The UNHCR Kebrebeyah refugee camp occupies a vast plain of land on the edge of a harsh desert that marches to the southeast where it takes on the name Ogaden. Only 35 miles from the Somalia border, some of the Somali people have been living in the camp since the beginning of the civil war that broke out in their homeland fifteen years ago. We were visiting the camp to assess the Somali people’s satisfaction and use of our project’s 130 stoves that we placed there a few weeks before.
“Thank Allah for the people who brought us this stove. Thank Allah for the stove. Thank Allah for this project. Allah, bless these good people.” More than one woman expressed thanks and gratitude to Allah for us and our work.
It is a somewhat surreal experience when a person thanks a god you do not know for your life and your work. I know very little about Islam. What I do know is that an offer of camel’s milk, a very nutrient-rich drink that helps keep the Somali people relatively healthy, and a sentiment of “you are a good man” seem to speak to our shared human existence. I accepted her blessings. Allah’s blessings.
My wife documented a woman’s injuries that she sustained while gathering wood for cooking. She went out in the morning and returned 8 hours later in the rain. She had a bundle of wood on her back. The weight of it and the slippery mud caused her to fall. She severely injured both her hands and arms, probably breaking the one wrist. While writing down her story, other women came forward and told their stories of gathering fuelwood.
Many talked of being beaten with sticks and fists by local men. The men stole their wood after the beating. Others talked of knowing women who have been raped while collecting wood, a well-documented, unfortunate reality for Africa ’s women. Though none of them admitted to being raped themselves, they talked of friends who have been raped. Is their any difference among the women of the world who have been violated yet struggle to tell their own story? It’s always someone they know, never them. When will we give them the support they need to tell their stories? When will they stop having to tell such horrific stories?
Our project’s mission took on greater importance after talking with the women. All the women wanted a stove. All of them talked of how they hated gathering wood. How it hurt their backs. How the girls missed school several days a week. Cooking with wood starts in the pre-dawn hours when women walk out from their homes to gather fuel.
I prayed to Allah that the women would find healing.
“Buy my baby. I don’t want my children. I have 3 anyway. I need the money. Buy my baby.” A desperate mother relays her desires to me through a Somali-to-English translation.
No matter how much you hear about this kind of thing occurring, no matter how many articles you read, you are never prepared for the look in a mother’s eyes when she wants you to buy her child. It disturbs you in places you didn’t know existed. A darkness creeps over you and you realize that there are inequalities and injustices in life will never be addressed in any policy or government debate.
Life can be an awful thing.
Somali homes look like large dome camping tents. They are constructed by women. A wood-stick frame is set up, and is then covered by plastic donated by the UN. They then pile old clothes and blankets over the plastic, giving them the look of a ragged quilt grandma made back on the farm.
I noticed an Oxford University sweatshirt adorning the outside of one of the homes. I thought of the irony of that sweatshirt, the prestigious university on display on the house of one of the world’s poorest families. That sweatshirt’s cost maybe equaled the family’s yearly income.
Somalis welcomed us wherever we went. Especially the children. I shook their hands, sharing a greeting of “Selam.” I played marbles with them, they laughing at my inability to shoot the marble. We walked with airplane arms and highstepped from house to house. I made weird noises with my mouth; they echoed my silliness.
They surrounded me as I sat under a shade tree. They felt the hair on my arms. They touched my white skin and stared at my hair. I lowered my head and let them touch it. They laughed. I laughed.
Allah, bless the children.
Somehow, amidst such depressing living conditions, we left the camp overjoyed. I have yet to place a finger on it, but there is something that makes time passed in such dire places a positive experience. I wish I knew why I was so happy when I left the camp. I was happy in my thoughts, and at the same time I was sad because I didn’t want to leave.
I offered them a prayer, “Allah, shine down goodness on the Somali people living in Kebrebeyah and all Somali people everywhere. Help them find a way to end their country’s strife so that they can return the place of their birth.”
(written 30 October 2005)
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