Editor’s Note: Sahara is currently working on an autobiography going more in depth about her experience. You can also read her article Dear this American Life which gives even more detail about her life and her new advocacies. Follow her on Twitter for more info on her book.

The biggest surprise in my life came to me when I found out I was going to the United States. My family had applied to come to the USA by filling out all the necessary paperwork and after a long wait, we were told that we were accepted. We were supposed to leave on Monday, however; we were told on Friday that there was something wrong with our papers, and we probably couldn’t go that day. On Monday morning, I went to shop for groceries for lunch. While I was shopping, my sister and brother came rushing with a taxi and said to me, “We have to go right now!” I said to them, “Is this a dream come true or a joke?” I cried out in happiness. I rushed from the store, went home, picked up my suitcase, got ready quickly, and then we all went to the emigration center where we had to stay for eight hours to receive shots and medicine. At the emigration center, family and friends came to say goodbye. A few hours later, a big bus took us and other people to the airport. The plane left at nine p.m., and we were on our way to a new country and a new life.

In 1992, when I was a little girl, my aunt and I went to the refugee camp in a town called Hagadera in northeastern Kenya because my country, Somalia, was in a civil war. We were only supposed to stay there temporarily, but we ended up staying longer than expected because in Somalia there was still a war and bad corruption. In Hagadera, where I lived from age three through fifteen, I stayed with my aunt, and we lived in a house that was made of mud. Aunty Fatima took care of her niece and myself and our role was taking care of the house chores. Growing up in the camp was harsh and challenging because there were not good resources for building our house. We had to go to the woods and get some big branches and sand, and these roles were a girl’s job. Then we mixed sand and cow dung along with water for almost three hours or more and waited for a while for the sand to get smooth. Then we applied the mixtures on the wood. Finally, we let it dry for five hours. Sometimes when it rained, the sand might come off the wall and unfortunately, we often had to repeat the process, which was hard! To prevent this from happening, we had to cover the house with whatever supplies or materials we could get, like plastic or cardboard.  

When I lived in Hagadera, getting water was a struggle because the location of the water was far away from home, and we had to get it from a well. Every morning, I had to get up early to go to the well. Mostly this job carrying water was a typical woman’s role. To do this, I had to walk ten minutes or fifteen minutes, depending on how far I lived from the well. Then I had to wait in line in order to get my water. This took an hour or two hours, depending on how many people were waiting in the line. Finally, when I got my water, I went back home carrying the water on my back. Sometimes when I didn’t have to hurry, I just kicked the plastic gallons with my feet. Again, I had to go back two more times a day to get more water doing the same process.

Back home we didn’t have any electricity. Every weekend or sometimes during the week, my neighbor friends (all girls) and I had to go to the woods to get some wood for a fire. Therefore, my neighbor friends and I had to walk at least three hours, depending on where we were going to find good sticks. Then everyone went to gather some firewood or sticks and carried them back home on our backs. These sticks and wood were heavy, especially when we had to walk back home a couple of hours.

Overall, when contrasting the USA and Kenya, the most different things I have noticed are housing, water, and electricity. The U.S. and the town where I grew up definitely have different cultures. I think I am the luckiest person in the world to have these two opportunities because these two experiences have taught me so much. Although Kenyan life was very difficult, it has taught me so much. For example, I had learned to appreciate what I have and not take anything for granted. However, today, in America, I am still learning so many things about housing, water, electricity, and food. My history, my past and present values and experiences have helped form who I am today. I have carved my own way out of the combination of two distinct cultures. I take the good and apply it to my own life and leave the toxic taboos and stigmas behind me. Sometimes it hurts because of the people that I have loved and lost.

Sometimes, I am excluded from Somali communities if I express an opinion about taboos and stigmas. Especially, after leaving Islam, it has not been easy to be a part of the community. I’ve been called all the names in the book and even told that I hated my own people because I speak out about issues that need to be called out. I was told I was becoming Americanized and need to not forget about my culture, race and religion! People need to be educated so that we can improve life quality and I do the best I can to love all people regardless of religion, ethnicities, race, culture or other beliefs. I feel that all human beings deserve dignity and respect, and I think today the world can use kindness and love toward all.

I was born in Somalia, but grew up in Kenya. In Kenya, I never had the opportunity to go to school. Back in the camp, life was not easy, but I had a dream that someday I could go to school and learn how to read and write. When I was in Kenya, I could not write my name or do simple math because I did not know how and never had the opportunity to learn. Then my dream came true once I came to the United States with my godparents. Leaving Kenya, I was scared, but at the same time, some part of me was extremely happy. I was blessed because my dream came true and I was excited because I had come to a place where I could get opportunities, freedom, safety and education. However, I was also sad because I was leaving many family members and friends behind and did not know what it would be like having a new life in an unfamiliar land.

I left Kenya because I wanted to find a better place so that I could have a meaningful life and good opportunities. Although I have adopted some of the historical family values around work and family, especially from my paternal aunt, I have carved out my own unique values. Basically, I ran away from my family between thirteen to fourteen years old because they had different values and beliefs about women; for example, females should be obedient, submissive and stay with their family until their fathers sell them into marriage.

I came from a very controlling and untouchable ideology of Islam, where leaving it the consequences and the punishments are unthinkable (apostasies). For me it’s very important to speak out on this topic because freedom of religion and freedom of speech is unthinkable in the community I came from. When I was in this ideology and culture, I was told not to tell or share anything that critiques the ideology or the culture. I now know that it’s a lie that Allah (God) will strike you down if you remove your headscarf (hijab) in public. About three years ago, I went without my hijab for the first time since I was six or seven. To recall this experience, I felt great about my decision, and the rest of this experience was an empowering and indescribable moment! We need to deal with Islam’s denials, stigmas and taboos. We are told not to talk about Allah’s words, which I find very hard! We need to discuss the rights of the individual, including women, children, and other vulnerable people. I find it to be sad that the religion of Islam cannot tolerate critique or criticism. I am not speaking out against the people, who I have nothing against, but against the lies and terrible practices encouraged by the Islamic ideology. I have always thought that if religion is truly from a creator, that it should speak for itself. I have a dream that someday people will look at each other as human beings, rather than at their race or religion.

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