Istarlin Abdi Halane was thrilled when she found out she’d been chosen to resettle in the United States.
“Maybe after all, my dream is really valid and it’s going to come true,” she thought.
The dream had been a long time coming. Abdi Halane, 28, fled war in her native Somalia as a child. She’d spent most of her life in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya: marrying at 15, a mother of two by 20, divorced by 25. All that time, waiting to find out where she’d be able to build her life.
Finally, last year, she got an answer.
“I was so happy when I got the letter,” she said in an interview in mid-May. “I had many friends from America. I saw they’re really nice people. If I’m going to America, then it’s the best thing.”
Still, the US presidential election that was going on at the time made her nervous. She was troubled by what Republican candidate Donald Trump had to say about immigrants — refugees and Muslims in particular. He kicked off his campaign declaring Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals”; he later called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Abdi Halane thought, “If he can think like this now in an election, what will happen if he becomes a president?”
She soon found out: During his first weeks in office, President Trump issued his “travel ban” executive order. It affected her doubly: As a Somali, the order barred her from entering the US for 90 days; as a refugee, it blocked her for 120 days.
“Maybe I’m the unluckiest person in this world,” she thought on the day she saw the news.
She didn’t sleep at all that night.
Trump’s ban has been challenged in court successfully; the order is not currently in effect. Since Trump became president, thousands of refugees have been resettled in the US. However, Abdi Halane’s case remains in limbo as she waits to renew her medical certification. All she can do is check her status online.
The anti-refugee rhetoric has taken its toll, on Abdi Halane and others like her.
“People don’t know how personally people are taking this,” said Melanie Nezer, head of public affairs at the immigrant-aid group HIAS. “All they want is to seek safety. Being painted as a danger or a threat — they take it very personally.”
And Abdi Halane is taking this personally.
“The only dream that I had, Trump shuttered it,” she said.
America might be a different place than she thought.
Here, in her own words, she describes the pain of realizing she is a refugee; the joy she felt at learning she was chosen to come to the United States; and the uncertainty faces now that Trump is president.
The images are a typical morning in Abdi Halane’s household, waking up at sunrise, making breakfast, and walking her daughters to school.
When she first realized she was a refugee
I was 13 when I realized I was a refugee. I was going to a boarding school that was a 25-minute walk from the refugee camp. Other kids would say, “You’re just a refugee; just go back where you came from. This is not your land. This is our land.”
That’s when it hit me: “Oh, so I’m a refugee.”
I would sit down and cry and cry. My English teacher was my favorite teacher. She would come and talk to me.
“You know what? Being a refugee is okay. It’s just a status — it can change any time,” she told me. “Maybe you will go back to your country; maybe you will go to another country. Your status will change.”
After that, I became bright, and whenever the other kids would tease me, I’d say, “It’s just a status, so don’t worry — I will get my education and it will change.”
A decade and a half later, it looked like her status was finally about to change
It had been years since my interviews with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. I’d stopped checking my status — I didn’t want to keep on coming back every evening heartbroken. But one day a friend said to me, “There are a lot of submission letters from the US, and I’ve seen your name. Everyone else picked up theirs a long time ago. What happened? It’s like you don’t want to leave the camp.”
I went home in the evening and I showed my daughters the letter.
My older daughter, Naima, said, “We’ll be Americans when we go there. We’re going to have our documents there. I’ll be Naima. I’ll be a Somali American. You know what, Mum? I will no longer be a refugee.”
Abdi Halane watched the 2016 election closely — and assumed Hillary Clinton would win
I was following the election on the internet.
I was 100 percent sure Clinton will win. I was really happy because I really love women leaders. It motivates and gives you courage — like if she made it, you can make it too.
I never liked the way Mr. Trump was talking.
He said he will always put America first, and one of the first things that he will do is he will deport any illegal immigrants that are in his country and no immigrants will be coming to America. That’s what hit me so hard — that and the wall that he said he’s going to build in Mexico.
I said, “If he can think like this now in an election, what will happen if he becomes a president?”
When she found out Trump had won, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to resettle in America after all
The day they announced the results of the election, I was at a conference on girls and education in a nearby town called Lokichogio, on the border between Kenya and Sudan.
I was in the conference hall of the hotel where we were staying, but my mind was on the counting of the votes that was going on halfway around the world. I kept leaving the conference hall to check the hotel television. Each time I saw Trump ahead of Hillary, I got sick to my stomach.
But I didn’t believe he would win until he came out and said, “I won,” and Clinton accepted that. That’s when it hit me. I went to my room and cried so hard.
I was crying because this guy, he never liked refugees. Because I knew once he is the president, I would never go to the United States. I thought, “The only dream that I had, Trump shattered it.” The moment he was chosen, that was the end of me. I was like, “I don’t think I’ll ever go there.”
