Listening Voices: Stories from refugee women

DSC_2968Perhaps it’s human nature to put people into boxes – black, white, rich, poor, male, female, the list goes on. The danger is we see people according to the labels we’ve assigned them, and stop seeing them as individuals with their own story, personality, wounds, triumphs, and dreams.

The Somali refugee women we have been talking to have all faced horrific situations, but each have a unique story to tell.

Jamila’s father was approached by a man who wanted to marry her. The arrangements were made, and she married the man. What she didn’t know was that he was a member of Al-Shabaab, who would one day strap her into an explosive vest to end her life as a suicide bomber. He explained that all she had to do was find the designated location and stand there. He would organise the rest. When she tried to resist, he stabbed her, saying she had no choice. When he went left the house for a few moments, she took the chance to run to her neighbours for help, who managed to release her from the vest and helped her escape to Kismayo. From there she went to Kenya, and eventually made her way to South Africa. Her biggest hope now is to find a good job.

Sahro’s childhood home in Somalia was attacked every day, so she ran away to her aunt`s place, where she was found and arrested for a month because she was not at her home. When she was 10, her uncle was murdered in front of her and his killers kidnapped her. She was given food once a day for three months, and every day her kidnappers showed her videos of young girls been executed. She was scared of running away, but after a few months the kidnappers released her and she was taken back to her mother. She never found out why.

We were sitting in Sahro’s room as she told us the story. The walls were lined with romantic posters and declarations of love, so we asked her about her husband. She told us that when she was 18, she was forced to marry her cousin, which is what brought her to South Africa. But far from the romantic ideals of her posters, the 5 year relationship has been marked by physical abuse and violence towards her. She wishes to leave him, and has opened cases against him, but worries that if she leaves him, she’ll have no place to go.

Nurta ran away from Somalia after her husband was killed by Al-Shabaab, and her father in law wanted to force her marriage to one of her husband’s brothers. She took her 2 children with her to Kenya, as well as the son of her best friend, whom she’d adopted as her own when her friend was shot by Al-Shabaab. She explained that in her clan, forced marriages were common, and girls were expected to be married by 15. When she returned to Somalia, after her daughter, Ayan, had finished high school, she came under intense pressure to make marriage arrangements for Ayan. Nurta wanted her daughter to be free to marry whomever she wished, at a time she is ready. She also wanted her children to have a better life than she had – to be well educated, and get good jobs. So she took her daughter and ran away again, this time all the way to South Africa. Her son later joined, and now her daughter has a diploma in IT and her son has a degree in Biochemistry.

These are extracts from the stories of just 3 of the 28 women we have spoken to. The Listening Voices publication will document the stories in full, as well as adding insights and stories from Somali men and other refugees.