"You make me proud to spell my name w.o.m.a.n."
Citing the unforgettable Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey said these inspiring words to none other than the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
It followed a light-hearted, entertaining and, as always, educational conversation on the Next Generation of Women.
Bella, Maria and Sumeya, wherever you are, I'd like you to know I could not help but think of you when I heard what Oprah Winfrey said. In my mind you and many of the women that I met in Uganda, are the embodiment of those inspiring words. That is why I am sharing your story.
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Bella and Sumeya are refugees from Burundi and Somalia. They were forced by conflict to flee their home countries and face struggles that life had not prepared them for. Yet, they have each managed to turn those difficult lessons into opportunities to help people in their communities.
I met them at a refugee community centre in Kampala. It was busy on a Sunday morning. People from different countries were exhibiting handicrafts that they had made. In the front yard, a band of musicians played different genres while children amused themselves on colourful swings. From the back of the compound we could hear rhythmical chants and drumbeats as young Burundian and Congolese refugees from the Mirror Group practiced traditional dances.
Some of the women selling handicrafts were single heads of households, supporting children with the income that they earn. [UNHCR/Teresa Ongaro]
My first stop was a stall where a group of Congolese refugees were selling clothing and other crafts. I bought two pieces of fabric for my mother before moving to the next stall where Frederick, a young Ugandan national, explained to me the benefits of quail eggs.
The weather was warm. I felt relaxed. Most of those present were aware that I was a former refugee from South Sudan who happened to be a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. They called me "Mr. Ambassador" in a respectful way. Aside from that, it is important to me that refugees should feel I will always be one of their brothers who understands what it is like to be a refugee.
Sumeya has a warm and engaging personality. She talks with openness and integrity that would be difficult to fake. [UNHCR/Teresa Ongaro]
Back home in Somalia Sumeya lived in the capital, Mogadishu, with her parents and seven siblings. One day six years ago, she was sent to the market by her mother — a random act that surely saved the young woman's life, I would think later. She returned from that errand to find her home in smoke. She was rescued by neighbors who told her it was not safe to enter. Eventually those neighbours fled with her to Kenya. She was only 14 years old.
Sumeya’s neighbors could not stay with her. They were intending to move abroad, where they had relatives. The young girl knew Nairobi was not a safe place for her to live alone. Her guardian angels brought her to Kampala and left her at a mosque where she stayed for two weeks.
A kind woman took her in. But that sympathetic gesture marked the beginning of another painful experience. In the months that followed, the young child was exploited and abused as an unpaid domestic servant. One day the woman slapped her. Sumeya ran away. At the time she could speak only her native language, Somali. She had no idea where to go or how to get help.
A fellow citizen found her roaming in the streets of Kampala. She brought her to UNHCR where the young girl was assisted and registered as a refugee. A foster family was found for her. Sumeya talks with openness and integrity that would be difficult to fake. She has a warm and engaging personality.
I could see myself in in Sumeya’s story. I was in Dadaab around the same age of 14. I now think that for each of the millions behind the statistics is a story like hers. If 50% of displaced persons are children, there are about 33 million children’s stories like Sumeya’s in the world today. What if all of the children had a platform to share their stories with the rest of the world, I wondered.
When Bella realized that youth often experienced isolation because of the language barrier, along with others, she created the Mirror Group for them to network and perform cultural and theatrical acts. [UNHCR/Teresa Ongaro]
Bella’s story gave me a different perspective.
She fled Burundi five years ago for political reasons. She arrived in Kampala alone and pregnant. She had become separated from her husband and did not know his whereabouts. Bella spoke the little English that she had learned in university, and not a word of the Kiswahili that is spoken widely in East Africa and the Great Lakes region.
Bella faced difficulties communicating with health workers during the birth of her first daughter because of the language barrier. A Somali lady helped her during the pregnancy, but with nurses in the labor ward Bella was on her own.
Because of that experience, Bella now acts as a volunteer interpreter assisting Burundian refugees in the hospital and various health centre in Kampala. Similarly, Sumeya translates for Somali speakers who do not speak any other language.
Bella also encourages refugee youth to learn English. This is how she came to realize that they often experienced isolation because of the language barrier. Along with others, she created the Mirror Group for youth to network and perform cultural and theatrical acts.
Bella’s passion for dancing was noticeable as I watched her perform with other members of the Mirror Group. During our conversation, she told me that when you flee, you dissolve and slip away from your identity. It is like you become a new person. Bella said that engaging in cultural activities helps her maintain her sense of identity. Life does not stop because I am a refugee, she said. I was touched because I can relate.
It was uplifting to see Sumeya join the dancing. Unlike Bella who was eventually reunited with her husband and children, Sumeya never heard news of her family members again. From what she sees on television, she believes Somalia is not safe. She said, I am proud to be a refugee. I have learned so much. I am more than a refugee. Sumeya embraces her status, and uses opportunities to help others.
Seeing Bella, Sumeya and Maria together, I was reminded that were it not for the generosity of Uganda, these two young refugees might never have found their feet in a foreign land, not in the way that they did.
Maria Alesi is a passionate Ugandan youth activist who works for the Youth Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda. I had a delightful conversation with her.
Maria said for a long time she thought of refugees as a burden on her country. ". I knew very little about the potential and contribution that refugees were making to the economy of my country through the different things they were doing," she said.
Maria told me that through UNHCR, she was privileged to meet a number of young refugees from the different settlements in Uganda. She was impressed. "Not only were they intelligent but also getting things done," she said. "Many of them are involved in different initiatives that are making a change in the lives of other young people and the community in general."
Maria said she learnt that when refugees are given the right conditions they can be a great asset in the communities where they live and the countries. "For young people who have experienced so much trauma and lived under very difficult conditions to be able to still be hopeful and rise above the situation, says a lot about the potential that refugees have and bring to the countries in which they seek asylum."
In Maria’s words, “Refugee is not a word for discrimination; it is a word for Protection.”
You make me proud to spell my name w.o.m.a.n.