If you run into Sahra at the Refugees Helping Refugees school, be sure to say hello. Better yet, ask her, “How do you do?” You’re sure to be greeted with a huge smile. Such was not the case 16 years ago, when Sahra first found herself in Rochester.
After fleeing Somalia when civil war erupted there in 1992, she spent nearly eight years in Kenyan and Ethiopian camps before gaining refugee status and landing in Upstate New York. Her new world was strange and cold, and she had been told that she was living in a particularly dangerous neighborhood in an especially dangerous city.
Sahra had learned some English in school but struggled to make out American accents and knew nothing of idiomatic expressions. And so she was terrified when a man from her neighborhood asked her each morning on her way to school, “How do you do?”
“I don’t know what he mean, ‘How do you do?’” says Sahra. “And I have phobia, because many people say, if you go outside, they will kill you. Every single day, when I go to school, he told me, ‘How do you do?’ Oh, my God!”
Each morning, Sahra would put her hand up and turn away from the man, bracing for a possible attack. Then, one day Sahra asked her teacher what the man’s menacing expression meant.
“She was laughing! Laughing!” Sahra said of her teacher’s response. “’Yes, this guy is really dangerous because he’s saying, how do you do? Come on, Sahra! Don’t be silly!’”
Sahra could hardly wait for the following morning’s commute.
“The next day when he says, ‘How do you do?’ I give him a big smile—‘Hi!’ grinning from ear to ear,” she says.
These days, Sahra’s smile is a permanent fixture at RHR, an organization that grew out of the advocacy group for Somali women that she helped found. She’s determined to help other refugees overcome the shock and fear that had gripped her.
“If somebody coming here who doesn’t speak English, who doesn’t know this weather, different culture, different religion, and they come to me, I help them,” she says. “If I help somebody one day, at end of day, I say, ‘Oh, my God! I did a good job!’ It’s better than anything. Better than money.”
Sahra and the other leaders of the Somali group initially focused on elderly refugees, most of whom know no English and have lived in dehumanizing camps for decades. Some were so frightened that Sahra could scarcely get them to come to the door when she came to visit. One woman came only after she repeatedly pounded and called her name.
“She say, ‘I’m scared. I’m in bed all day,’” says Sahra. “’I don’t know English and I don’t know who knock the door. I’m scared; that’s why I didn’t open. I’m sorry!’”
That’s one of the reasons Refugees Helping Refugees offers programs specifically for seniors, in addition to its English and citizenship classes and other support services for refugees of all ages.
Sahra says her parents had always told her to help and respect others as if they were family, but the traumas she’s experienced over the past quarter century gave those admonitions even deeper meaning. Several of Sahra’s friends and relatives, including her brother, were killed in the war. She was separated from her two oldest children, who remain in Somalia, and her first husband died in a refugee camp.
In 2001, the violence came to her new home.
“It was the worst thing I saw in my life,” she says the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. “Even worse than civil war in my country. I see people who call for help and nobody could help. For three days, I was crying all day. I couldn’t eat. I’ll never, ever forget that day. I will never be able to feel forgiveness for the people who did that.”
As a Muslim woman still struggling to speak English and wearing a hijab in public, Sahra became a target. But the only anger she felt was directed at the terrorists.
“I met one guy; he was shouting at me, screaming at me, “Out! You guys! You refugees!” But I understand, because he’s angry.”
Sahra, who’s now an American citizen, couldn’t explain to that man that she shared his shock, outrage and confusion. These feelings come back to her each year on the anniversary of the attack.
“Every year I cry,” she says. “I’m American. They give me everything—shelter, peace, opportunity. This is my home. I have to protect it. I’m a Muslim woman, but I’m a human. These terrorists, they don’t have any religion. I hate them.”
Although she’s focused now on making America home to Rochester’s growing refugee population, she also dreams of someday returning to Somalia, both to reunite with her children and to help victims of the war.
“We have many, many children who don’t have parents. They lost them in the war,” she says. “My dream is to help them, to build them shelters, schools. To give them opportunity. We have older people who have no one to take care of them. You know, everybody forget them. We have many sick, with mental health issues. Nobody take care of them. They can barely survive. They have been through a lot of hell.”
Sahra, whose father was a medical professional and who was trained in first aid through the Red Crescent Society, also dreams of helping end the practice of female genital cutting that commonly happens to young Somali girls.
Sahra knows her dream of a return may never happen. The war still rages there, and Sahra and her family are hardly in a position to fund international humanitarian ventures. She has plenty of work to do right here in Rochester, though. She wants to see RHR continue to grow and add new programs, to become a social hub and a place for refugees and their new American neighbors to get to know each other.
“Then, maybe they are less scared,” she says. “No matter if you’re a refugee or not, you’re still human.”
And if Sahra can help a few more people learn to say hello, at the end of the day, she’ll know she did a good job.
We ask that you share her story to inspire people to help others.