When Sadiya Omar’s mother wanted her little girl to be on her best behavior, she would tell her, “Someone is watching you upstairs.” As a child, Sadiya didn’t quite understand. “I thought there was someone in the ceiling,” she says of her home in Somalia. Nonetheless, Sadiya learned the values her parents imparted on her. “They told, me, ‘Treat people the way you want to be treated,’” Sadiya says.
“My father told me that, when you work with people, you have to be very patient. Always be a good listener. My mother advised me to watch what’s coming out of your mouth. She told me, ‘Your tongue is like a weapon. What you say can hurt someone for a long time and you won’t even know, so be very, very conscious.’”
Sadiya’s drive to serve others with patience, humility and compassion has guided her through a forced exodus from her home country, 10 years spent in nightmarish refugee camps and 15 years of advocacy in the Rochester, N.Y., refugee community. She began a support group for Somali women in 2001 and then helped establish the Somali Community of Western New York. In 2010, that group expanded its services to include teaching and advocacy for refugees of all nationalities, changing its name to Refugees Helping Refugees.
This year, her work was recognized locally with an ESL Jefferson Award, and she’s been nominated for national level recognition at the Jefferson Award Foundation’s annual ceremony this month in Washington, D.C.
The trip to Washington is a culmination of sorts for a journey that began 25 years ago. When Somalia’s civil war erupted in 1991, Sadiya, her husband and daughter fled to Kenya, walking across the border and finding temporary refuge in a mosque. Two of her older brothers had been killed and two others were lost in the chaos and remain missing today.
Sadiya’s family eventually settled in the huge Mombasa refugee camp. There, thousands of Somalis constructed shelters out of sticks, coconut leaves and mud and lived on meager rations of rice and beans. Tensions between refugees and the local Kenyan population arose almost immediately, eventually boiling over into an armed confrontation in which shelters were torched. In the midst of this, Sadiya raised her daughter and bore two more children. She was pregnant with her second son when her husband was killed in Somalia, having returned in an attempt to bring his mother to join the family in Kenya.
Authorities dismantled the Mombasa camp in 1997, and Sadiya’s and her children found even harsher conditions in a camp in Kakuma. Temperatures regularly reached 120 degrees, accompanied by blinding sandstorms during the dry seasons and flooding during the rainy seasons. Conflicts with the locals, who were also poor and hungry, continued, along with tensions among the refugees.
Girls and young women were suffering most. Rape and genital mutilation were common, men were taking girls of 14 as their brides and few young women were attending the camp’s schools. Despite being a young widow with three small children, Sadiya took a leadership role in the camp. Her father had taught high school when Sadiya was little, and he had impressed upon her the value of education—even for girls. Sadiya got the school to allow older girls to take classes in the evening. She helped write grants to get the girls material for underwear and pads so that they wouldn’t have to miss school during their menstrual periods. She campaigned to stop mutilations and fought for local ordinances that outlawed child marriage, and she would personally intervene when she heard about violations.
Her advocacy won her admiration from some of the women but also made her enemies among some of the men. In 2001, the United Nations removed her from the camp and she was relocated to Rochester. She hated to leave her work with the girls in the camp. “There were girls who were really, really smart, and they wanted to learn,” she says. “I hope whoever is still there is doing it.”
Sadiya didn’t have to wait long to find more people to help. Unlike most refugees who come to the United States, she arrived with strong English skills. She soon completed training to become a certified nursing assistant and got a job in a nursing home. Some of the residents who had never seen a Muslim woman in a hijab mistook her for a nun, and soon she earned the nickname, Mother Theresa, as much for her demeanor as for her appearance.
“This is the end of their life,” she said of her work with at the home. “I wanted them to enjoy that little piece they had left.” If Sadiya’s residents weren’t in the mood for breakfast at the regular time, she’d save it and reheat it for them later. When they wanted to watch a movie, she’d come by with popcorn. And no matter how busy she was, she’d try to sit down with them for a few minutes.
“Your time is so limited; you have a lot of people to take care of,” she says. “But you have to have that small time with them, so they know they’re human beings, so they’re not just sitting there and watching TV or just sitting there in their wheelchair while people are passing by them and nobody’s talking to them.”
One night at home after work, Sadiya remembered that a resident had asked for some ice water shortly before the end of her shift. Busy with other tasks, Sadiya had forgotten the request. “I felt so guilty,” says Sadiya. “This is something that’s so small that they had wanted, and I didn’t do it for them. It was like, ‘Oh, my God!’” From that point on, Sadiya said she never left work without having delivered ice water to every room.
Sadiya also found plenty of need for assistance among her fellow Somali refugees. Although they’ve escaped the horrors of the war and the camps, they’ve also left behind loved ones and virtually all their possessions. Most arrive knowing no English and little of American culture. With no private transportation and little money, they often remain isolated.
“We expect a lot more than what we come and find here,” says Sadiya. “And then you don’t have someone to turn to. Everyone is busy, having a schedule, having to go to work. They don’t know the system, they don’t know they language. They’re just like you. They cannot help you.”
Sadiya remembers visiting one elderly refugee during the winter who had bundled herself up in bed because she didn’t know how to call someone for help after her heater had quit working. “That’s when I felt like these people needed somewhere they can go to and get some help. And that’s how we started,” she says of the first refugee support group that eventually grew into Refugees Helping Refugees.
“So many people helped me when I needed it,” Sadiya says of her 25 years in exile from her home country. “Some, I don’t even know; they were strangers. I always pray for them and say, ‘Thank you.’ I think because of what other people did for me, that’s why I’m giving back to help other people.”
Sadiya now serves as RHR’s vice-president, but says she hates the title and finds awards such as the one from the Jefferson Foundation embarrassing. “These things (I’ve done), I don’t feel are so big,” she says. “I almost don’t want to tell people I’m the vice-president. I just say that I’m one of the refugee volunteers here. When I worked at the nursing home, I felt some people thought the initials here (on her name badge) were important, but I think those initials don’t matter. What matters is who you are and how you handle other people.”
Sadiya, who remarried and lost her second husband to a stroke, still has a 10-year-old son at home, and she’s teaching him the same lessons her parents taught her long ago in Somalia. “I always remind my children, although we pray in a different way, we are all created by one God,” she says. “And we are all human beings, regardless of our backgrounds, how we look, who we are. There’s no special person; everybody’s special.