Excerpted from The Lucky Ones: African Refugees' Stories of Extraordinary Courage with permission from Great Plains Publications -- Copyright (2013).
Winnipeg's Anne Mahon borrowed from her experience as a volunteer to interview refugees from Africa about the horrors that ejected them from their homes. The often chilling accounts of loss, war, genocide, rape and violence compiled in this book are also profoundly inspiring. The book will be launched on Tuesday, May 7 at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson Booksellers at Grant Park Shopping Centre.
To be a refugee is to be powerless -- you leave your home, you leave your property, you leave your friends and relatives, and you go alone. I know; I spent 12 years living as a refugee, mostly in Kenya. I watched my children being born and my wife die in those refugee camps. I have seen suffering -- so much suffering -- but I have seen goodness, too. The people I've met in Canada just don't know what is happening in the refugee camps in Africa. It is my hope that by sharing my experiences I will help Canadians understand what life was really like there.
My wife and I fled first to Congo, but we couldn't live there because of the lack of safety, so we moved on to Tanzania. Our first child was born there in 1996. But the Tanzanian government made a decision to repatriate all Rwandese and was forcing them to return home. We felt that returning to Rwanda was unsafe because the civil war was still raging, so we moved on to the Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya.
Have you ever watched people fight over a jug of water? Our water in Kakuma flowed from a community tap. We lined up in the morning at 7 a.m. to fill our containers. The ration was only 10 litres of water per person per day, but still, the taps could run dry before everyone got water. And they did run dry. It was frustrating waiting for water and watching fighting and violence when there was not enough. The water was precious. We had to wash our clothes with it, take a bath with it, drink it and cook with it.
As well, so many people in the camp were suffering from malnutrition. The food we were getting from the World Food Program was not enough; it was not a balanced diet nutritionally. There was a non-government organization (NGO) providing children with supplementary feedings -- milk and porridge -- but it still wasn't enough. People had left their homes with nothing, travelling hundreds of miles; so many people were without proper clothing, too. It was a good thing it was hot!
There was another problem -- many refugees grew up in wartime and had to retreat for safety, often to the forest. They were stressed and violent and conditioned by the killing in a war. So to kill a person was normal. They had never had the opportunity to learn how to read and write in school and had never lived in a peaceful situation to know "this is right and this is wrong."
There was so much violence in our area of Mogadishu at that time. The militia came to my older brother's house and opened a machine-gun on everyone. His wife and oldest son, then 17, were killed. My brother was shot at, too, but somehow he and his two daughters survived. They all ran away and let the militia take everything. At that time, I was a widow and I took my kids and fled to another, safer area of the city. We moved around a lot trying to get away from the gunfire and explosions. We would run and stay in a camp or shack in a safer area and then when that area became violent, we'd flee again.
I sold all the jewelry I had so I could buy food for my family. We had to start over many times. Looking around Mogadishu now, you can see the whole city has been destroyed by the violence.
One day, I returned to my old house to see if anything such as blankets were left that I could take with me. As I was walking up the street, I saw there was an old truck with the roof cut off and a machine-gun coming out of where the roof had been in the passenger area. We call these "technical vehicles." People were hiding underneath waiting for people passing by. Three men and three women with guns jumped out. One man put a gun to my neck and I was very scared. At that time, two tribes were fighting: Abgal and Habarrgidir. Their neighbourhoods were separated with a border to divide the two tribes.
One of the women in the group said, "Kill her far away so her blood does not touch us." He asked me to walk and held the gun at my back as I moved. I recited verses from the Qur'an as I did this. He then told me to turn around and face him. The gunman said, "The truth is what I need. Who are you and what is your tribe?"
In Somalia, it is important to learn your tribal ancestry. You have to know it all, so that if someone asks, you can recite it all the way back. Back home, children must learn their tribal lineage 30 generations back because they could get caught and killed if they say the wrong thing. That's how important it is. Thankfully, I knew both my tribal lineage and also my husband's.
The gunman said, "OK, who else knows you in the neighbourhood?" I named a particular man and the gunman asked to speak with him. I said, "He has moved to another part of Mogadishu, but if you want, we can go and see him and he will tell you my father is Asharaf and my mother is Habarrgidir." He looked at me and said, "Get out of here and don't come back." I have tried to forget all this; I do not want to remember it.
My dad talked to one of his Nigerian friends who had a boat and agreed to help us escape. So one night at about two in the morning, this friend knocked on the door and we left immediately.
We took everything with us we could carry. The boat was a fishing boat meant to hold about 20 people, but it was leaking and in need of repair. Our belongings were too heavy and the boat started to sink. We had to throw things into the water, things we later wished we could have saved like bar soap and laundry soap.
We threw so much into the water that we basically had nothing left, not even food or drinking water. We had to bail water out of the boat the whole four days we were on the water.
I think it was November 1999. We travelled northwest to the country of Guinea. Unfortunately, they did not allow us entry into the country. The officials said Guinea was not taking any Liberian refugees because the civil war was senseless. They felt there was no reason for Liberians to be killing their own people. All of this was very upsetting.
We got back on the boat and travelled back past Liberia and on to Ghana, which is east of Liberia and the neighbouring country of Cote d'Ivoire. We did not stop at Cote d'Ivoire because it is a French-speaking country and we spoke no French and also because we knew they had strict rules for visitors.
We were happy when we reached Ghana and were accepted, but that is just the beginning of our story.
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There are lots of people who still need help, especially those in the refugee camps. I always tell people it is not over yet. The fact some of us were fortunate to come here is not the end; it is only the beginning. If some of the refugees in the camps were to tell their stories to you, you'd say, "You know, Chris's story is nothing. There are worse hardships."
When I open my book of life and I look through it, I see all kinds of experiences. Good has come from all parts, even the unlucky ones. Everything in my life has turned out for the better; that's how I see it. Had all those things not happened in my life, I would not be where I am today. If I had not lived through the war in Liberia, I would not have gone to Ghana. If my mom had not left Ghana, I would not have ended up here in Canada. Everything that happened has turned out to be fortunate for me.
My dad taught me difficult times don't last forever. He said never worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. There is always a better day.