Stories: Excerpts from an RSC/Nairobi caseworker's journal
A caseworker with the Nairobi-based CWS Resettlement Support Center, Rosalie Hughes helps compile the case files of refugees being considered for U.S. resettlement and get the files ready for presentation to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for refugees' final interview.
And she keeps a journal. Here are some excerpts.
Dadaab, Kenya - Stories begin
I observed my first interviews today as part of training. In a few days I start doing my own.
"It was early in the morning and I heard gunshots outside my house. It was the Hawiye militia. They were attacking my village."
All five refugees I watched being interviewed today said the same thing. All were Somali and members of the Darod tribe. All were Muslim. All were from Southern Somalia and fled their country between 1991 and 1992. They have all been living in Dadaab Refugee Camp ever since.
When asked, "Can you describe the incident that caused you to leave your home country?" their answers were eerily similar:
Early one morning, militia from the Hawiye tribe attacked the village. They looted all the houses, shooting people at random. Those they did not kill, they beat "with the butts of their guns." Finally, the militia raped the women, stole cattle and left.
The survivors fled. Most walked several days to reach the border with Kenya, crossing at the city of Liboi. Most travelled with other villagers. Someone always died of starvation of dehydration along the way. One man, the last man interviewed today, fled in a van. The van flipped and one person died. His mother went deaf from the accident and his cousin broke both his legs. The man carried his crippled cousin across the border into Kenya.
Their stories paint a vivid, harsh picture of Southern Somalia in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, I was in second grade, learning cursive and watching Aladdin.
Dead babies and add-on babies
The baby's death certificate is different than its birth certificate – should I note that in the file? And, how do I enter an add-on baby into the database?
Common questions in our office.
A Somali refugee and her child traveling to the United States.
Photo copyright Amina Egal (used with permission).
An add-on baby is a baby born after its family starts applying for resettlement. A dead baby – is dead. Both scenarios are common, and in either case the family must bring the baby's birth or death certificate to their interview. We scan the document and enter it into our database.
Today I saw a colleague scanning a baby's death certificate, a brown and crumpled half-sheet. I noticed that "Dehydration" was listed as Cause of Death. Earlier this morning, I took a seven-minute shower. I boiled some water for tea. I rinsed my teacup twice because it smelled a bit off. I flushed the porcelain toilet after peeing.
And next-door babies are dying of thirst.
A mother and three small children shuffle into my room. Her story is typical of this group of Somali refugees – militia attacked her home, shot her father, and beat her mother with the butts of their guns. She fled and in the chaos, was separated from her mother and brother. She walked with her sister to the border, entered Kenya in 1992 and moved to the refugee camp, where she's lived ever since.
In the camp, she got married, had three kids, was raped, then her husband divorced her. I ask, "What happened to your sister?" She pauses. Her eyes get shiny. She tells me her sister returned to Somalia in 2006 to search for their mother and brother. One month later she learned her sister had died of diarrhea.
A tear rolls down her cheek. I stop typing, look up. She dots her face with the tip of her headscarf and we move on. Of all the horrific stories of family destruction and death, these are the first tears I've witnessed.
I get used to the routine questions – When did your parents die, of what? How do you know it was the militia who attacked them? Did you see them with your own eyes? I remove myself from the story.
This woman's tears reminded me that these stories, however sanitized and distant they may sound as the refugees recount them for the hundredth time, are not just important points for their claim of refugee status – the stories have scarred and strengthened; in some cases, they've pushed people over the edge of sanity. This woman's tears stopped me today. I am grateful.
Kakuma Camp, Kenya - Contrasts
This morning I interview a Somali woman. Her single front tooth is crooked and a pink scarf covers her head. She's from farming country in Southern Somalia. I ask her birthday and she shrugs, waves her hands. Through the interpreter she tells me, "I don't know. I can't even guess. All I can know was I told UN that I was around 50 when I first came to Kakuma Camp."
"OK. When was that?"
More hand gestures and shrugging. She cannot estimate how many years it's been. "I think it was three Ramadans ago." I start to calculate her birthday in my head when she waves her hands and says, "No no – maybe it was eight Ramadans ago."
I go by what was written on her UN form, which says she was born in 1950. Next I ask her what tribe she is from. No hesitation – Barawa. And your clan? Without blink – Mijindo.
She was married with two kids. She doesn't know the years her children were born. But she knows there had been four harvest seasons between the time her youngest daughter was born and the time she was killed. And that her older daughter was born about five harvests before her youngest daughter. Or was it six harvests? There was one big harvest a year.
"When was your oldest daughter killed?" I ask, thinking I've found a way to calculate her daughters' ages.
"When the war came to our home."
