One woman’s painful story of migration from Africa to Europe

Somalia, as most of us know from the news for the past two decades has experienced every human catastrophe imaginable. Wars, terrorism, diseases, and famine are just among some of the enemies of the Somali people and many who survive these foes, fall victim to equally devastating and humiliating afflictions.

Nowhere are these afflictions more pronounced than for women. Even in privileged societies like North America, where law and order is intact, women not only fall victim to sexual violence and domestic abuse, but at times are victimized twice. So one can imagine the catastrophe which befalls vulnerable groups, most specially women in a war torn society like Somalia that has no such protections in place.

(Note: Not the picture of “Marwo”.)

The phenomenon called “Tahriib” or migration exposes an already very vulnerable group to more dangers, rape often being the weapon of choice. Historically, civil unrest has always been accompanied by sexual violence.

Women are raped along the journey as they flee the conflict or extreme poverty conditions. They are raped once they reach “safety” at a refugee camp. As if that was not enough torture for a soul to endure, some contract deadly diseases like HIV. For the lucky ones who escape the wretched life at camps and end up in lands far beyond their borders, misery is never far too behind.

Below I will do my very best to translate into English one such story of a Somali woman migrant, who recently did an interview with a Somali channel about her tahriib (migration). English is the leading world language. The vast majority of people around the world, who use the internet, can read English. This is only a personal blog with minor viewership, however with the world being interconnected than ever before, it is my hope people will come across this post and have the interest to get a glimpse of a heartbreaking human story, which often goes untold.

When we read about human tragedies it rarely goes beyond headlines like “scores of Africans dead at sea attempting a voyage to Europe”, we never see names, faces, or read their intimate narratives. What were these people like? How was their childhood? What were their fears and their dreams? What made them happy, laugh, or sad?

When the tragedy concerns privileged societies or individuals we get to see the narratives beyond the headlines. They are not just numbers or “scores dead”, but people with names, faces, interests, and loved ones. But when you are both poor and black such a privilege is usually not granted.

Ultimately the weight of the responsibility to document and tell these narratives and make African lives significant on the world stage falls upon Africans themselves. Tahriib or migration of Africans out of Africa is a major area that needs to be spotlighted and documented, but this has been so far neglected.

It is my hope in my limited capabilities at this moment to at least try in this post to give English readers a sense of what it is like for a migrant, who undertakes the dangerous journey to Europe from the Horn of Africa. It will be impossible to capture the hurt, the pain, and the suffering of this woman in simply writing this post, but I’d like more people to at least hear this story outside of those who watched the interview on Somali channel. I will do my best to translate word for word or when I am unable then summarize the narrator and not project my own voice into the story. When I do so I will use brackets.

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The source for this summary is from: Somali Channel episode 10/14/2012. The video can be found here.

The segment is titled: The troubles facing women migrants.

The host of the interview begins with a prayer and welcoming her viewers to the show. In the past several segments, the show has been highlighting stories relating the troubles facing Somali women. The host tells the viewers this particular upcoming story is a story which is the most shocking story she has covered on her show. She mentions how such stories are hidden by victims because of the fear of being treated like pariahs. She admonishes the culture of Somali’s, concerning hiding shocking/painful experiences. She compares this phenomenon to having physical pain, saying if one hides the pain and does not seek treatment; the pain will continue to persist. Then a news clip is shown about 30 migrants from Ethiopia (of Somali descent), who were fleeing to Yemen, but instead were arrested by Somali authorities in the coastal city of Bososso. Recently there has been a spike of migrants from the city of Burco and other areas of Somaliland and Puntland. People are fleeing poverty and drought. The policemen being interviewed has harsh words for any would be migrants, stating they will be arrested and taken to court.

Host: Discusses the economic troubles facing young people in Somalia. No work, no livelihood. Mentions these young people are the very people, who would build the nation as the next generation, but don’t have the environment to facilitate their talents and strengths, and thus they take the dangerous journey of seeking a better life overseas. She further states, most people believe those who make these types of voyages reach their destination safely, but that is not the case and most actually lose their lives, not to mention suffer many human right abuses. (The host seems to be very anti-tahriib. She hammers at the point of the risks far outweighing any potential benefits),

(Will now go straight to the interview. To protect her identity, the host decides to call the interviewee the name “Marwo”, which is a name of endearment. I too will stick to that name. The interviewee is also wearing a niqaab, which is covering everything except the eyes).

Host: Thanks Marwo for being brave and courageous to share her story.

Marwo: Is thankful to be on the program. She was born in Burco, a major city of the breakaway region of Somaliland, and now lives in Manchester, England. It seems she is in legal trouble in England and asks for help from those watching. She further calls on mothers, women, who have suffered to not hide their suffering, but come forward and tell their stories.

Marwo: My suffering is long. For a longtime I have suffered. My suffering is a result of not having a mother, having lost my mother, and not having the love and care of a mother. I have undertaken migration to foreign lands and suffered a lot in those lands.

Host: Where did you come from?

