Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Somali Refugee on Life and Survival

It isn’t easy for soccer enthusiast and Wheaton, IL resident, Bisharo Amir, 17, to speak of her past. “My mother gave birth to my little brother under a tree, with the sound of bombs and machine guns blasting, and through it all my brothers and sisters who were small children were crying for her attention,” she shudders. “Can you imagine that?”

Bisharo is originally from Somalia. When war broke out with Ethiopia nearly two decades ago, her family and hundreds of thousands of others fled to Kenya. “It was very sudden. No one knew what was happening. For power and money, friends betrayed each other,” she says of the embattled nations. Bisharo, then three, spent her childhood in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, which was originally established in 1992 for the 20,000 refugees fleeing Sudan.

“My little niece there,” she points to a three-year-old, “children her age shouldn’t have to see so much killing, so much blood, but they have. That’s not good. I don’t think about it, otherwise I won’t be healthy mentally, physically, emotionally. I just don’t think about those days,” says Bisharo. “I can’t believe that a 7-year-old had a gun and wanted to kill people.”

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that at the height of the civil wars in Ethiopia and Somalia in 1991 and 1992, thousands of wounded and famished refugees arrived daily in Kenya's remote border regions. Fighting in neighboring Sudan prompted the flight of thousands more to Kenya, mostly boys escaping the conflict and/or forced military service. By 1992, UNHCR had established 17 refugee camps in Kenya to care for a refugee population of 420,000. 1

As Bisharo explains, refugee camps can be largely lawless. At Kakuma, not only were there diverse refugee populations from all over Africa, but there were also ethnic groupings from a single country who were in conflict with each other back home. “We look very different from Somali people,” says Bisharo, lifting her hijab. “Their hair is straight, ours is curly. We are from Somalia but we are Bantu and we were enemies,” she says.

Proximity to areas of civil strife further enabled easy access to weapons. “When they came for your money and you didn’t give it to them, they’d torture you and even kill you,” recalls Bisharo. She remembers one horrifying night when a neighbor whom she was staying over with was robbed, pulled out of her hutment and raped. “I curled up like a ball in the corner with her children, trying to keep them calm,” says Bisharo, who was no more than a child herself at the time. Rape continues to be a common crisis in refugee camps. Sometimes the police, too, take the liberty to harass refugees. “It was like a prison,” Bisharo observes.

Asked what the hardest thing for her was, Bisharo replies, “not having a father. He was running for his life because they were forcing boys and men into the army. He had also married again, which is very common in African culture. For 2 to 3 years there, I didn’t have a father and I’d see other fathers with their kids, hugging them, playing with them, buying them candy,” she says. “I was ten years old and used to wonder why I was alive? What purpose was I alive for? We needed him emotionally. Now he’s back with us and I don’t hold anything against him. He had to do what he had to do.”

Bisharo glances over at her niece again. “I feel happy for her,” she says. “She has what I didn’t have.”

Her elder sister, now 26, tried filling the void left by their father by working as domestic help in Kenya to help make ends meet.

“We owe her our life,” says Bisharo. “Most of her life she spent doing whatever she could to make us happy. When the food rations UNHCR gave us ran out, we had to work in other people’s homes without a break, without any rest. It was like being Cinderella. I wrote an essay about myself for school (in Wheaton) and I got 100 per cent. My teacher thought it was really good. I told her that wasn’t even half my story,” adds Bisharo, who is learning to play the piano.

To hear Bisharo speak in her English fluent and confident voice, her animated conversation punctuated with laughter, one can’t imagine she moved to the suburbs of Chicago only two years ago.

“My father was a teacher and he knew even girls should go to school,” she says, explaining why her English is so good. “In Africa, they say girls aren’t supposed to go to school. That’s pathetic! That’s lame! My friends’ parents used to say I’ve lost it because I used to go to school. My dad took me to school. Girls grow up early there and get married at 13 or 14.”

Does she plan to tie the knot soon, too? “I worked so hard for my education. I’m going to lose everything if I get married now because I’m going to have to be responsible for my husband. Then if you get pregnant, you’re responsible for the children too. I have to find where I am going first. I just have to go till I end up where I need to go,” she says, resolutely. “If I do get married, it’s not going to stop me because he married me when I was studying and I’m studying hard and you want me to stop? It’s not going to happen!” Is that her advice for her friends as well? Bisharo shakes her head. “They have to do what they want to do.”

A high-school student at Wheaton North High School, Bisharo started out as an ESL student. She topped that class and they bumped her up to the next level, where she came first again. “I didn’t even have to study for health. ‘This is going too far,’ they said, and the next semester I was in a regular class,” she laughs. “I get A’s and B’s but I barely passed history. I’m an average kid,” she says rolling her eyes, then swiftly adds, “but I’m a quick learner.”

Asked about her adjustment to life in America, Bisharo responds by describing her friends. “They are so fun! Americans don’t judge you before they know you. I am a mutt but I hate people calling me a half-breed. My mother speaks Kizigwa and my Dad speaks Mai Mai. I speak both those languages, Somali, Swahili and English! Africans ask me, ‘Who do you like better? Your mother or your father?’ or they ask me, ‘Why did you mother marry your father? Her culture is better.’ I tell them I don’t have to choose between my parents. And about why my parents married? Isn’t that a personal question? So be it, if you think I am a half-breed and don’t like me.”
What else does she like about her new homeland? “Boys and girls are treated equally. Here we can choose. In Africa, our choices are made for us depending on if we are a girl or a boy. It’s not fair! Also, in Africa you can’t be seen walking with a boy because people will gossip. Here, we can joke with boys.”

A tomboy, Bisharo loves that she can be one without it being a big deal like it would be in Africa. “My mother’s friends here tell her she is going to have such a problem with me. But my mum says as long as I am happy, that’s all that matters.”
Bisharo yearns for her aunts and grand-mother who are still in the refugee camps. She wants to become a doctor, loves Japanese Anime and dreams of learning to play the violin. “It would be an honor to learn music. I love Chinese music. It’s so harmonious and peaceful. People used to live in peace in Africa…a long time ago. It’s so much better here.”

Does she think allowing more refugees access to resettlement in other nations is the answer? Bisharo hesitates. “Some people there may threaten you into saying they are family and come with you.” In her answer, you can see ghosts of the past threatening her newfound sense of security. “The future is not written yet. You can only think about now,” she concludes.

1 UNHCR Publications;

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