Then I was crying because my children didn’t know about this election and these political things. They were excited that anytime soon, we would be resettled in America. So what am I going to tell them?
The next day I went home, and I kept quiet at first. I was like, “Let me first be okay; then I can talk to them.”
I said, “Naima and Malyum, do you know what? The new president that the American people have chosen, he is a guy who doesn’t like refugees. I don’t know how our case will be processed. I don’t know if we’re going or not.”
How Trump’s win changed her view of America
I wondered, “What happened to the American people?” Because most of them that I meet, they’re nice people, they’re so friendly. And it’s America that makes the largest donations to the UNHCR. They’re the main people who provide food, everything for the refugees. I wondered how they could choose such a person.
So I asked an American friend of mine: “What is going on with your people?”
She said, “It’s a question many of us have been asking,” and she tried to explain to me: “People got tired of the Democrats. They wanted a change — it’s not Trump they voted for; they voted because of the parties.”
That made sense to me.
When Trump announced his refugee ban in late January, her fears were realized
I found out about the ban from reading the online news on my phone. At the same time, my friends from America were texting and calling. They knew I was almost there; they were waiting for me. They kept on calling: “Istarlin, Istarlin, I’m sorry.”
I thought, “Maybe I’m the unluckiest person in this world. Every time my things work out, something will happen.”
I just felt bad the whole night. I couldn’t sleep.
The next day, I had more messages from my friends in America. They said, “Istarlin, don’t worry! We’re going to fight this ban. We as American people, we own the country. It’s not his country; it’s our country. We will fight this ban, and nobody is on his side.”
I was like, “It’s okay. If I’m meant one day to come to America, then I will come. If it’s not, it’s not.”
Her daughters ask when things are going to change — and she doesn’t have an answer
If it were just me, I would try to forget. But the kids keep on reminding me, “Mum, when are things going to change?”
Sometimes you don’t have an answer. You pretend you never heard that question; you try to dodge the subject and talk about something else. But the girls are too smart for that. They keep on asking.
“I just asked you a question, what’s up with our case, is there anything new, are we really going?”
The elder one says sometimes, “You know what, Mum, I think I should stop thinking about this.”
Then I tell her, “Yes, that’s for the better.”
But the smaller one doesn’t understand that. She keeps on asking me, “Mum, when are we going, are we ever going? Or maybe we’re going to stay in Kakuma forever. I don’t like Kakuma. Kakuma is not a nice place to be.”
I tell her, “In life, you have to be patient.”
She says, “Okay, Mum, I’m a big girl. I’ll be patient.”
I say, “Okay, that’s good for me.”
Who Is Responsible for Ending Sexual Violence in Somalia?
GLOBAL VOICES — In October 2017, 16-year-old Faiza Mohamed Abdi was shot in the “pelvic area” for declining the sexual advances of her attacker in the port town of Bosaso, Somalia.
Abdi was brutally wounded by Abdikadir Warsame, a solider with the security forces in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland. Since December 2017, Faiza has been undergoing treatment in a hospital in Turkey. Radio Dalsan reports:
Faiza was reported to have been attacked by a Puntland state navy soldier who wanted to rape her while she was in Bosaso town but she struggled hard to defend herself from her attacker. On realizing that he can’t succeed in his mission, the soldier who was named as Abdikadir Warsame shot her at the private part leading her to sustain serious injury. She was later moved to Mogadishu for treatment but unfortunately, doctors said that she requires a specialized medical attention that is beyond their level.
Unfortunately, Faiza is not alone. Although some of Somalia’s semi-autonomous regions have made recent attempts to push through anti-rape legislation, a general culture of impunity allows many violators to go unpunished — and tales of rape abound.
Rape in camps for Internally Displaced People (IDP)
In Somalia, more than two decades of civil war and famine have forced many people to flee their homes and live in IDP camps. Women and girls who live in camps outside the main cities are the most vulnerable to sexual assault.
They do not have any protection and most rape cases occur in the middle of the night or when they are collecting firewood in remote areas. At the same time, due to the breakdown of the criminal justice system, victims often do not have access to the legal assistance necessary to seek justice.
Fiican, a 45-year-old single mother and Buulo Ba’alay IDP camp resident, was raped in front of her children. She described the event in an interview with GV, stating:
It was a midnight when an armed man with Puntland police uniform cracked my home, took me out by force and raped me. Not only did he rape, he tortured me and left me with severe wound on my body that still cause lot of pain up to now.
The night of Fiican’s assault, men from Puntland Police went to the Bula Bacley IDP camp in the central city of Galkayo. The men broke into tents, taking Fiican and another mother by force. Both women were raped. Unfortunately, the victims have yet to receive justice for the violations they suffered. The assailants were arrested but have neither been charged in court nor sentenced for their crimes.
