1. Strong Girls, Powerful Women

     
  2. In the footsteps of a refugee girl…

    Watch this video to learn more about the challenges displaced adolescent girls face

    What would it be like to have to leave your home, your community, your country? What if you are a girl hitting puberty and have to adjust to new people, new culture, new practices? What if your family depends on you to take care of them?

    Over the next several months, we will share the story of 12-year-old Amina*, who is originally from Somalia. Amina was forced to flee Mogadishu with her mother and 6 siblings after her father was killed as a result of the fierce violence roiling the country. They landed at a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where Amina is trying to find a place for herself—and trying to figure out what it means to be a girl in a foreign place, without a real home and no safe spaces to grow and learn.

    Amina recounts her journey and experiences at the camp in the journal below. Be sure to check back here regularly for her latest update.

    *Amina's story is based on the real experiences of adolescent girls whom we have interviewed, girls who were forced to leave their homes and communities and now struggle to survive in refugee camps.

  3. Our First Days

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    I didn’t think we would ever get here. But after such a long journey, we have finally arrived at the camp in Ethiopia: me, my mom and brothers and sisters. We walked for weeks and weeks. My mother had a really tough time, she hurt her leg and could barely walk. We struggled to carry her part of the way. I wish my father were alive and with us.

    It’s a miracle that we all made it here. Thank god.

    We waited in a long line to register at the camp. When we finally did, my mom gave them my name and told them that I was born at the time of harvest in 2000. I was proud. I know that she was too. I am nearly a grown woman and able to help her more than my young siblings. We all had pictures and fingerprints taken. My older sister got a card of her own. My mom holds onto her card everywhere she goes, even in the house, because we need this card to get food.

    The tent where we stay is small and all of us, sisters and brothers together, sleep in this one space. There are no walls to protect us from other families or the crowds outside. My younger brothers look around with very big eyes, wondering about their new home. They cry a lot too.

    The lines at the water pump are so long and the sun so hot. I stand with many other ladies and girls, hundreds of them, with empty jerry cans waiting to be filled. Some of the older ones push me out of the way. I have to do this five times a day. I also have to fetch the firewood to cook our food because my mother cannot move around with her leg problem. My older sister, Aisha stays with us. She is 17 and married, but her husband is still in Mogadishu. Today Aisha and I cooked like when we used to when we were much smaller. She teases me that there will never be a good husband for me in this camp!

    I know we cannot be in Mogadishu, but today I miss our small house and playing in the streets on the walk to the market.

  4. Too Much Water

    It is raining again today and I am bored. All I can do is to sit and listen to the rain outside. The water is leaking into our tent and everything is getting wet. I hope I don’t get sick. I am worried about my baby sister. She didn’t have enough food and looked very sickly when we first got here. Now she’s doing better because she got some Plumpynut* from the feeding center. I hope the rain doesn’t make her sick.

    There isn’t much space to move around, all eight of us are so cramped in such a small space it is almost unbearable. As I am writing this I have to use the toilet very badly, but I cannot stand them! The toilets are very close together and there is no separation between those for the men and those for the women, and there aren’t even locks on the doors. Because of this my mother insists that we never go alone—she doesn’t think it is safe, and now neither do I. I’ve heard that many girls are attacked when they go.

    Sometimes I have to wait for Aisha to go with me, which is a terrible wait. When she can’t go with me I have to run and be as quick as I can—especially when there are men outside. I am even careful about drinking tea, so I never need to go late in the evening. I’ve heard that it is a rule in the camp to separate male and female latrines and provide locks on every door—but they never keep to these rules and make my life so difficult. I wish we had a flashlight.

    I hope it stops raining before tomorrow because tomorrow is when they give us food!

    *Plumpynut is a peanut-based paste used to treat severe malnutrition.

  5. What Will We Eat

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    We ran out of grain to make injera* and cooking oil. My mom was supposed to go to pick it up from the distribution center since she is the head of our household, but because my mom can’t walk very well my brother and I went, to help her.

    We got the supplies but it is not much for all of us to eat. I think about the small rations we got and wonder how Aisha is getting fat with so little food. When I asked her about gaining weight she giggled. I do all the cooking for the family—especially because Aisha is getting so big. I also look after my baby sister while I cook.

    You won’t believe it, but one of the older men here stole food from us as we were picking up supplies from the distribution center. I couldn’t say anything though because people here respect him. I have heard that some older men use food to force girls to sleep with them. The girls are so hungry, they agree.

    I cook the little that we get. I wish we had one of those new stoves that others here have. New arrivals like us have to wait to get these stoves. These stoves don’t require as much fuel or wood. Now, every other day I have to go out to collect firewood. They say this is girls work, so my brothers don’t help. We have to go far into the bush to find wood, because there are no trees near the camp. The sun beats down on us as walk and there are snakes and scorpions, and men waiting. I always go out with other girls—I think it’s safer that way.

