This is the story of Mana. She is 28 years old, but her wide-eyed face appears far younger – 20, 21, maybe. The petite Somali immigrant is perhaps 5 feet 3 inches tall, although it’s difficult to make an accurate guess based on the floor-length dark abaya she wears. Her plain-colored hijab frames her face, emphasizing her large brown eyes.
Mana emanates a calm, gentle poise. When she speaks, it is in lowered, measured tones. She chooses her words carefully. She doesn’t want me to use her last name, does not like to talk about herself, and does not want her picture taken. Yet, when pressed, she will tell her story.
The mother of two young girls, Mana has dreams for them, and for herself. She wants her girls to go to Columbus School for Girls, a five-star private academy in the nearby state capital. Like many immigrants in this and centuries past, she and her husband live sacrificially to provide opportunity for their daughters. Her husband, also a native of Somalia, is an accountant. They work hard and live what she calls a good and happy life.
After a year of rigorous preliminary study, she has earned entrance into the highly regarded cardiopulmonary sonography program at her local technical college. She dreams of a successful life for her daughters, possibly in medicine. She’d like for them not to have to work in the restaurant business, which is how her mother survived after their flight from Somalia. She’d like for them not to have to wait on people. She maintains a surprising calm when she relates the story of their journey from Mogadishu, Somalia, to Nairobi, Kenya.
Born in 1990, Mana was still a baby in 1991 as civil war broke out in Somalia after the ouster by rival clans of the ruling dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, who had ruled Somalia since 1969. Over the following months, more than 300,000 Somalis died. As warring clans competed to control the government, the country descended into war-torn chaos.
With violence in the streets and a food shortage, a large-scale humanitarian crisis soon developed, and the international community responded. But unrest, government chaos, and bloodshed continue in Somalia to this day.
Over the past few years at the college in Newark, Ohio, where I work, I have seen increased enrollment by immigrant students, many of them from Somalia like Mana. At last count, the college serves students from more than 20 different nations, and many of them come to the writing lab where I help with their writing assignments.
I put off sharing their stories until this summer, when news broke that the American government was holding immigrant children — some of them in bassinets and cribs — in cages and cells. More than 2,000 children were separated from their families.
Things are not getting better. The babies in cages have fallen to the bottom of the news cycle in the same way that Somalia has. Now seems like the best time of all to begin sharing the stories of these students, why they’ve left their homes, why they’ve sought refuge here.
“We lived in a nice home [in Mogadishu], living a middle-class life, and my father had a good job,” Mana says, adding that, as in many traditional Somali families, her mother stayed home and cared for the family’s seven children. However, that changed with the outbreak of the war in 1991, and the family fled Mogadishu in 1992.
Mana said that to keep the family safe, her father hoped to get the family to a large refugee camp in Nairobi, Kenya, to escape from the war, and made arrangements for them to escape from the city.
“We were loaded into a big truck with many other people,” Mana says. But before they reached Nairobi, her father was murdered. “Soldiers ordered him to stop, and he was shot. The shot went through his head and he bled out, and instantly our lives changed forever. My mother, who had never worked her whole life, had to take responsibility for seven children and was now a widow.”
Despite the fact that her father had been killed, the family continued on to Nairobi with nothing but the clothes they wore and grief for their murdered father. Behind them lay civil war, violence. Ahead lay the unknown.
Mana reflects that her mother was brave to go on under these circumstances, when it may have seemed safer to return to their home and to the men in her family. When they arrived in Nairobi, they lived on the streets with no money, shelter, or food. “We were starving,” she says. “Years later, my mother told me she did not think I would survive because I had been without food and drink for five days.”
Mana says her mother found a way to earn money by cooking Somali street food in a small oven, then sending the children out to sell it. Because she was still a baby at the time, Mana does not know all the details from this time, but she says that eventually her mother found someone who connected them with passage to a large refugee camp outside Nairobi, and things began to improve.
“Life became somewhat better for us, as we had food and a tent to live in. My mother got a job and signed up for the lottery to go to the United States of America, a country foreign to her, but she took the opportunity she had for the sake of her children. Living the refugee life was different from everything we had known; in our tent, we had no mattresses, so everyone slept on the dirt floor.”
From there, with help from strangers and a lucky placement in the refugee lottery, her family journeyed first to live with an uncle in Minnesota, then to stay with another relative in Michigan. They landed in an apartment on the outskirts of suburban Westerville, Ohio, when she was six years old.
Despite the fact that they still slept on the floor when they first arrived, life seemed good. “We had walls and a roof over our heads, and carpet on the floor,” Mana says. “It was much better than dirt.”
Mana is driven to keep her 4.0 average, driven to complete college, driven to be successful in life by American standards. Like many immigrants before her, it seems that every life goal she achieves puts more distance between her and the dirt floors she slept on.
Over the past two years that I’ve known her, we’ve talked of many things. She was surprised when I asked her questions about her Muslim faith and beliefs, but not offended, and willing and pleased to answer my many questions. I told her about the Bible; she told me about the Quran.
Mana says that since 9/11 things have been more difficult for her family in central Ohio, and more so since the presidential campaign of 2016. The Twin Towers went down when she was just ten years old, when her family had lived in the U.S. for nearly ten years. And yet she won’t talk about acts and words directed her family’s way in 2001 or afterwards, preferring to focus on a more hopeful future.
She is now into the final segment of her work as a cardiopulmonary sonography student, happily involved in real-life, hands-on patient care. On a recent visit to the lab where I work, she explained with obvious excitement how fascinating and important the work is that she does. She wants to save lives.
I tell her that she is exactly the sort of healthcare provider that I want to care for me in the hospital. Someone who pays attention to every detail. Someone who wants to save a life.
It’s quite clear: Mana will be saving lives. This is where her journey has led.