What you are about to read is not fiction. It is the real life story of the anguish and resilience of a struggling mother and her innocent children in a world torn apart by division and violence.
By sharing their harrowing ordeal, we hope to accomplish two things. First, to put a human face on a few of the millions of invisible casualties of war, too often written off as “collateral damage”. And second, to provide an easy opportunity to show a young mother and her family that you care by helping her start life again in her homeland.
“My name is Orit Mohammed,” the teary thirty-two years old Harari lady said, introducing herself.
She sat across the table from me in my small office located near Ras Hotel in the city of Harar, Ethiopia. Her one and half year old son Mohammed was sitting quietly on her lap caressing each object in the room with his sight.
A friend of mine sent her to me to explore means of assisting another Harari refugee or rather a returnee from the raging inferno that is Yemen. Orit is back home, but yet does not feel as if she is at home. The situation is as articulated by the saying of Imam Ali Ibn Abutalib, “with wealth a strange land is a homeland, while with destitution even a homeland is a strange land.”
“Tell me your story,” I implored sister Orit. “When and how did you go to Yemen, what took you there?”
“It was about 13 years ago that I left Harar for Yemen. My original plan was to go to Saudi through Yemen, and to work there,” Orit said, with her eyes cast down and voice filled with sadness and sorrow. “I wanted to support my mother who raised me and six of my siblings up. Our father passed away when we were young. I was only around 4 years old at that time. So we were orphaned at an early age. My mom went through many trials and tribulations to bring us up. She made Sambusas (fried triangular role of meat or vegetable) and did other menial work to make ends meet. I helped by selling the Sambusas that she made. I never went to a formal school, since I was busy helping my mom.
However, I did study at a Qurangey (a traditional Quranic school) at Kabir Haj Ali, wherein I learned the recitation of the Quran up to Kafhaya.
“Therefore, The suffering of our mother weighed heavily on me, and I wanted to do more to help ease her burdens and repay her for all her sacrifices. That is what drove me to decide to leave my mother and my country and to work abroad.” she sighed heavily as she continued narrating her story.
At this point baby Mohammed focused his eyes more firmly on the Nikon camera, which was located on the table within his arm’s reach. He extended his small arms and grabbed the camera firmly with his hands and started to pull it towards himself.
“Not the camera,” I said, as I reached out for the camera and took it from him, concerned he might drop and break it.
Baby Mohammed let go of the camera immediately. I gave him the camera casing to play with. Mohammed was happy with the casing, and started to play with it.
Baby Mohammed broke the tension that was building up with the story that was being narrated by his mother, and managed to ease it of momentarily. We all smiled. Such is the miracle of children.
“Please carry on with your story,” I said to Orit.
Orit continued, “I started my journey by going to Jigjiga first, and then headed to Hartashaikh, a small Ethiopian border town with Somalia. From there I took a (Toyota) Dyna, where the passengers were crammed until there was no rooms left for any sort of movement, and headed to Bosaso, a coastal town in Somalia. There a group of refugees had gathered to make the treacherous journey by sea towards Yemen. We stayed in Bosaso for two weeks waiting for an order from the smugglers to start moving towards the coast. The order finally arrived one evening around 9 PM, and we were on the move. To avoid being detected and captured by authorities, we walked in pitch of darkness for about 8 hours to a safe coastal location. We arrived at our destination around 5 Am, where a dinghy was waiting for us.”
“Walked for 8 hours!?” I interjected curiously. “I thought you said Bosaso was a coastal town? Why the long walk?”
“The smugglers feared being spotted and arrested by authorities, so they had to move with caution and they hide their dinghy further away from the beaches of Bosaso,” explained Orit.
“OK, makes sense. Please continue with your story.” I said with suspense to hear more of
Orit’s story and journey across the sea.
“To get on the dinghy from the beach, we had to walk a bit further through the water. I was submerged completely up to my neck. I didn’t know how to swim and I was petrified,” Orit continued. “I told them that I did not want to go on with the journey any longer, and that I wanted to go back home. However, nobody entertained my request at that point, I was urged to move on and was told that everything would be alright.
