East African Refugees: Strength from Love

Whenever I think of strong women my mind goes straight to skirt suits and up-dos, modestly put-together but quick witted politicians, and feminist activists down in the trenches — all exuding power, a touch of femininity, and strength. It’s easy to admire women who work to make a difference by standing up for their ideals or using their influence to create change. There’s also something captivating about career women who are seemingly complete and content within themselves and their work. Often it’s the hard-working low-income women, the ones who stand strong despite adversity and harassment, or the single working mothers who fight fatigue and poverty just to provide for their children who I forget about.

Though we recognize how strong our mothers are and what they’ve done for us, we still seem to link strength and feminism to a “Rosie the Riveter” persona — females rising from the “stepford wife” stereotype with a baby in one arm and a nail gun in the other. In reality, I know that strength is more than killing yourself by staying up all night working, with a cappuccino in one hand staring into a computer screen. It’s more than the ability to do it all. It’s really about the choices that we make.

As the Program Assistant for Creative Services and Marketing (aka a volunteer eager to learn as much as possible with extra time on her hands), I was able to review all of the interviews, photographs, and video clips collected from Jonathan Ernst, a photographer who recently visited Dadaab on LWR’s behalf. Ambiya’s story was just a paragraph in an email hidden between the stories of other East Africans that Jonathan had met; but when I read through all of the stories from Dadaab, hers was the one that I fell in love with. Looking at it now, it’s highlighted in two different colors with stars around the title and “MUST write about her” inked in the margin. As a 23 year old female fresh out of the world of undergrad, Ambiya’s story still jolts me back to the realization of all the first world privileges I’ve grown up with, and my biased perception of what an “average life” includes.

Ambiya lived in Somalia with her daughter, mother, and grandmother. Due to an increasing drought situation and famine spreading throughout her country, it was time to flee to a safer location. She was in no state to leave however; and after eating little to nothing for 18 days, 20-year-old Ambiya gave birth to her son Hamza.

While many of us can barely imagine childbirth without a sterile room and an epidural, Ambiya — likely in a weakened state from her lack of food — gives birth. Being a new mother isn’t easy; making sure your baby is healthy, safe and that his or her needs are met is a full time responsibility. While this is stressful enough, imagine leaving your home country, walking by foot for at least a week, losing every one of your material possessions to a drought, and arriving to a new place in order to start a new life with nothing but the clothes on your back.

Without delay, the day after she gave birth, Ambiya left with her newborn, daughter, mother and grandmother on a long trek from Somalia to Kenya. This on-foot venture likely lasted several weeks of intensive traveling with little sustenance and an incredibly strong will. Most people’s only goal is to survive the journey — a lofty, and in many cases, unobtainable hope. For Ambiya, her goal was to get her whole family to Dadaab alive, especially her one-day-old newborn.

Coming from a middle-class American background, it’s hard to not look at this story abstractly. We put distance between Ambiya and ourselves saying, “No, I could never do that, I’m not that strong.” Or, “What an amazing, almost-super-human act — seems impossible.” In one sense, rightly so, this was an incredible action made out of love. The problem with distancing ourselves from her story and her feat is that we tend to fictionalize her. Ambiya is a real person who persevered during what was probably the most difficult experience of her life. She represents pure strength. Her action was real and it was emblematic of how the love and strength of a mother extends beyond logic and self-preservation far into love and self-sacrifice.

Many are not as lucky as Ambiya has been; she arrived in Dadaab with her family and her healthy baby boy Hamza. She recounts, “I was very much worried about the baby because he was only one day old. The chance of him dying along the way was very real.” Upon registration, they were given food, soap, supplies, and an LWR Baby Care Kit. Most importantly, Ambiya has been given a chance to start a new life with her family.

The magnitude of her actions never ceases to amaze me. When I thought of strong women, I tended to visualize powerful, Americanized, smart, strong, outspoken women. Ambiya helped me see the beauty and power in self-reliance and perseverance. She is absolutely the strongest woman I’ve ever known about with characteristics I aspire to also have.

I look at the photographs of Ambiya and think of her story often, and all I can see is strength from love.