    I wish I could go to school, but I have so much else to do.

    *Injera is a spongy flatbread made from a grain called teff. Food is served on a large piece of injera, and the injera is also used to scoop up food during the meal.

  6. A Baby Coming

    Aisha has a large belly now, but we don’t talk about it for fear of bad luck. We all know she is pregnant. She is very lucky to have even made it to the camp being pregnant. Many women we passed on the way had problems—I don’t know what has happened to them.

    We are still in the tent, living with other people. Some people are getting branches, traps and pieces of cloth to build their own homes, but we have to wait till we get these things. It could be a few months more. I'm excited to think about leaving the tent, but will we really still be in this place then?

    I’m glad I made a new friend—Leyla. Leyla came from a town outside Mogadishu. She came here with her aunt many months ago. She said she heard that there was a program for girls on the other side of the camp. My mother said that she will ask about it, but I can’t spend too much time there because she needs me to help her most of the time.

    I’m worried about my baby sister. She’s developed a bad cough from all the cooking smoke in the tent. I usually keep her strapped to my back so she doesn’t run around while I’m cooking.

    And now soon we’ll have another baby in the family. I will be an auntie!

  7. Making Plans

    Making Plans

    I think Aisha will burst soon—her belly is so big. It is hard for her to carry the same amount of water as me.  I have to collect the rations and help more around the house.  My mother says that Aisha may have the baby in a month but I can’t believe it could be so much longer!

    The other day when we went to the distribution center there was a group of people gathered around. These people have been here for a very long time. We heard that they may be leaving the camp and will get to live in the United States. It is not fair that some people can leave, while the rest of us must stay here—for who knows how long.

    I dream about leaving this camp—it feels like we have been here forever even though it has only been five weeks. It is so crowded here, and I feel like I have no time to do anything fun. My brothers are always making mischief with the other boys and playing around. They go to school. I too dream of going to school but instead, like many girls, I have to stay at home to help my mom. She is always worried. She says “what will become of all of us?” She is not sure she will be able to raise us with so little money and food.

    Sometimes I am angry, but mostly I am worried too. But I will not tell mom. I’m afraid of what the future holds. Will I ever get to go to school?

  8. A New Place for Girls

    Today I walked with my friend Leyla and my younger sister to the new building in the camp that is only for girls. There is a big sign outside saying “girls club.” We noticed that many girls were standing outside the door but not going in. We climbed some rocks so we could look inside. Someone like a teacher was trying to make activities for everyone. They were drawing pictures and talking. I want to come back to this place because I don’t ever feel safe outside my tent and this is a place I can be safe in and have fun in. I want to learn things like the other girls.

    I don’t know why mom doesn’t let me do a lot of things. Leyla is thirteen—only one year older than me—and goes to the market all by herself many days. She has new sandals and lotions. I want to go to the market with her one day but Mom says that it is not safe. But I will keep asking—I am very curious.

    Leyla says there is a man there who gives her new things when she needs them. She said he could help me out too. She says that there are many young girls spending time there just like she does.

    Aisha says that men like this do not give you things for free. She says that I can’t go to the market alone, because it is too dangerous, and men like the one who gives Leyla things are dangerous. She says girls would not be alone like that at our age back home.

    I can’t wait till I can go back to the girls club and draw like the others. I am going to draw a picture of where we lived in Mogadishu—if I can remember it!

  9. Starting Fresh

    I washed our clothes today. We don’t have much soap left, but at least I could get water from the pump. I heard that you used to have to go far outside the camp to get water, from a small river. But when it doesn’t rain, the river is so dry. I don’t know how they managed.

    Mom used to say I was the best at getting our clothes clean, but I didn’t do such a good job today. I wonder if she will even notice. She is barely able to move because of her leg, and she is always tired. She walks with a stick that my brother found for her.

    Yesterday when I went to find wood with Leyla for the cooking, we went far outside the camp because we couldn’t find any trees. Some men at the local village yelled at us and called us thieves; they said we were stealing their wood. I have heard stories that some of these men are attacking ladies and girls when they are out in the bush collecting firewood. Sometimes it is even men from the camp doing this, and then the ladies have to see them every day. They are never caught by the police. I wish we didn’t have to collect so much firewood because that’s one of the most dangerous things to do here.

    But I am happy about something. Mom has heard some good news: we are moving to a new home soon! It will be a small mud house on the other side of the camp. It will be bigger and with real walls, and a door! I am so excited. It will feel so much better at night to know that we can close the door, and it will be ours.