Marwo: My birthplace is the city of Burco and I migrated from Burco. From there I came to the city of Bossoso with my husband. I was pregnant at the time. We took a boat. There were many people on this boat. There was heavy rain, which made the boat tilt from side to side. Many people on the boat were forcefully thrown off the boat. I pray for the families of those who lost their lives.

Host: How were these people thrown off the boat?

Marwo: If the person was overweight, they were told to jump off. If they are unable to jump (because of fear), then a gun was pulled on them. Before we got on the boat, they searched everyone for weapons. (She mentions all the suffering she has witnessed in the experience of being a migrant, which will forever be tattooed on her conscious. Those who are telling people to jump off into the ocean are the traffickers, who solicit money from these migrants with a promise to take them to Europe.)

Host: Tell us more about the boat experience.

Marwo: As many people were being forcefully thrown off, while others were falling off, a pregnant woman gave birth on the boat. What was most shocking and stomach turning to me was the day I saw people, who were Somalis throw their own brethren off the boat…throw off the boat a woman, who is their sister and shares the name Somali with them. The pregnant woman gave birth due to the pain of what she witnessed. They told her to jump or sharks will come for us. (I suppose the reasoning behind this statement is because of the loss of blood, the mother has undergone having given birth). The woman hesitated and couldn’t jump so they took her baby and threw the baby overboard. When her baby was thrown, the mother jumped after the baby. What was most painful to witness was the cruelty people who are brethren inflicted on each other, and their lack of mercy. I pray God guides these people and to those who died, I pray God rests their souls. Then my husband, who I loved most in the world stood up and said to the men this is inhuman and unislamic. When he said this they stabbed him, took all his money and threw him to the ocean. (the Host repeats the story: the baby being thrown overboard, then the mother jumping after the baby, Marwo’s husband protesting the inhuman action of the traffickers and he too being killed.)

Marwo: I was pregnant when I got to Yemen. (She pauses indicating a poignant memory having landed in Yemen. She repeats several times, “the country of Yemen”). In Yemen everyone else ran away from me. As I kept walking, I saw an old man with a donkey who stopped to help me. I didn’t know how to swim. I must have been saved to come ashore. When I reached the shore….. (She pauses and says the tale is too painful to tell. The host urges her to keep narrating). The old man took me, while I was in chaotic state. I kept screaming and repeating the name of my husband. He took me to his home. (The host cuts her off and redirects the conversation towards Marwo being pregnant. She asks her to talk about how she gave birth on the street. But before she does, Marwo says she stayed in the old man’s home for a period of one month then he took her to a camp called Jihiin in Yemen. There is no word if she was abused/sexually assaulted by this man, but I suspect that was highly likely). I went to the camp feeling chaotic and confused, not knowing anyone or having any clan connections. I slept in the camp. A Yemeni man who runs the camp assisted me. To survive, I became part of the people who beg on the streets. It is on the streets I would beg. It was while I was on the street begging that I gave birth. I didn’t know anything about giving birth. It is the God who made me pregnant, who helped facilitate the birth. The people covered me in a blue bag and it was on the street that I gave birth.

Marwo: Radwan Mohamed Seed (she mentions this woman, who was at the camp with her. I am most likely spelling the individual name (s) wrong). I thank you dear sister for the help and kindness you have shown me. You maybe watching this( program) as I am on the air and I thank you sister. I believe you are in Canada or America. This woman had one tent at the camp and she gave me one side of the tent to live after I gave birth. (Marwo discusses how Radwan encouraged her to live with her and to also find a job and not beg on the street. It is not clear if they leave the camp and find a home outside of the camp, but I believe it is the latter. Marwo then leaves the city Radwan lives in, after a while of staying with her and she finds a job. There is no mention of what type of job and the duration of this process. It looks like it was several years and the job most likely was maid work. Marwo finds a baby sitter, while she goes out and works. In the home of the baby sitter, her boy was raped. He was six at the time. The host asks Marwo what she did to the people who raped her child. Marwo says she filed a complaint, but nothing was done. Then other Somalis began to harass her and shame her, because her son was raped and thus she went to another city. The bus she was on with her son was involved in an accident. Her son had a head injury as a result of that accident. At the hospital she was given the option to have blood money for her son’s injuries. It is not clear if this offer came from the bus driver. She didn’t take the money and said tragedies happen outside of human control. She resolved to marry to help herself and her child, because she was poor and had nothing. She says she met a man in the hospital, it is not clear if this man is the bus driver or the owner of the bus. She marries for the sole purpose of having a roof and a safe place for her son. She marries the Arab man for that reason and for a while she lived a good life, however his family didn’t like her).

Host: Did you have children for this man?

Marwo: I gave him two children. Their names are Osama and Muctas (wrong spelling). Unluckily, my two children, he took from me and I would have loved that they come with me to the UK.

Host: The man’s relatives didn’t like you and you had trouble with them, so he took your two children from you. And now all you have left is your first son. How did you and your son manage to leave?

