayed in Kakuma. I stayed with that lady and I was helping her and I was going to school.”
“I was working very hard in school but sometimes you didn’t eat food for three days because there is no oil. There is nothing you can use to cook so you have to stay without eating for three days. So what are you going to learn in school when you are hungry and you are a child and you have three days, not eating anything? There was no water sometimes. You don’t have anything to drink, anything to eat.
When you go to an officer and say ‘I don’t have family, I’m alone, and I’m helpless, the person that you are telling this story to will say ‘I will help you but you have to give your body to me.’ And you have no other option, you have to do what they ask you to do so we just accept. Some people have money, they pay with money. If you don’t have money you have to pay with your body.
When I came to the refugee camp and life became harder, I thought that maybe I just had to give up my life. I have to do something and just end this life because since I was born, all I had seen is just a rough life. I don’t know why I came into this world. I used to regret this one.
There was a man who told me he was going to marry me and it was going to change my life. I didn’t care because in my country people get married at 12 years or 10 years so instead of my rough life, I accepted. I was 17. He said he had to get me pregnant and then he could marry me. I said okay and as soon as I got pregnant, he disappeared. Before, I was suffering alone and now I had a child in my stomach. I didn’t know what to do. I was helpless and couldn’t take it anymore. I got malaria and was hospitalized while I was pregnant. I had no family to visit me in the hospital. I was alone.”
“I learned about the LWF (Lutheran World Federation) Child Support office and went there, and nobody would open the gate. I sold my ration for an entire month and saved 100 Kenyan shillings to pay the security guards to be let in. They have a gender office there and a child support office so I went to the child support and I met a lady, she was a very nice lady. I can never forget her name, her name was Magdalene. She gave me hope. She gave me my life back again because she told me, ‘You are not alone and we’re going to help you in every way, don’t give up, don’t even think about giving up your life.’ Before I met her I was planning to give up my life and I was not even planning to give birth because I knew if I gave birth, my baby’s going to pass through whatever I passed through so I wanted me and my baby to go.
Magdalene gave me a lot of hope. She was giving me food and milk from the office, clothes, shoes, everything.
She was telling me, ‘Don’t give up your schooling.’ They used to visit me in school. When you’re pregnant in Kenya you have to give up your education because other people are going to laugh at you but LWF Child Support office, they were visiting me in school, and giving me hope. So, later on, they took me to a place called Safe Haven. It’s a protection area. I stayed there and they were giving me food and shelter. If I got sick, they’d take me with their car to the hospital and get medicine.
So they were taking good care of me and helped me start the resettlement process and that’s how I came to the United States with my kids.”
When I came from Nairobi to Brussels I was still traveling with some refugees. We came from Kakuma together up to New York and when I came to Chicago, flying from Chicago to Grand Rapids, I was the only black, I was the only Muslim, I was the only international person. All I see is white. And I was like, ‘I don’t know where I’m going but I will trust you guys.’ When I came to the airport my caseworker was waiting for me there. He told me he was also a refugee and came from a refugee camp. His name was Oman. He told me, ‘Don’t be scared. I was also a refugee like you once. I also came from a refugee camp.’
When I came here life changed. I had the opportunity to work. I had freedom. I can do whatever I want, it’s not like in the refugee camp.
Even in Kenya it’s not easy to get a job if you’re not educated. Many people even finished their education and they had no opportunity for work. But here, even if you’re not in school or if you didn’t go to school you can still work in a company and do things like packaging so it was easier here and life has changed. Whoever comes here has a very big chance. When you get this opportunity you need to stand up and work. I will always work and make sure I have a better life for my kids.”
My mother was crying and when she saw my pictures she was saying, ‘You look totally different.’ I have some birthmarks that they know and they told me that. And I saw I have them. My sister also has the same birthmarks as me.
They have my birth certificate and they have my pictures. They have a lot of everything that shows I’m their daughter and they sent it to me on Facebook and they showed me, so I believe that they’re my parents and some of my sisters. They look more like me. So, they didn’t die. They survived. They’re currently in Ethiopia with my brothers and sisters. They lost four kids, but the others are there. I don’t remember their faces. They sent me their pictures and they look like me. I call them and send them money. I’m planning to go to them when I get my passport.”
“Before I found a job if I say I had medicaid or food stamps they ask why I have them, ‘We don’t even have them and we’re Americans.’ They make me feel bad for receiving this kind of assistance. I will just tell myself I wish they knew what I’ve passed through to get here and they won’t be asking me those questions. It’s hard sometimes the way they question you. But, I will just answer them because it’s not harder than what I’ve passed through.”
“They said they were going to take me to Grand Rapids. I thought there are no Muslims here and I was worried. What if I died? Who is going to bury me there? But when I came here things were different.I even found my tribe. I have friends. I’ve met people in the mosque. When we go for prayers on Fridays, a lot of people came and asked where I was from and that’s how we ended up knowing each other. They visit me. They taught me how to drive. After I was here one year I bought a car and was driving. Yeah, they helped me. It’s good. I don’t feel like I’m ‘somewhere’. I just feel like I’m home.
Nowadays I sometimes get scared because I’m on Facebook and I see a lot of things. I saw another girl that someone in the street just came and attacked her because she was a Muslim. I saw some other girls who were attacked in the bus. I’m not using a bus. I’m driving, but I see some people’s comments and they say, ‘We don’t like these people and don’t want them to be here.’ Some people say they don’t want to see a refugee.”
“Problems—they will make you stronger. I’m 23. And all of this has made me stronger so I don’t regret anything. I can deal with any kind of problem now. I can’t sit there and cry. No. I cried and cried and cried and finished my tears back home so I don’t have tears left. If I have any problem I just think about how I will deal with it. I don’t have to cry.”