Safi had a good life in Mogadishu. She had gone to college and worked for the government, then opened her own shop, selling housewares and clothing. Her husband also had a government job. They had a comfortable, smartly furnished home with two servants. Safi had splurged on some jewelry and was proud of her wardrobe. At 40 years old, she was a successful, independent businesswoman. “I was big momma!” she says with a laugh. “Not anymore.”
Safi’s comfortable life vanished one morning in 1991, shortly after Somalia’s civil war erupted. When bombs began exploding near enough to shake the walls of her home, Safi knew she couldn’t stay. Rebels were overrunning the city and government workers would be among their prime targets. Rifle shots crackled outside, and she saw rebel militiamen moving between the houses. Her husband had already gone to work, but there was no way he could still be there. He might already be dead, she realized.
Instincts took over. Safi bundled her one-year-old to her chest, strapped her three-year-old across her shoulders, grabbed her older three children and dashed out of her home. When they hit the street, her 11-year-old pointed at Safi’s feet.
“Momma, you don’t have any shoes!”
Safi wasn’t going back for them. Not for shoes, jewelry, furniture, food, clothing or money. The rebels could have them. The same was true for everything in the shop. Safi and her children kept moving on foot for six hours. Finally, they hitched a ride on a truck headed for Nairobi. Everyone was a stranger. Everyone was desperate.
Safi and her children stayed for a few months in a camp, never hearing news about her husband. With nothing to barter for food, she had to ask strangers for help. Members of rival tribes had been thrown together in the squalid camp, and conflicts broke out sporadically. At night, Safi fought to drive the worry out of her head, but often the dawn would come before sleep found her.
After a few months, tribal frictions sparked into violence, and the camp was disbanded. Safi went with a large group of Somalis to the Utanga refugee camp near Mombasa. Finally, she discovered familiar faces. As she exchanged greetings, she heard shouting in the distance.
“There is a Safi here!”
“Where? Where is this Safi?”
The crowd parted, and Safi’s husband came to her.
“I am alive!”
The Utanga camp offered more stability but no more hope. Refugees continued pouring in by the thousands, finding shelter from the blistering sun in small tents and sharing meager rations of food provided by the United Nations. Safi remembers the camp as a place of intense heat, filth, mosquitos and boredom.
“It was better than before I escaped, but it was difficult,” she said. “There was nothing to do. I had been a busy person, an active person, but when I became a refugee, there was nothing to do. You sit and watch this side of the camp, then that side. I was really going down; my brain was going down. But you just try to survive.”
But Safi’s family was luckier than most. Safi had a sister living in the United States, and after four years she finally gained permission to bring Safi’s family to live with her in Virginia.
Utanga closed long ago, with most residents moving to Dadaab, a camp that now houses about 300,000 refugees. Kenya has said it will close Dadaab soon, potentially forcing the Somalis to return to their country despite its ongoing civil war.
In America, Safi’s family found safety, if not stability. They couldn’t afford to live in Virginia, so they bounced around to three other cities, looking for places where they could find work and live cheaply. Safi learned English as quickly as she could, went to school and become a certified nursing assistant. She worked as a home healthcare provider until suffering a spinal injury. Her husband, who began having health problems at Utanga, died four years ago, and her children have grown and started families of their own.
Safi may not be a “big momma” with expensive jewelry, employees and a house staff anymore, but she has become “Momma Safi” within the Rochester refugee community. Safi teaches sewing skills and serves as an elder in the Refugees Helping Refugees program. She is one of the first people new refugees call on for help, day or night. Her English is good enough that she can now serve as an emergency translator for doctors, police officers and other crucial contacts, and she’s frequently transporting refugees to and from appointments.
“It’s not easy, how you become happy,” Safi says of leaving behind a life you love to come to a strange new country. Safi has lived in the United States for 20 years. She’s 65 now and knows there’s little chance that she could ever return to Somalia to live in safety. She did make her first visit there last year, briefly reuniting with her father and two of her siblings.
“I felt like I had died and was coming back to life, for real,” she says. “Because I know this place. I see these faces again.” Safi couldn’t check to see what had become of her house and shop. Al-Shabaab soldiers control parts of the city, and she heard the familiar sounds of bombs and gunfire while visiting her sister’s home.
“I said to my sister, ‘That’s too close! Where do we go?’ And she said, ‘You’re not going anywhere. If you’re dying, you’re dying in your house. That’s better than anywhere else.’”
Fortunately for Safi, that’s not how her story ended. She made it out of her sister’s house, this time with shoes on her feet and a safe home waiting for her in Rochester, N.Y.