Fleeing the crossfire pitting militant groups and Islamic Courts Union against Ethiopian troops and government forces, Abshiro Ali left Somalia to look for a safe haven for her children.
Abshiro met this reporter for an interview at a small shop in Kisenyi, a slum with a high concentration of Somali nationals, in the scorching afternoon sun. Clad in a khaki long hijab and black veil covering her face except for the eyes, she arrived panting and sweating. Without pausing for a moment to catch her breathe she signalled we begin the interview.
“I have to rush to work. I’m sorry for coming late, “ she apologised.
Born and raised in Bulahawe, a small town on the border of Somalia and Kenya, Abshiro led a normal life like the rest of the children in her neighbourhood. At 17 years, while in primary 8 she dropped out of school and got married to her teacher of English. This helped her to learn how to speak English fluently.
They were later to move to Mogadishu, near her husband’s place of work. With six children to take care of on a meagre salary of a teacher, life in Mogadishu had challenges but was largely bearable.
Life was to dramatically change for the worse one fateful day when her husband left for work and never returned.
“There was nothing unusual about that day. There were no signs of discomfort or fear,” she narrates. “Was he kidnapped? Was he killed? Is he still alive? I don’t know.”
“Up to this day, I have no clue what happened to my husband,” Abshiro’s voice slightly cracks at the memory of her husband’s disappearance. “Like dust he vanished into thin air and was never to be heard from ever.”
A grade 8 drop-out mother-of-six, no job, no husband and a child with a heart disease, Abshiro’s world came to a harsh grinding halt until a close friend from Australia sent her money and told her to go to the refugee camp in Hagardeer, Kenya.
She was told life was better in refugee camp than her country. Life in the camp, she says, was not any easier with extreme hot weather and food scarcity hitting the camp. Caught between a rock and a hard place, she got wind of news that refugee camps in Uganda were better than those in Kenya.
With a sick child whose heart condition was worsening by the day, she decided to try her luck in Uganda.
In June 2010, she arrived in Uganda but it neither was all rainbows and sunshine like people seemed to have it look because the weather was no better than the one in Hagardeer.
She settled in Nakivale Refugee Settlement for a while with a relative and registered as an asylum seeker. However, with no medical assistance for her sick son, she moved to Kampala. Unfortunately, without a steady income her son couldn’t access proper treatment and passed on after some months.
“This left me devastated but also determined to rise up again,” she says.
With the help of her friends she has been able to start a small business. “I sell cosmetics, clothes and food to shop owners. I don’t import goods but rather buy them from one shop and sell it to another and take the commission.”
She is now able to take care of her five children and to pay for their school fees.
“I don’t rely on hand outs anymore,” She beams with pride.
Truly through hardship comes ease. After the tribulations Abshiro experienced, she has found peace and comfort in Uganda.
“Uganda is like a second home to me. “ she says, adding “I have never experienced racism or hate speech or discrimination, besides the occasional al-Shabaab accusations by angry by passers. And I tend to ask them, do you think I would be here if I were al-Shabaab?”
Being ridiculed for her religious attire or being a refugee doesn’t distract Abshiro from living her life to the best way she can. Considering what she has been through, street harassment is nothing but a fly on an elephant.
Abshiro is one among the hundreds of thousands of refugees that Uganda hosts. They have freedom to work and safety. They even create employment opportunities for native Ugandans. Abshiro expressed her preference of Ugandan employees than Somalis because, according to her, Ugandans are committed and hard-working.
Most asylum seekers are waiting for a chance to be processed by the UNHCR and taken to North America or Europe. Some believe going there is the ultimate better lifestyle they seek and others like Abshiro are content with living here. She considers Uganda to be home