"And when was that?" Head shakes, finger waggles, shrugs. The interpreter tells me the war reached this lady's region of Somalia towards the end of 1992. I estimate their birthdays based on that.
We dance around and narrow in on the other important dates in her life – the year she was married, the year she entered Kenya, the year she moved from one refugee camp to another. These forms were not designed by people who measure time in harvests and Ramadan fasts.
We get to her story and she talks without stopping for five minutes. I have to interrupt to ask the interpreter to explain what she is saying.
One day while her husband was at the mosque, four armed men came to her house. They demanded money and when she said she had none they raped her. They pinned her in the right arm with a bayonet to keep her from wiggling. Next they start to rape her oldest daughter. Her husband walked in, saw his daughter being raped, and ran over to stop them. They shot him. The bullet went into his chest, killing him instantly, and then passed through his body and into the temple of their youngest daughter, who was sitting just behind him. It hit her in the head and she also died immediately. Next, the attackers carried the woman's oldest daughter out of the house and drove away. The woman has not seen her oldest daughter since that day.
She made her way to Kenya with neighbors who were also fleeing the war. They walked only at night to avoid militia attacks. During the day, they slept in the bush and ate bugs.
She has lived for the last 18 years (my estimate, not hers) in refugee camps in Kenya. She lives by herself. "I am getting old," she tells me. "Now even cooking food is difficult. Sometimes kind neighbors help and bring me food. But mostly I'm on my own. I have no one."
* * *
The next man I interview wears a tucked-in plaid shirt, a tidy moustache and carries a small black briefcase. He is from Eritrea. When he enters my room he shakes my hand hard and smiles even harder. His smile makes creases in his eyes, eyes that look familiar to me, eyes that are kind and sad at the same time.
I ask him his birthday. "I was born the 16th of the 12th month in the year 1970. It was in the morning."
I ask him his tribe and he tells me Tigrinya. "And your clan?" "If I have a clan I don't know it. Clan doesn't really matter where I'm from."
He knows the birthday of his parents, all six siblings and all five children. I tell him I don't need to know the time of day they were born. He smiles and nods; his eyes wrinkle.
He asks how we've spelled his father's name, since people often spell it wrong. I tell him and he corrects me, says it's missing an "i."
Before I start asking him his story, I tell him how great it is that he knows so much.
Nod, smile, wrinkle.
His story IS detailed and here are the basics:
He was a farmer in Eritrea. In 1998 a war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. First the Eritrean government recruited unmarried people to fight in the war. After about a year, they started recruiting everyone. One day in 1999 the army called a meeting in his town. At the meeting, they told the men they would have to fight to defend their country starting in one month. This man asked if it was possible to extend the date because his crops would be ready in one month and need harvesting. The officers said there would be no negotiation and left. At the next meeting, fewer people attended. The soldiers blamed the man for turning the village against the government. Two mornings later, two soldiers came to his home, tied him up and put him in a car. "I can still remember the sound of my wife and children screaming as they dragged me out of my house."
The soldiers took him to a detention center. Every three days the commander of the soldiers interrogated him. "Sometimes they would ask me questions and beat me. Sometimes they would just beat me." They told him he would be free if he confessed to inciting anti-government sentiment. "I could not confess to a crime I didn't do." The officer would make him lie down. He would stomp on the man's chest with steel-toed boots. The man developed chest pain and it became hard to breathe.
Six months and two days after arriving in detention (his estimate, not mine), he escaped while outside unloading gravel, a job he was made to do every week. "It was getting dark so I took the chance to escape."
He lived for the next four years hiding in the basement of his wife's sister's house. His wife would visit him in secret. One day in 2004, he learned that the government had discovered where he was. He had to leave.
He escaped through Ethiopia and continued to Kenya, for fear the Ethiopian government would find out he was Eritrean and arrest him.
He's lived alone in Kakuma refugee camp ever since. When I asked him how it is to live without his family his wrinkly eyes moistened. For the first time his response was not immediate. After a moment he said, "It is hell. But nothing can be done."
Some refugees speak seven languages and can read and write. Others have never held a pen in their lives. Some refugees have birth certificates – and memories – recording the birth of every member of their family. For others, a birthday is a concept they learned when they became a refugee and the UN asked them. Some refugees can tell you their tribe, clan, sub-clan and even sub-sub clan as if it were stamped into their foreheads. Others don't know their tribe.
But all have suffered. Most have seen family members killed in front of their eyes and cannot think of their families without tearing up and feeling an ache in their chest. Most still live in fear. Most are hungry and spend most of their energy surviving. And imagining how their lives would have been if there had been no war.
