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Mohammed (center) with a brother (front) and friends pass the time playing on the apartment porch.
Mohammed (center) with a brother (front) and friends pass the time playing on the apartment porch.
(© Nichole Sobecki)
With curtains pulled for air and light, Omar prepares meals.
With curtains pulled for air and light, Omar prepares meals.
(© Nichole Sobecki)
Apartment living for a refugee in Nairobi is not life in a beautiful modern city. It’s dirty, crowded, and busy, with grinding poverty.
Apartment living for a refugee in Nairobi is not life in a beautiful modern city. It’s dirty, crowded, and busy, with grinding poverty.
(© Nichole Sobecki)

“My Apartment Building Is Full of Women Worrying About What Is Next”
Mulki Mohamed Omar Fled Somalia’s Civil War for Kenya, With the Hope of Resettling in the United States.

Mulki Mohamed Omar is a 28-year-old Somali refugee. She fled her home in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu when she was fifteen and has been living in Kenya’s capital Nairobi for thirteen years waiting to be resettled. She’s gotten married and birthed five children, all while waiting.

Last year she finally received word she and her five children would resettled to Ohio in the United States. Omar told her story in Somali through a translator to Abigail Higgins.

We found the first bullet in my brother’s crib. It wasn’t the first bullet, but it was my first—and it was when I realized there was war in Somalia. I was five years old and playing in the house when I heard it pierce our thin ceiling and hit the bed where my brother was sleeping. We were sure it had killed him, but a few inches of space and minutes of time meant he was still alive. That is how war works.

Shortly after that, the first mortar landed near our home. Then came the first time to flee; it would the first of many times.

War stops and it starts, it comes in intervals. We’d stay home during the quiet and things would almost feel normal. But the distant gunfire would always begin to roar and it was time to run again. War is inevitable, it starts again at any minute. You can’t control it.

We’d flee on foot, trying to reach my Aunt’s house on the outskirts of Mogadishu before the gunfire reached us. We’d run when it was quiet and then duck behind walls and cars when it started again. Otherwise, you were a target.

It was hard for my mother to keep me and my four siblings together. You can’t go straight when you’re running from bullets.

That was our routine for as long as I can remember. War came and it went. We ran and then we stopped. But it always came back again. War follows you.

I was fifteen when my mother told me it was time for me to leave Somalia. My mother’s friends were fleeing to Kenya, the closest place where bullets didn’t land next to your sleeping brother. My mother said, “Go, go with this family so you can be safe.”

I hadn’t ever been alone before, and my family couldn’t afford to leave with me. But I was fifteen and rape was a regular part of the war. My mother was afraid I would be next.

When it was time to leave, I started crying, I told my mother I wouldn’t go. She started crying too and told me I didn’t have a choice.

“It’s better to leave the country than risk being violated,” she said. “That’s something you can never recover from.”

We drove for seven days, hopping from taxi to taxi in dusty border towns. The roadblocks were the scariest part: soldiers with guns leaning in through our windows looking for bribes, bandits looking for stray passerby.

These are the memories I have of Mogadishu. They’re the memories that played when I heard that, after a decade of waiting in Nairobi, I was being resettled to America. They’re the memories that played when I heard over the BBC’s Somali radio earlier this year, while cooking dinner for my five children, that Somali refugees weren’t being allowed into America, not anymore.

I had always imagined Nairobi as a beautiful modern city. It wasn’t. It was dirty and crowded and busy. There weren’t bullets, but there was grinding poverty. It was the first time I realized what it is to be a refugee in a country that hates you.

The family I traveled with told me I had to support myself. I wanted to cry. But what have tears ever accomplished?

Then I saw my husband in the grocery store. It wasn’t about love; it was about livelihood, about doing what you need to survive when you don’t have a family and you don’t have a job and you’re in a foreign country. I was young, but it felt like life pushed me into marriage.

He was a good husband until he wasn’t.

