Amina doesn’t know for certain where life will take her from here. One thing she does know, however, is that from now on she’ll be making her own decisions. Amina’s drive for independence surfaced at an earlier age. Unfortunately for her, life didn’t afford her many chances to choose and chase her dreams. Somalia’s civil war erupted when Amina was just 3 years old.
The youngest of six children born to a government engineer and his wife, Amina spent her earliest years in a violent and chaotic Mogadishu. Within a few years, four of Amina’s five brothers were killed. Two died when latent bombs exploded in the rubble where they were playing. One was executed by Al-Shabaab fighters when he refused to join their militia. Another was killed in crossfire. With so many bombs and bullets flying in so many directions, sometimes it’s impossible to tell who’s being killed by whom. Not that it matters.
Amina’s sister had made it out of Somalia earlier, and she sent some money to pay for Amina to travel to Russia and enroll in a private school there. Amina was 15 at the time but had little formal education, so she began taking elementary level classes. After a couple of years, the money ran out, but neither she nor her family wanted her to return to Somalia. She had one other option.
“When you have no money, no way to support yourself, you have to look for someone else to support you,” Amina said through an interpreter. “So you get a husband.”
At 17, Amina had her first child, a girl. She and her husband had applied for refugee status by that time, and they gained permission to come to the United States. After settling in Rochester, Amina decided to resume her education. Soon, however, she was pregnant with her second child, and complications from this pregnancy nearly killed her. After spending several months in the hospital, Amina returned home with her baby boy. School was set aside, and within a couple of years her third child, another girl, was on the way.
But life in the US was changing Amina. After fighting merely to survive for so many years, she realized she now had a chance to plot a course for her future. A few months ago, she and her husband divorced. Amina is back in school, learning English through the Refugees Helping Refugees program. She’s looking for work, so that she can fully support both her family here and her parents in Mogadishu. She visited them recently, but the trip only strengthened her conviction that she had found a better life in her new homeland. The slightly built woman lost 11 pounds during her visit.
“It was the stress,” she said. “You hear gunfire and bombs. People are being killed every day, sometimes right in front of you.”
But it was more than the instinct to survive that drove her back to the United States. Somalia was no longer her home.
“I will never go back,” she says, “even if the fighting ends there. Until I die, I am here. I’m an American.”
Amina wears her new identity with pride. Blue jeans and a T-shirt peak out from beneath her boldly striped cotton dress, and her phone, which never seems to leave her hands, features a bright pink case. When she is asked about her new home, she leans back and smiles.
“In America, it is good,” she says. “If you want to work, you can work. If you want to drive a car, you can drive. Nobody’s ruling you. Before, you always have to ask your husband what you can do. In Somalia, you’re a bad woman if you do what you want, but there you have no control. If your husband decides to leave you, what can you do? How can you survive?”
Amina says her parents are glad to see her transformation.
“They’re so happy for me to be here,” she says. “They see I have peace here.”
Amina has even brighter hopes for her own children.
“They like school—every day. My boy, he wants to be in the police. The girls, …,,” she begins, and her eyes light up. “Maybe doctors.”
It’s the sort of dream Amina might have chosen for herself, under different circumstances, but at this point she would be happy working as a cashier or driving a cab. That’s enough of a leap for a young woman from Somalia. Amina still practices her Muslim faith, and she still wears the hijab. But her daughters will get to decide whether or not to cover their heads, among other things.
“I wear this because it’s my culture,” she says of her black scarf with shimmering flecks of gold. “I don’t want to let go of all of that. But my daughters, they’re Americans. They can do what they want.”