According to the Puntland Human Right Defenders, 80 rape cases were reported in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland in 2017. The real number of rapes is thought to be much higher because many victims do not speak out due to fear of stigmatization, a lack of trust in the criminal justice system and a lack of prepared health facilities.
Aside from the issues of justice, another obstacle for survivors of sexual assault is the lack of health infrastructure, modern tools, and equipment that are required in this sector. The health system also lacks the qualified personnel to handle rape-related cases.
Local culture can also be an obstacle to justice because of a regional custom which obligates victims to marry their assailants or accept “camels or livestock” as compensation for their assault:
Rape is pervasive and often goes unpunished in much of Somalia, where decades of conflict have fueled a culture of violence and weakened institutions meant to uphold the law. Traditionally, rape victims are forced to accept compensation – often in the form of camels or livestock – and marry their assailants in a centuries-old practice designed to end war between rival clans.
Small steps in the right direction — but is it enough?
On 9 Sept 2017, the semi-autonomous region of Puntland made headlines when it opened the first forensic lab to handle rape cases in the city of Garowe.
The year before, in September 2016, Puntland also became the first administrative region in Somalia to pass an anti-rape law.The House of Parliament voiced resounding support with 42 out of 45 members voting in favor of the bill which was later officially made into law.
On 6 January 2018, the Parliament of self-declared state Somaliland followed Puntland’s lead and also proposed a new anti-rape bill. However, there is still a long way to go before it is passed by the Guurti (House of Elders) and is signed into law.
Although the rape issue has attracted attention from the Somali government as well as the international community in the past years, sexual violence against women and children remains rampant and the number of assault cases continues to grow.
Somalia: Satellite imagery reveals devastation amid forced evictions of thousands who fled conflict and drought
New satellite imagery analysis by Amnesty International gives the first comprehensive view of how thousands of structures, including several schools, were demolished in sudden forced evictions that left more than 4,000 families homeless on the outskirts of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu in late December.
No warning was given before armed men accompanied bulldozers to raze the sites on 29 and 30 December 2017, according to UNICEF and Save the Children. UN agencies have said the forced evictions left more than 24,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) homeless, including 3,000 children.
Amnesty International’s analysis of satellite images from before, during and after the demolitions clearly shows that thousands of structures were turned to rubble over the course of the two-day operation. A UN humanitarian official said that basic infrastructure including latrines, schools and community centres were destroyed.
“These satellite images give a bird’s-eye view of the shocking scale of these forced evictions that destroyed the possessions, dwellings and livelihoods of thousands of vulnerable families,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
These satellite images give a bird’s-eye view of the shocking scale of these forced evictions that destroyed the possessions, dwellings and livelihoods of thousands of vulnerable families.
Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes
“Forced evictions are always a human rights violation and inevitably put people who are already in a very vulnerable situation at even greater risk. What makes these demolitions particularly cruel is that many of the thousands of people affected had only recently sought protection in Mogadishu after fleeing insecurity, drought and impending famine elsewhere in Somalia.”
Somalia: Al-Shabab Demanding Children
(Nairobi) – The Islamist armed group Al-Shabab has threatened and abducted civilians in Somalia’s Bay region to force communities to hand over their children for indoctrination and military training in recent months.
Since late September 2017, Al-Shabab has ordered elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and communities in rural areas to provide hundreds of children as young as 8 or face attack. The armed group’s increasingly aggressive child recruitment campaign started in mid-2017 with reprisals against communities that refused. In recent months, hundreds of children, many unaccompanied, have fled their homes to escape forced recruitment.
“Al-Shabab’s ruthless recruitment campaign is taking rural children from their parents so they can serve this militant armed group,” said Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To escape that cruel fate, many children have fled school or their homes.”
Over the past decade, Al-Shabab has recruited thousands of children for indoctrination and to become frontline fighters. Since 2015, the armed group has opened several large Islamic religious schools in areas under their control, strengthened indoctrination methods including by bringing in younger children, and pressured teachers to retrain and teach Al-Shabab’s curriculum in schools.
On a recent trip to Baidoa, the capital of Bay region, Human Rights Watch spoke to 15 residents from three districts in Bay region largely under Al-Shabab control – Berdale, Baidoa, and Burhakaba districts – as well as child protection advocates and United Nations officials. The findings match similar trends in other parts of the country since mid-2017.
Village elders said that in September Al-Shabab ordered them to go to Al-Shabab-controlled Bulo Fulay and to hand over dozens of children ages 9 to 15. A resident of Berdale district said: “They said we needed to support their fight. They spoke to us in a very threatening manner. They also said they wanted the keys to our boreholes [watering points]. They kept us for three days. We said we needed to consult with our community. They gave us 10 days.” Two other community residents said that they received threatening calls, including death threats, after the 10 days ran out, but as of late 2017 they had not handed over the children.