Kibondo, Tanzania - Envelopes
The most emotional part of my day involved an envelope. The concerned envelope was meant to store an A-4 document without crumpling. It was brown and looked recycled. Its fibers were visible. Six numbers were written outside in fat, sloppy permanent marker.
Those numbers are the case number of a refugee family – "A," his wife and two young children.
"A" sits in front of me. He's just told me his story.
Young refugee children wait for their parents to finish Cultural Orientation.
Photo copyright Amina Egal (used with permission).
"My mother's family hated my mother for marrying a man from the Banyemalenge tribe." After dinner one night, "A's" maternal uncle entered his home. He was with two armed men. The men tied up "A" and his sisters. They shot his parents in the head, killing them instantly.
"A's" uncle told the men to kill "A" and his sisters. The men argued, saying, "You only paid us to kill the parents."
The uncle and men left quarrelling. On his way out uncle said, "I'll be back to kill you."
"A" and his two sisters ran to the woods, leaving the bodies of their dead parents behind. They never saw home again.
Now it is two years later and he's in Tanzania telling this story to me – an ignorant white girl who's trying to understand how this man's uncle could murder his own sister. When he speaks, baby tears poke from his eyes.
I retrieve his child's birth certificate from our files. We'd copied the original and needed to return it.
I shuffle through the box of envelopes for the one with his case number. The refugees' documents are often tattered and dirty and require delicate handling – and large envelopes.
I take the document out of the envelope, hand it to "A," ask him to make sure it's the correct one. I notice his hands are empty and he's come with no bags.
I hand him the envelope and say, "Here, why don't you take this so you can keep the document safe."
He smiles bigger than his previous frown – bows his head, says through the interpreter, "Thank you so much for this. I'm very grateful."
I was not expecting a smile so big after a story so horrible. A 20-cent envelope means everything when all has been lost.
I notice you were born in 1985 also. Or at least you think. Your birthday is listed Jan 01 1985. We must have assigned you that birthday. January 1st is the default. The factory setting.
We are the same age, you and me. But your hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, make you look older.
I start to interview you. We go through your life together and each time you tell me an event in your life, I think of my own. I picture what I was doing at the time.
Somali refugees in an IFO transit center.
Photo copyright Amina Egal (used with permission).
In 1996, the first war broke out. You were at home when neighbors told you and your mom that the militia was coming door to door to round up people from your tribe. You fled with your mom to the hills. Your father was out grazing his cattle. You'd hoped to meet up with him later. But after two days you learned he'd been killed. Shot dead in the head by Mayi-Mayi militia.
I was in Mrs. Coleman/Mr. Welch's class. Struggling with fractions and growing too old for overalls. I was attaching key chains to my LL Bean backpack and trick-or-treating without my parents for the first time.
We grow – my braces come off and your mother's sixth child is born. You start school again, because your mom hears it's safe to go down from the hills. Life is hard for you. Kids at school beat you and call you a dirty Banyemalenge, the name of your tribe. One day in 1998 boys from the Bembe tribe beat you on the head with a metal rod. It left a divet in your forehead that I can see today.
In eighth grade I went on a three-week backpacking trip without my parents for the first time. I started collecting Milk Ads. I listened to B-97 FM before school and memorized every word to the top 40 songs.
In 2004 you married your wife. The next month, militia invaded your town again. You ran away to Burundi. You haven't seen your wife since.
Meanwhile I was in college. I was meeting friends for smoothies and taking notes for class on my laptop. I was discovering my love of 80s parties and sleeping until 11 on Saturdays.
On 13 August 2004 you were living in Gatumba Refugee Camp in Burundi. You were awakened by the sound of gunshots and bombs exploding. You looked outside of your tent and saw people running everywhere. People were dropping like flies. Tents were burning. You ran to the bush, were separated from your parents and siblings, with whom you were living. You slept in the bush, fell asleep to the sound of screams.
You returned to the camp the next day. You went to where your family's tent had been and found the burned body of your father and sister. UNHCR held a meeting to explain the camp had been attacked by a Hutu militia. You ran away.
That same week I'd just finished co-leading a trip of American high schoolers through Costa Rica. We went rafting and hiking and kayaking and I spent a lot of time scolding Lucy and Ben for breaking the "no exclusive relationships" policy and talking to the girl from Greenwich Connecticut about all of her "problems" – (she was homesick because she'd missed two friends' bat mitzvahs and she doesn't sleep well in tents.)
After the August 2004 attack, you ran to Tanzania. You moved to three different refugee camps before ending up here. In the first one you were stoned by people from the Bembe tribe and had to be hospitalized. The second one was closing down. Now you're here.
And I'm here. Our lives started the same year and now, today, here we are in the same place at the same time and putting our lives next to each other. I don't know which is more shocking – the horror of your luck or the beauty of mine.