  10. Just in Time

    I woke up early the other morning because Aisha was screaming so loud. She was having a lot of pains and looked sick. Mom said Aisha was having the baby. I felt so sorry for her. I don’t think I ever want to have a baby!

    Mom told me to go and get the midwife. I ran so fast. She came back to the house with me, carrying some things she needed to deliver the baby.

    I stayed outside while my sister tried very hard to deliver the baby. Finally I heard a cry and felt very relieved that my sister would not be in pain anymore. But there was a commotion, and the midwife sounded upset. I went inside and heard her say, “the bleeding will not stop.” I saw so much blood and feared for my sister.*

    Aisha fell asleep and she was not moving. Thank god my brothers were able to find a truck to take her to the hospital. They carried her and put her in the back, my mom went along. While they were gone, I wondered what happened to her and cried a lot. I didn’t eat—none of us could eat. We didn’t go out to get firewood for cooking or water. The next morning we ate cold rice and stayed in the house.  We were just waiting for Aisha, the baby and mom to return.

    Finally they came home. I was so amazed to see Aisha with the baby. I thought that she had died.  But she is okay thanks to the help she got. She still looks very tired though and can barely lift her head. Both mom and Aisha slept a lot that day, with the baby beside them.

    *Many women in developing countries die during pregnancy or childbirth and postpartum hemorrhage is the most common cause. Without access to medicines and medical care to stop the bleeding, new mothers can die within hours.

  11. Peace and Security

    Wow—having a baby in the house again makes all of us tired. Aisha needs a lot of help from me and my brothers and sisters. We also help mom. Mom wants me close by so that I can learn how to keep a house. She is worried about finding husbands in the camp for me and my sisters. She says there are so few that are good and can pay us a varad.* Without our father, it will be hard to negotiate.

    I don’t want to get married till I have a job. Maybe when I’m 20! But mom says if I wait too long, people will think I can’t have children, and then I’ll be hopeless.

    I went to the girls club the other day. I was talking to a girl named Fawzia. She was very sad and we sat together for awhile. She told me a horrible story—that a man had moved into their home and drank every night. He was beating her mother and walked around with a stick in his hand threatening to beat Fawzia and her little brother and sister. She doesn’t like this man, and I don’t think I would like him either. Why are there so many men causing trouble for girls like us? I’m glad she told me the story though. Maybe I can find someone to help her. But I don’t know who to ask.

    My name, “Amina,” means peace and security. I’m glad that my mother and father called me this, maybe it will keep me safe?

    *A varad or “bride price” is a sum of money, land, livestock or other assets the groom’s family gives to the family of the bride.

  12. Planting Seeds

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    Suddenly we have small trees around the camp! One of the foreign groups here has started to plant them right outside. Some of the refugees are helping them. I tended a small garden at our home in Mogadishu, and I would like to learn how to grow trees. I think I will try to go and see if I can help, though I may have to take my baby sister with me.

    I can’t wait for the trees to grow bigger. My brother says he will climb them, but I am just so thankful because it will be so much easier now to find firewood. Hopefully we won’t have to travel as far to get it. I also want to get a hay basket, like the one we had back home. With a hay basket, I would only have to cook once a day, in the morning. I could keep the food in the basket covered up and it would stay warm till dinner.

    There are many things I miss about our home and Somalia—everything is so different here. But mom says I have to adjust, we may be here a while. I wonder how long it will be. I don’t want to live here forever.

    In the meantime, I will try to go to the girls club and talk and play games with the other girls. I wish I could go to school. Maybe someday?

  13. Do We Have Any Choice?

    I wonder where my friends from home are. I think many of them left Mogadishu, and now I have no idea where they are. Only one made it to this camp. I hope the rest of them are okay. I miss our teacher, our classroom and our blue uniforms.

    It looks like we will be here for a long time. Many of the people have been here for years and years. But I hope I do not grow old in this place. I want to leave and go back home, or even live in cities in Ethiopia—like some Eritreans get to do. First, though, I have to go to school, so I can leave the camp and get a good job.

    There isn’t enough room in the school here for everyone. Only half the girls in the camp get to go, and I want to be one of them.  Aisha says she will go to the school and ask them to let me in.

    But even if they say yes, I have to convince mother. I keep pestering her. She says maybe I can go if my brother helps out at home. Now I have to get him to do some of the chores. But he says it’s girls’ work. I don’t see why he can’t fetch the water and firewood and do some cleaning and cooking. I want to study just like him, and I’m smarter. 

    Sometimes I feel very alone. My friend Leyla is starting to get big like Aisha did. She has become pregnant. She is only 13, will turn 14 in five months. Her mother wants her to get married to the father of the baby, but he does not want anything to do with Leyla anymore. I don’t know what she will do.