Three residents said that in September Al-Shabab fighters forcibly took at least 50 boys and girls from two schools in Burhakaba district and transported them to Bulo Fulay, which witnesses say hosts a number of religious schools and a major training facility. Two weeks later, a large group of armed Al-Shabab fighters with their faces covered returned to the village, entered another local school, and threatened and beat the teacher to hand over children.
“They wanted 25 children ages 8 to 15,” said the teacher, who resisted the order. “They didn’t say why, but we know that it’s because they want to indoctrinate them and then recruit them. After they hit me, some of the children started crying and tried to run out of the classroom. But the fighters were all around. They caned a 7-year-old boy who tried to escape.”
Residents from Berdale district said that in at least four villages, Al-Shabab abducted elders who refused to hand over children. In one village, three elders were released only after they agreed to hand over eight boys from their village.
In May, Al-Shabab pressured elders and other residents in villages in central Somalia’s Mudug and Galgadud regions – from which Ethiopian military forces had recently withdrawn – to hand over children ages 7 to 15. A boy who fled Middle Shabelle region without his parents said: “Our school wasn’t controlled by Al-Shabab. Six weeks ago [late June], they came to our school, took down our names, and took two boys. The teacher managed to escape. They threatened that next time they would come back for us.”
A woman in Burhakaba district said that her four children had witnessed 25 of their classmates being abducted from their school: “The four of them are now so worried about going to school. But if they don’t go to school, and get the fundamentals of the religion, they will go to waste.” Some local religious schools in Bay region are closing fearing further attacks, or because the teachers have fled or been abducted.
Some residents said that their only option to protect their children was to send them, often unaccompanied, to areas outside of Al-Shabab control – a difficult and dangerous journey given the threat of Al-Shabab abduction along the way. Community elders and local monitors said the recruitment campaign has forced approximately 500 people as of October, often unaccompanied children, to flee their homes to Baidoa.
“I heard that children were being captured in neighboring villages and so got very scared,” said a 15-year-old who fled by foot with his 9-year-old brother to the nearest town. “My parents gave me money to come to Baidoa. My brother and I were very scared of being captured along the way, since we went through the bush.”
In August, an official from Adale in Middle Shabelle told the media that his community was hosting approximately 500 children ages 10 to 15 who had fled forced recruitment in Galgudud, Hiran and Middle Shabelle districts. Some children have fled to towns where they have relatives, others end up in dire conditions in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Local groups estimate that over half of the children recently displaced to Baidoa now live in IDP settlements. But unaccompanied children, especially those in informal camps, are unlikely to find security or schooling and may be forced to work to survive.
“The government with UN agency assistance should ensure that displaced children, including those without adult guardians, receive protection and appropriate schooling,” Bader said. “Children should not flee one danger zone for a new one.”
The UN Security Council’s Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) reported that in June, Al-Shabab detained 45 elders in El Bur who refused to provide them with 150 children and only released them on the condition that the children would be handed over. The SEMG found that 300 children were abducted from the area during this period and taken to an Al-Shabab school.
In April Al-Shabab announced over its radio station that it was introducing a new curriculum for primary and secondary schools and warned teachers and schools against “foreign teachings.” A Bay region resident said that Al-Shabab took a dozen teachers for “retraining” around April, and they were only released after paying about US$300 per person. In certain areas, Al-Shabab ordered schools to shut down and communities to send their teachers to Al-Shabab curriculum training seminars, SEMG reported.
Human Rights Watch did not find clear evidence that children abducted in recent drives were taken directly for military training, but interviewees repeatedly raised the concern. The UN monitoring group reported that some of the schools set up by Al-Shabab were linked to military training facilities. Child abductions, notably from schools, and children’s use as fighters by Al-Shabab significantly increased in the second quarter of 2017, the UN monitoring group said. Boys who had been associated with Al-Shabab since late 2015 said that the religious schools and teachers were often used to recruit boys as fighters. These boys said their military training included a mixture of rudimentary weapons training and ideological indoctrination.
The Somali government has taken some steps to protect schools and students, Human Rights Watch said. In 2016 it endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, an international commitment by countries to do more to ensure that schools are safe places for children, even during war. Somalia has signed but not yet ratified the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on children in armed conflict, which states that armed groups “should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years.”
The government, with the help of international donors, should wherever possible identify Al-Shabab recruitment drives, including their location, scale, and use of educational institutions, that could inform protective measures, Human Rights Watch said. Doing so would also help efforts to assist displaced children, such as addressing their health, shelter, and security needs and providing them free primary education and access to secondary education, as well as appropriate psychosocial support.
“Al-Shabab’s campaign only adds to the horrors of Somalia’s long conflict, both for the children and their families,” said Bader. “The group should immediately stop abducting children and release all children in their ranks. The Somali government should ensure these children are not sent into harm’s way.”