Sunday, 1 May 2011

My personal story of Survival to thrival
Ismail Abdi, Arizona, North America.

The serene, tranquil environment was suddenly pierced by the deafening sound of gunfire. Mortar shelling rent the air as hell broke loose in the sleepy village of Seyla on the outskirts of the city of Badade in south western Somalia. A heavy grenade exploded a few yards away from our house sending a cloud of thick, black smoke into the sky. Fire caught our neighbor’s house and as I took shelter under my bed, I saw people fleeing in all directions. I heard the screams of kids and the wailing of mothers as the militia ran a mock.
The flames were still burning the following day when the few remnants of the once populous village gathered at my father’s barn to figure out how to make it to the Kenyan border. After two weeks of pure hell where we played mouse and cat with the militia, we made it to the Kenyan border where the UN refugee agency {UNHCR} welcomed us with a hot meal and clean water. The image of UN workers and volunteers dressed in blue overalls working long hours to save the lives of the elderly, the injured and the sick and the kids suffering from malnutrition left a mark on me.
Few days after the UNHCR settled us in the middle of the Kenyan desert, dad enrolled me in a school. It was a far cry from the beautiful school I attended while in Somalia. Unlike my previous school, I sat on the dusty floor and had no book to write on. I drew the English letters on the floor and read to the teacher who “corrected” my work with his long white cane. Twelve years later, I successfully graduated from the school and started doing voluntary work with the refugee youth committee. With the help of the community & operating agencies, we worked on creating
Awareness on the risks of female genital mutilation, early marriage and HIV/AIDS among others. One of our key goals was to improve female participation in decision-making and I achieved that by starting the female leadership program. The program was aimed at empowering girls to be more pro-active in the community.
More community-based voluntary work followed before my passion for kids lured me to take a position with Save the Children, UK. . On the day I got my first job as a community service, the memory of that hot day in 1991 lingered in my mind longer than any other thought or recollection. On the dusty and dangerous blocks of Dadaab, I became child protection worker. In a place where the law was vague and easily buyable, protecting unaccompanied minors was no mean feat.
When the US government decided to resettle long protracted refugees in Dadaab, I considered it for it presented an opportunity for growth; not just personal growth but also a growth in the goals and ambitions I long harbored.
Life in Chicago proved very hard. When it snowed, I called home and told dad that America is a land full of miracles. I moved to Colorado where friends from Dadaab lived but little did I know that they had worse winter. When it got too cold to bear, I asked dad for advice. The response, “son, do you really believe someone in Dadaab can give you advice on how to handle cold weather?”  Oh that was foolish of me, wasn’t it?
            Relatives in Arizona called to say that if I moved there, it will be a chance for me to reunite with the desert. The desert was the bait and I swallowed it. A week later, I found myself buckling under the heat of Tucson.
I was into my early morning habit of fixing myself a cup of hot, sugary Somali tea when I was interrupted by a feeble knock on the door. When I opened it, I found myself staring at an old accomplice of mine from Dadaab. The long, exaggerated Somali hug and niceties followed and before I knew my kitchen was engulfed in light-blue smoke. Apparently my accomplice wanted help with his “papers” and since I spoke the “mouth” of the western people, I would be helpful or so he thought and led me to the International Rescue Committee office. He needed help with immigration stuff and I volunteered to translate for him. When I got into the IRC office, I felt at home. Two African-looking men spoke in a language I was familiar with while a lady who sat by my accomplice cursed her daughter in Amharic. Folks spoke the “humanitarian” language and the tone of their voice suggested I was in a very familiar place.
I spoke with some of the staff and before long; I got to accept the fact that there was no turning point and working for refugees was the best dream I could ever thought. This was the place and I had to get into the mix. The inevitable call came and I can’t believe it’s been years since then. If anything, I have grown in leaps and bounds. More educated, more enlightened, more experienced, and yes much taller.

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