The closest I’ve ever felt to my mother is when I gave birth to my first son Mohammed. She wasn’t there, but she was who I thought about. I was only sixteen, but whether you’re grown up or you’re young, the significance of motherhood isn’t lost on you. You think about when you were in your mother’s womb, you think about the pain she went through to birth you. You realize the importance of being a woman, the importance of the pain of being a woman.

I respect my mother more than anyone in the world. Becoming one myself made me realize what she had done for me, that sending me away was the right decision in a way I couldn’t have understood at the time. But it doesn’t make it less terrible.

We talked on the phone throughout my entire pregnancy. A cell phone was the first thing I bought from the small amount of money I made cleaning houses. I called her when I was in pain and she told me when the pain was normal and she told me when the pain meant it was time to go the hospital.

But when my phone rang at 4am, I knew something was wrong. Phone calls from Somalia at 4am don’t bring good news. A mortar had hit our house. Shrapnel had pierced my thirteen-year-old brother’s heart, killing him immediately. My eleven-year-old sister had been injured and she was in the hospital.

It was around the same time I gave birth to Mohammed. That’s how war works. He’s eleven years old now and he wants to be an optometrist when he grows up. His English is perfect and to him, American means education. Each son after him looks like increasingly smaller versions of him.

I’ve only seen my mother once since she put me in the car when I was fifteen. She fell ill when I was pregnant with my second child and went to get treatment at a border town between Somalia and Kenya. It was the closest she had ever been so I took a bus to be with her. We spent two months together, her sick and I pregnant. She told me when the pain was normal and when the pain meant it was time to go to the hospital.

When it was time for us to leave, I didn’t have the money to get her to Nairobi. “We’ll meet again,” I told her. “I promise.” I hope that someday, we will.

A few months ago, my husband told me he was going to look for a job and never came back. After he left, I opened his drawers and saw that all his clothing was gone. When I called his phone a stranger picked up and said he didn’t know who my husband was, that this had always been his phone number.

I think the wait for resettlement drove him mad, I think years of unemployment made him feel hopeless. I’m not angry at him. I have to worry about what is next, about how I’ll feed five children without him. My apartment building is full of women worrying about what is next.

I had to file a police report about his disappearance so that UNHCR would continue our resettlement process without him. His sister-in-law is in Ohio, which is where we’re supposed to be resettled. I don’t know much about Ohio, but I heard there are jobs and schools and that people are good.

I spend a lot of my days at UNHCR’s offices waiting. I’ve been through so many steps since I registered as a refugee at sixteen: medical check-ups, security checks, interviews about where I’m from in Somalia, why I left Somalia, where my family is. If I’m not waiting for information for my case I’m helping newly arrived women navigate the process, just like older women helped me when I first arrived. One good turn deserves another. Somalis help each other.

We’ve been waiting for so many years. Our lives have been harsh. We’ve gotten so close only to hear those devastating words, words whose outcome I still don’t understand, translated into Somali by the BBC “refugee ban.” I thought by this time I would be going to America.

Like many Somali refugees, Omar isn’t sure how her eventual resettlement will be affected by the travel ban, or if she’ll ever be resettled at all. US President Donald Trump signed a new version of the executive order temporarily halting refugee resettlement from seven Muslim majority countries on March 6, 2017, which removed Iraq but retains Somalia and five other countries. For refugees like Omar, who is so far along in the resettlement process, these delays could mean that her security clearances expire, dramatically delaying her resettlement.

Abigail Higgins is an American journalist reporting from East Africa.

Nichole Sobecki is a photographer and filmmaker based in Nairobi, Kenya. She began her career in Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria, focusing on regional issues related to identity, conflict, and human rights. Nichole has completed assignments throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia for The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Time, Foreign Policy, The Financial Times Magazine, and Le Monde, and her work has been exhibited internationally.

This article was originally published on The Development Set and written as part of Uncovering Security, a media skills development program run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Stanley Foundation, and Gerda Henkel Stiftung.

— Abigail Higgins, Reporting for The Development Set
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