Around one hundred and thirty refugees boarded the dinghy, and we set sail towards the Gulf of Aden. The boat was very overcrowded, we were literally packed like sardines, with no room to stretch or maneuver. The tidal waves were rough and scary. We feared for our lives. We huddled, we cried, and we prayed. I felt seasick throughout the journey, and I threw up intermittently during the entire duration of our voyage. We were given dates and waters to sustain us. I have stopped eating dates since that day because it reminds me of the journey’s ordeal.
We eventually approached the coast of Yemen as darkness was starting to overpower the daylight. When we saw the mountains of Yemen shimmering at a distance, we all breathed a sigh of relief. However, our relief was short lived,” she said with her breathing becoming faster and facial expression turning more somber.
“The smugglers ordered us to disembark quite a distance from the shore. Their only concern was of being caught and their dinghy being confiscated by the Yemeni authorities. They were not concerned for our well being. They did not bother about whether we could swim or not. They were very forceful in their order. ‘Get off the dinghy!’ they shouted sternly.
For those of us who could not swim, this was a death sentence. It was just horrible!” exclaimed Orit with her voice full of anguish, as she agonized as if the event just happened recently.
“Those who were hesitant were pushed and thrown overboard by the smugglers. It was a total chaos. The hues and cries of my fellow voyagers, the desperation, the whaling and shrieking, the struggle of my fellow voyagers to survive against all odds are forever ingrained in my memory. They are unforgettable. Only those who knew how to swim had a real chance of making it alive.”
I could not help, but interrupt at this point. “How many smugglers were on board?” I asked.
“There were five of them,” she said.
“If there were only five of them, and there were one hundred-thirty of you, how come the refugees did not attempt to overpower them?” I inquired with a slight tone of self-righteousness.
“After two days of sailing at the sea, sitting in one location packed like sardines, and eating just some dates we were all too weak and exhausted, let alone to attempt to overpower them. Moreover, the men were huge, well-fed and armed with large canes. They were from the Hamar tribe. They looked stoned, as if they were on Hashish or some sort of drug, and they had no mercy at all. They hit the refugees with the large canes they were wielding without choosing what part of their bodies the blows landed. They kicked and shoved people overboard as they systematically walked from one end of the dinghy to the other. Most just jumped overboard in horror instead of being pushed, kicked, or beaten.
“Once in the water, the people tried to hold on to anything they could get a hold of, including to each other in vain attempt to survive. Out of the one hundred-thirty refugees, eighty died, and only about fifty of us survived. Majority of the victims were women, since they did not know how to swim” At this point Orit could no longer suppress her emotions, and wept uncontrollably. The pain was too much to tolerate.
“I only survived due to a divine intervention. I had befriended a young man, a fellow refugee from Dire Dawa, during our two weeks of stay in Somalia. We eventually got married in Yemen. He was an excellent swimmer. As people were panicking and scrambling to survive, he told me to observe how people were drowning and dying, and advised me to keep calm and to hold on to him. He jumped inside the water and waited for me.
“Finally, there were only two of us left in the dinghy – a Somali lady from Bosaso and I. The lady from Bosaso was screaming at the smugglers, telling them that she knows who they are and threatening to report them to officials when she got back. They hit her and threw her overboard. Next, they yelled at me to get off the dinghy. I hesitated. One of them hit me on the leg as hard as he could with his cane and threaten to strike me some more. I don’t remember what happened next. All I recall is being at the bottom of the sea – my head hitting the sand.
My friend immediately plucked me out of the water. He got a hold of me and advised me again to stay calm if I wanted to live. He started to swim on his back, as I held on to him firmly. Others tried to hold on to me, and in the process tore my Abaya (long black dress) off, and I was left only with my pants. Those who tried to hold on to me did not make it. They all perished in the sea.” Orit continued to weep, the memories were unbearable. The pain still fresh even after thirteen years have elapsed. I didn’t know what to say to her. I was left speechless.
“After the harrowing swim, we finally reached the shores. As I was walking to dry land, I spotted a scarf floating close by. I picked it up and covered myself with it. When I observed it closely, I realized it belonged to a pregnant Somali lady who was sitting next to me. The patterns on the scarf were unique.
As soon as we reached dry land, I collapsed and assumed a fetal position and I froze. I was conscious, but I could not move any longer. I was in shock and all I could do was weep. All the surviving refugees scattered in different directions to avoid being caught by the Yemeni coast guards. Only my friend stayed behind and watched after me until I regained my strength and the will to move on.”