Marwo: (She had help from a Somali woman who assists refugees. Papers were filed with the UN on her behalf and her son. Eventually she left Yemen for Romania. She was happy on the one end of leaving Yemen and on the other end deeply saddened to leave her children behind. When she comes to Romania, she is taken to a camp for refugees. There at the camp she meets another Somali woman, who shames Marwo for her son’s rape. Marwo fights this woman, who was spreading rumors around the camp. Marwo pulls a knife on this woman and the police are called. Only Marwo is arrested and this makes her very angry. She is in a chaotic state and can’t communicate why she is protesting the arrest. She is taken to a psychiatric ward, where she is sedated with drugs. They increase the dose during the times she fails to be sedated. She says her body was lifeless, but her mind was still functioning, when the Romanian doctor raped her.

Marwo: When I was taken to the psychiatric ward, I was evaluated and was not pregnant. When it was discovered I was pregnant, everyone was shocked. I am not blaming the entire United Nations, only the office, which brought me to Romania. They knew what I suffered and how I suffered, but turned a blind eye. It reached a point where officials from this agency sought to kill me and put a pillow over my face to kill me. A Romanian woman, Mama Maryana (who works for that UN agency) told me to have an abortion, because this pregnancy will embarrass the UN. An Arab guy, I thank him so much. I won’t say his name, because I don’t want to reveal his identity and for him to lose his job, this Arab guy from one of the Arab countries told me when I get to the UK I have a case to file a complaint against the UN office. (Eventually she lands in London with her first born son and her daughter from the Romania doctor).

Marwo: I was in London for a short while. I was broken. I didn’t know the language and the people who brought me, having taught me nothing, but just brought me to a home. My son called the authorities on me and said I beat him. My son and new born child were taken from me. He said I was not his mother and didn’t give birth to him. A DNA test was taken and it showed I was his mother. (The host and Marwo discuss the trauma faced by the young boy, his rape, the head injury from the bus accident, having led to him rejecting his mother. There is no question from the host if Marwo did beat her son. Marwo says she loves her son more than anything and asks people to pray for her that her children return to her).

The host: Summarizes the story of Marwo, recalling the details she shared.

Marwo: Mentions the Romanian doctor who raped her has not been charged and the officials/UN agency has put in her personal file that is she is psychotic so that she would never file a case against them and her testimony wouldn’t be taken seriously. (It seems Marwo is listed as psychotic in her files, even the ones she has in her now new residence of Manchester. This led to her children being taken away. This interests me, but the host doesn’t ask her further questions regarding this aspect of her story, ie the legal case against the UN agency, who helped sponsor her to the UN and the Romanian Doctor…. what is being done about the cover-up Instead the host goes on a tirade about the difficulties of tahriib/migration.) Marwo cuts off the host and brings attention to the problems facing Somalis in Yemen, especially new arrivals who came seeking employment. She mentions young Somali men face the greatest difficultly; they are being raped and set on fire by the Yemenis. She signals out a place in Yemen called: Basateen.

Caller: Calls in. He thanks Marwo for telling her painful story. Mentions many people have suffered like this, but are too afraid of shame to come public with their story. The caller seems to be an informed man and is a community activist. The host finally draws attention to the case in Romania and asks the caller what Marwo can do about the case. The caller details what Marwo can do about her case, file a lawsuit and so forth.

Host: Tells the caller about the evaluation papers Marwo has from a doctor in the UK, who has outlined Marwo is not crazy and has no cognitive deficits. (Marwo comes across as very intelligent, compassionate, sincere, and sane). This doctor encourages the state to reinstate the children to their mother. The baby girl was only two months old when she was taken by the authorities. The host asks the caller to speak on this.

Caller: He says this doctor’s paper will be very helpful for Marwo’s case. He explains what she can do with the law and encourages her to fight using the laws in place. (I am not sure if the Somali community and human rights adovcates in England are assisting Marwo. There is no mention of legal help or help of any kind she is getting).

The host opens the floor to more callers, who mainly pray for Marwo. I will end the post here.

It is an ugly fact so many lives have been swallowed up by the world’s seas. How many in the last two decades, we will never know. While those who survived the overwhelming journey, so many suffered like Marwo. Most of their stories will never be known. For me, I am always ambivalent when relating the stories of victims. Even though I am not a journalist and I am simply translating an interview, I don’t wish to define Marwo solely by her suffering and thus making her a case for pity. There is a delicate balance when telling stories and obviously, Marwo is much more than the horrors she has suffered. I don’t know her story beyond this interview, therefore I am limited in what I can relate, but I do feel the need to say this just in case one were to come across this post, I would want them to also remember the importance of not seeing people through one dimension. People are much more than the unfortune fate has dealt them. Regarding tahriib, I would encourage anyone who comes across this post to read the story of Olympian Samia Omar written by Teresa Krug. It is a very personal and beautiful piece by Teresa, who I believe captured that delicate balance of relating a tragedy.

I mourn for all of those who have perished seeking a better life and those still in the struggle.

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