    Mom says this is why I need to find a good husband soon—so I don’t end up like Leyla.

  14. Playing a Boys Game

    Sometimes it’s hard to think beyond our next meal. We try not to make plans here, because we don’t know if we will ever be able to make them come true. But we can hope.

    Some of the Somali women do tailoring or laundry or run small shops, selling foodstuff and other things. But mom says it’s hard to make a living out of this, and she couldn’t do something like this anyway with her bad leg. That’s why we have to stick together as a family. I feel bad for the girls I meet here who got separated from their families, or their parents died. They are all alone here and never safe. There are men who come and take them away. I can’t imagine where they go. I guess I’m lucky in some ways.

    I went to the girls club yesterday, and it was fun. There were a few other girls there and we got to talk. Some of the girls were even playing soccer! They managed to get hold of a ball and played on the field where boys could not see them. I was too shy to play. But maybe next time I will try it too. Being at the club reminds me a little of the fun I used to have back home with my friends.

    Mom says I should be looking for a husband, instead of playing soccer. She says she is going to ask around the camp for a suitable man. But I want to wait. I hope she will let me be for a little while longer. I don’t want to get married or have a baby yet.

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  15. Growing Up

    I can’t believe it happened so quickly. I don’t know what to do. Mom has found a man who will marry me. He is 35. Mom says he can pay a bride price, but I don’t know how much it is. I haven’t met him yet, but I know I don’t want to marry him. I’m not ready to be a wife. Plus, I don’t want to leave my mother and brothers and sisters to live somewhere else in the camp.

    I am also worried about Leyla. She had some trouble. She went to a traditional healer about her baby, and the lady did something and Leyla got very sick—like Aisha did. But this time the baby died and Leyla was in danger till she went to the local hospital. But they helped her, and she is okay now. Thank god.

    Leyla says next time she will go to the health clinic before she meets with any man in the market. They can give you things there to prevent pregnancy. Before she was shy to go to the clinic, but now she says she knows it can save her life, so she is not afraid to go. I think she’s right. It is not easy being a girl, or a woman, because life gets complicated.

    How will I convince mother to let me be? I want to grow up to be a nurse, or maybe even a doctor. I want to help girls like Leyla and Aisha, when they are not well. I hope someday this will happen, but I know I can’t do this unless I get an education. I don’t think a husband would let me study. What can I do?

  16. Bringing Light

    Finally they are starting to put more lamps in the camp, they use power created by the sun. This will make us girls so much safer. The men can’t creep up on us so easily. Maybe now I won’t be afraid to use the toilet at night when I have to. I hope they put up so many lights that it is as bright at night as it is during the day.

    The other day I met the man mom wants me to marry, and I did not like him. I told mom I didn’t like him and started crying. She told me I should marry him, but she says it might be okay to wait some time, because he is not working now. So few men can work in this camp because there are no jobs. She says maybe I can leave the camp at some point and then get married. She doesn’t want us kids to grow up here. I just hope we can study and eventually leave. Because here, there are no options.

     I am so happy she is not making me get married! At least not now.  I wonder if my father would be happy—I think he would be. Aisha says she is happy that I am not getting married yet, but I can tell from her face that she is worried about me. She doesn’t want me to become like her, a mother alone—without her husband.

    I told some of the girls in the club, and they are happy too. Many of them don’t want to get married yet, either. But some of their parents are making them, they have no choice.

  17. Good News!

    I can’t believe the good news I got the other day. I haven’t been able to sleep because I am so thrilled. The school is going to let me in! And mom says I can go, if my brother helps out a little bit at home. It is going to be difficult, because I will still have to do a lot of the cooking and other chores. But I will work very hard and study a lot too. I can’t wait!

    I know it won’t be a big classroom like we had in Mogadishu, but at least we can learn new things and will get to share books. Maybe I will make some new friends there too, but I have to focus on studying. I don’t know how much time there will be to have fun. I hope there is a good teacher though. My favorite subject used to be history, learning about what happened in Africa and the whole world, I wonder if I will like it again?

    I hear they are putting a water pump near the school, so that will make it easier on us girls. But it hasn’t rained in a long time around here and it’s so dry, I don’t know if that will help very much.

    Life is very tough here, but at least now I can see a future. Maybe one day I will be able to get a job taking care of people who are sick. I also want to get married someday and have a baby that is just as cute as Aisha’s, but maybe one that doesn’t cry as much.

    I wish all the girls in the camp could go to school and wait to get married. I think they would be happier and much better off. But it is difficult to imagine that happening.  But I will speak to the girls I meet and tell them to dream. It is possible.

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