I could only imagine the harrowing ordeal that Orit must have gone through. I could see she is in pain, but I could not muster the right words to comfort her. Changing the topic was the only way I knew out of this emotional conundrum. So I did just that and changed the topic.
“So,” I said, “where did you live in Yemen? Where did you work?”
“My husband and I stayed for 2 months in Aden while searching for a job. Then our fortune changed for the better. We got hired by Aden Steel Factory in the suburb of Aden, called Al Wahat. As luck had it they were looking for a couple to work at their factory. Housing was provided by the company free of charge. That is where I worked for the last 13 years of my life,” she said, with her tone less tense. She paused as she regained her composure. Changing the topic seems to have done the trick. At least temporarily.
“Tell me about your family. How many children do you have?” I asked, thinking I was riding towards the positive side of the emotional pendulum. Oh was I wrong!
“I had six children, the eldest 3 died soon after birth,” she said as the emotional pendulum swung right back to the negative side.
After hearing that, I just couldn’t changed the subject now. “What happened? How did they die?” I enquired with sympathy.
“I believe it was the plume from the steel factory,” she said. “The housing unit that the factory gave us to reside in was located right next to the stack, source of the factory’s plume. When we woke up each morning, we would find black soot all over our house. Our floor and furniture were all covered with it.” There was more tears and raw emotions emanating from Orit.
“Each one of my 3 eldest children – Abdurahman, Abdulrazak and Samia – died after they became sick and vomited a yellow substances, which looked like a mango, for two to three days straight. As soon as they became sick, I would take them to the company’s hospital, where they were administered with IV fluid. However, soon after the administration of the IV fluids, the skin of all 3 turned greenish and died shortly afterwards. The hospital feigned ignorance about the cause of death, and accused me of feeding them solid food prematurely. However, that was not the case at all and my protestation fell on deaf ears.
“It was latter that I learned that the cause of death might be due to industrial poisoning, but little did I know back then as to why my children were getting sick or dying so early in their life. It was some of my co-workers that eventually advised me to live further away from the factory and that it could be the pollutants from the factory that were causing the deaths of my children. So I did just that, and moved further away. All my 3 youngest children – Dawoud, Abdulhakim, and Mohammed – who were born after I moved further away from the factory survived by the grace of Allah.” Orit wept again from the pain of remembering those names and their little faces.
This was too much of an emotional roller coaster. I wasn’t prepared for such a story when I headed to my office earlier in the morning. At this point and time, I just wanted to get over with the story and reach the end of our conversation. I wanted the story fast forwarded, so as to end Orit’s trauma. “Tell me about the war and how you managed to come back to your homeland, Ethiopia?” I asked.
“We lived in Aden, which seemed to be far removed from the Yemeni capital Sana. The Houthi rebels took over the capital city and managed to chase the President of Yemen, and rumors were spreading that they were heading towards Aden. We felt war was approaching towards our direction, and were afraid. However, people at the factory told us not to worry, that the war will be a temporary one, and that it will come to pass soon. We were advised to stay put, and so we did. Weeks elapsed under such conditions. All of a sudden, one morning we were engulfed with the sound of bombs and heavy gun fires all around us. My husband went outside to assess the situation, but to his astonishment there was not a single individual in the town. They had all evacuated. We found ourselves all alone in the town.
“We truly panicked at that moment. My husband grabbed the two older kids in his arms, and I baby Mohammed and we set out on foot. We didn’t take anything with us, except for some money and the clothes on our backs. There were no vehicles in sight. We had to walk quite a distance through the woods before we reached another town,” she said, as she continued to narrate her harrowing tale.
“We went to a house in that town and asked for food and water. The family invited us in to their home, offered us meals and let us rest for a while. The Yemenis in general were very kind and hospitable people. Despite their poverty, they always extended helping hands to others. Before the outbreak of the war, neither the people, nor the government troubled the refugees inside the country. Basically, once you are inside, anyone could live and work there without being harassed.
“The host family recommended that we go towards Hodeida. They told us that we would be safer there. So, we continued to walk. While walking out of the town, we found a passenger car and negotiated a price with the driver to take us to Hodeida. The driver agreed to take us there for 60,000 Yemeni Rial. At that time it was roughly around $300 USD. It was pretty much all the money we had, but we had no other options but to accept.
