I found myself in a hot, dusty camp on the border with Ethiopia, where Somalis who had fled their homes because of violence and the worst drought in 60 years were living. It’s there that I met Habiba.
Habiba is a 47-year-old mother of 10. She and her family used to grow bananas and mangoes and raise animals. But the drought destroyed their crops and killed all of their animals: 100 cattle, 200 goats, and 500 chickens, all gone.
A year ago, groups began attacking Habiba’s village and all her sons had to flee because they were afraid for their lives. (In violent conflicts, young men are targeted when they are seen as threats to the fighting). Habiba still does not know whether her sons are alive.
One day, an armed man attacked Habiba and her friends with a knife when they were gathering firewood. He killed three of them and slashed Habiba so badly that she needed life-saving medical care. She showed me the scar that almost encircled her arm. It had become irrelevant whether Habiba and her family could survive the drought. They feared they would not survive another attack.
She and her family fled their home, traveling only during the day to avoid being ambushed at night. It took them months to arrive at the camp [near the Ethiopian border] where we met. They lived off of a green, spinach-like vegetable common in Somalia. I asked her if it was good. She replied, “When hunger comes, we do not choose what we eat.”
As we spoke, a small crowd had gathered around us. Visitors are a curiosity and a break from life in a camp like this. Despite the crowd and the sun beating down upon us, Habiba was patient with my questions. She said that she and her family would return home when there was security. I asked her if they planned to stay in this camp or cross the border to a camp in Ethiopia. Habiba picked up a handful of dirt and said, “This is my soil. I know this soil. I know this language. So I will stay here.”
It was a different kind of day. As a policy advisor for conflicts and disasters at World Vision, my days often take me to the marble halls of Congress, or the concrete corridors of U.S. government buildings. There, I engage lawmakers and leaders, seeking policies that help vulnerable people in places torn apart by natural disasters or war, places like Somalia. But on this day, I found myself, instead, engaging with the most important of stakeholders, lost in conversation with Habiba.
For years, I have spoken with people who have had to flee their homes, moving to another country or another part of their own country. They are so strong. They are forced to trade the known for the unknown. They leave everything behind –the places where they grew up, the people they knew, the things they own. They travel hundreds of miles to safety and shelter, at risk of being killed by humans or hunger. They do all this because they know there is life that can still be lived, especially by their children.
And by sharing their stories, I hope to help them recover at least some of what they lost. When I return home to D.C. after a trip like this, I’m a better advocate. I share stories like Habiba’s with policymakers. Most importantly, I tell their stories to introduce them to the public, through media interviews and public speaking engagements, hoping that when Americans learn what is happening in these places they have never been and will probably never go, they are moved to help, becoming advocates themselves — with elected officials or even their neighbors — and/or supporting the relief work of organizations like World Vision.
But it all starts with the people and their stories, and Habiba is perhaps one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. She volunteers with one of World Vision’s local partners, a Somali organization, promoting good, life-saving hygiene to others in the camp. Despite, or perhaps because of her suffering, her poise, grace, and good humor are striking. She asked me if I liked Washington, D.C, I assume she meant the advocacy capital of the U.S. When I answered “I do,” she said, “This is my Washington.” Then she smiled, pointed at her arm, and said, “If I lived in Washington, my skin would be as white as yours. If you stay here for a few days, your skin will look like mine!”
My final question for Habiba was this: “What do you dream for you and your children?” For her children, her answer is a familiar one, the wish of parents everywhere in the world: a good education. For herself, she said simply, “I dream of a day when the Somali flag flies under a peaceful sky.”
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World Vision is assisting people in the area to which Habiba fled. We are providing emergency health care, water, and child friendly spaces for those fleeing the drought and conflict, and those coming back from Ethiopia. In this area we have reached more than 15,000 people.
Read related post Drought relief update from Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia.
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