Orphaned as an infant in Somalia, Dahabo Hassan Maow lost her leg after she was caught in crossfire at age 14. Unable to access sufficient assistance at the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya, she was eventually referred to Heshima Kenya, an organization that supports unaccompanied refugee youth in Nairobi. Dahabo helped create the Maisha Collective, an entrepreneurship-training program designed to help vulnerable girls—many who have disabilities of their own—earn and save money. She resettled in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2010, which is home to over 50 percent of the U.S. Somali population. Dahabo is a role model for the potential of persons with disabilities to lead full lives.
Where were you born? Tell us about your family.
I was born in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia. I never knew my parents or if I have sisters and brothers. I was an orphan from the time I was a small baby. My mother’s friend raised me.
What was it like living in Somalia as a child?
I lived in Mogadishu when I was a young girl. The war was going on, but I didn't know anything else. There was always fighting between tribes. Sometimes people got killed and there were always guns shooting. I remember being scared a lot, but to me the fear seemed normal.
How did you lose your leg? Why did you leave Somalia?
One day when I was 14 years old, I was with my mother's friend coming home from the market. There was crossfire between two rival tribes and we were caught in the middle of it. I was shot in my leg and the doctors had to cut it off above the knee. My mother's friend was killed. I was left alone in the house to care for two children. When their aunt came to get them, I was left behind. I was alone. After that, I decided to leave Somalia.
Tell us about your refugee camp experiences. What are some of the challenges women and girls with disabilities like yours face in these situations?
I made my way to Hagadera camp in Dadaab, Kenya. I tried to get the UN to help me, but no one welcomed me. It is very difficult to get around a refugee camp with one leg on unpaved roads. That is the problem for anyone with my disability. Next, I moved to Nairobi where I lived with a girl who had a small business selling tea. She took me to UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] for help, but they sent me to Kakuma camp. To have a place to sleep or food to eat you have to go to the camps. There is no help for refugees in the city, and it is worse for refugees with disabilities. At Kakuma, I got my registration card. But standing in line for food and walking to get water was almost impossible. The challenges are the same for anyone with only one leg. I did get a prosthetic leg in Kenya, but it did not work and it hurt a lot to walk.
What is Heshima Kenya? Tell us about your experience living there.
I went back to Nairobi and the UNHCR sent me to Heshima Kenya [a nongovernmental organization]. I was the first person to live there. They help support young unaccompanied refugees. The woman who ran Heshima Kenya became like my mother. With food, a bed, water, health care and therapy my life began again. As Heshima Kenya grew, kids came from all over Africa – I felt like I had a family for the first time in my life. Heshima Kenya sent me to learn tailoring and tie-dying, which is my specialty. They paid for me to learn these skills and at the end of my schooling I got a certificate in tailoring.
What is the Maisha Collective? Why is it important for women and girls with disabilities?
The Maisha Collective is a project of Heshima Kenya that I helped found. It is a leadership and business management program for teaching girls to learn tailoring and tie-dying skills. Many of the girls who are there also have disabilities. During the time I was there, I trained three or four girls. Today, there are 20-25 young women and girls who have learned this skill. The Maisha Collective is very important for women and girls with disabilities so they can earn and save money on their own. If they have a trade, they will always be able to survive. Nobody will be able to turn them away.
When did you resettle in the United States and why did you pick Minneapolis as your new home?
I came to the United States in 2010. First I lived in North Dakota, but there were not many Somalis so I was not happy there. Soon after, I moved to Minneapolis where many Somalis live. I believe that Minneapolis is the home of most of the Somalis in the United States. Here you can learn English, you can get a job and there are good schools for your children. In Minneapolis, I am surrounded by my own people.
What advice would you give to other women and girls with disabilities?
I would tell them to get an education and learn a trade so they can earn money on their own. If you have gone to school or you have learned a trade, you will have respect. This respect will give you more confidence. You can become a leader and you will have credibility. If you can work, you will never be without a place to sleep, food to eat or water to drink.
What hopes do you have for Somalia now that there is a democratically elected Somali president for the first time in a generation?
Somalia is still at war after more than 20 years. The country has been at war my whole life. But when our new president was elected in 2012 we were all very happy and excited. We hope now there can finally be peace. Many Somalis are waiting for peace so that they can finally return home.
What are your goals for the future?
Right now I have everything I could ever want. A large community that shares my culture and my religion surrounds me. I am working hard to learn English. I have a husband, my first child on the way, a home and a skill I can use to earn money. In the future, I hope to finally get a leg that works. I hope to become better known in the United States and around the world for my designs.
We will be honoring Dahabo at this year's Voices of Courage Awards Luncheon in New York City on May 2. Our annual luncheon helps us raise funds to improve the lives and protect the rights of refugee women and children around the world.