“In Hodeida we found out that the Ethiopian Embassy had representatives working there to help repatriate Ethiopians caught in the midst of this savage war. We eventually met with the embassy staff and they arranged for group of Ethiopians to be transported to Djibouti by a ferry. From there a bus was arranged to take us to Addis. Thereafter, our family was given 1,000 birr to help us with the transportation back to Dire Dawa, my husband’s hometown.”
Finally, a relatively happy ending I thought. But, no there was more of a sad drama awaiting to be unfolded.
“We arrived in Dire Dawa in the late afternoon. We got off the minibus and my husband took 100 birr of the remaining 500 birr balance from what was given to us for our trip, and he gave me the 400 Birr. He told me to wait for him and that he would be back shortly. However, I waited and waited, but my wait was in vain. He never came back. I didn’t know his family or where they resided. I didn’t know where to look for him. When I realized that my husband was not coming back, I took my children and headed to Harar. Since he had my mother’s home number in Harar, I figured he would call me eventually. It is eight months now since I came back to Ethiopia, and I have not heard any news about my husband. I believe it was too much for him to handle the situation that we were in, and chose to get away from it all.
“In Harar, my 3 children and I moved-in to live with my mom. I use to send her some money when I lived in Yemen. Now I myself am in need of assistance. My plan to help my mother and ease her burden has been all, but shattered. Instead my children and I have became an additional burden on her. Moreover, my divorced brother is living with her along with his three children. This proved to be too much for our small house to handle. Sometimes, I had to sleep outside in the cold in our small yard with my children.
“Eventually, Harar Abadir Development Association helped by renting me a small house inside the Jegol for 3 months, and provided me with cooking oil, rice, and other support. Now, my main concern is about what will happen to me and my children when my rent is due. Moreover, I still have no source of income. I only managed to survive thus far by borrowing money from the government, which my sister is helping me pay for monthly. If I don’t get further help, I don’t know what to do. I am totally lost.” Thus, Orit concluded her dramatic and heart-wrenching story as she wept.
I told her to remain strong and not to despair, and that our Lord shall provide for her. I promised to pass along her story to others who might be in position to help ease her burdens. Therefore, here is your chance to help Orit overcome the challenges that she is facing. Also, don’t forget to pray for her that she be reunited with her husband. They went through so much hardship and tribulation of life together, and it would indeed be a tragic ending if they are not reunited.
In gratitude and peace,
Mohammed Hassen February 2017
Can you help Orit and her family stand on their own feet and build a new life in peace and self-sufficiency in the Jegol of Harar? Please continue reading to learn how to contribute.
Fundraiser Description and Status
- Project Start: February, 2017
- Project Goals: Provide adequate housing for Orit and her kids and help Orit open her own clothing shop.
- Status (as of March 29, 2017):
- The Harari Heritage Center (HHC) in Toronto did a fundraiser and sent 8,775 Birr directly to Orit. 7,200 Birr was used to pay six months rent for an apartment in the Harar Jegol and the balance of 1575 birr was used by Orit for basic necessities, food, and household items. Here is the signed rental agreement (10 March 2017 to 5 September 2017)…
And here is Orit and her sons in front of their new home…
Now that Orit and her children have a safe place to live for the near-term, please consider donating to help her open a Clothing Shop in support of her dream of self-sufficiency. The possible location is a humble 2 by 1.5 meter space you see below in the Manaheria (bus terminal in Harar)…
In order to open for business, the shop needs some paint, shelves, monthly rent, and an initial inventory of clothing. Our Fundraising goal is 88,000 ETB (~ $3,900 USD) per the table below…
Thanks to the generosity of six individual donors, the total raised toward Orit’s shop as of April 5, 2017 = $1,665, but we still have a long way to go.
We believe that “small is beautiful” and hope to encourage widespread participation, especially within the Ethiopian Diaspora. While large donations would never be turned away, we would prefer to see hundreds of concerned people donate a few dollars each than to have one person donate thousands.
Those who live in the USA, Canada, Australia, and Europe can donate easily via Paypal:
Those who live in Ethiopia can deposit to her account directly:
Orit Mohamed Ahmed
Commercial Bank of Ethiopia
Account Number: 1000132731277
If you would like to talk to or help Orit directly, please feel free to do so at: +25196.018.5998