09/27/2011 09:16 EDT | Updated 08/18/2020 16:36 EDT

Dadaab Refugee's Dreams Lead Her to Canada

Fatumo's childhood was contained in the world's largest refugee camp; a place we worry carries a stigma for harbouring victims who await handouts. She fought against a bleak fate that seems sealed by outside media: images of desperate people who refuse to help themselves. Instead she chased a dream to study abroad.


In 20 years, Fatumo Mohamed left the chain-linked confines of Dadaab only three times.

Twice she travelled to Kenya's capital to take exams to qualify for a scholarship.

Her third trip was to Nairobi's airport, bound for a small technical school in Canada.

Fatumo's childhood was contained in the world's largest refugee camp; a place we worry carries a stigma for harbouring victims who await handouts. Fatumo, now 23, fought against a bleak fate that seems sealed in not just by circumstance by also by outside media: images of sunken-eyed children and desperate people who refuse to help themselves. Instead she chased a dream to study abroad.

"From a young age I wanted to give back to society," she tells us. "First I want to help myself, then my family, my community and my country, Somalia."

Helping herself proved difficult, and that was just the first step. Leaving the camp is illegal without the permission slip rarely granted by Kenya's government -- never mind international travel.

Fatumo doesn't remember fleeing a Somali village near Kismaayo when she was four. Her parents narrated an age-appropriate version of the country's civil war: there were tribal clashes. Angry men came and burned down their village. They killed the livestock. Having lost everything, the family walked some 150 kilometres to Dadaab. Fatumo's father carried her on his back.

They had to rebuild their lives from scratch, starting with food rations and plastic tarps.

Paid work for refugees is rare. Often Fatumo and her three siblings went without shoes and school notebooks. There's more peer pressure among refugee girls, says Fatumo, so they're more likely to drop out when taunts from children with shoes and notebooks become unbearable. Fatumo went barefoot and recited the teacher's handouts out loud.

Giving up never even occurred to her.

After high school, Fatumo passed a seemingly endless series of exams, after which she was told she had won a scholarship and was bound for university in Canada. Instead, in 2008, she was put on a waiting list. This happened again the next year. And the next.

Looking back, Fatumo isn't angry -- not about Somalia's war or the bullies at school. She feels lucky, even "rich" compared to the 1,500 refugees still staggering into camp daily on skeletal frames, fleeing drought and intractable conflict.

She tells us her story in a voice that's all at once quiet, hurried and forceful. She speaks in the same way she approaches life: with fierce resolve.

Refusing to waste a single minute of her academic limbo lost in self-pity, Fatumo volunteered with the United Nations to register new arrivals, and then at the Centre for Victims of Torture as a counsellor for patients with severe psychological trauma. There, she heard "hundreds" of harrowing stories from torture victims and grieving mothers. She found her calling.

"Humanitarian work doesn't always extend to a person's feelings;" she realized. While Somalia was being torn apart at the seams: politically, economically and socially, its people suffered, and some became "mentally disorganized." These are the people Fatumo feels most compelled to help.

Last month, after a 30-hour journey she arrived in Halifax.

With financial support from Windle Trust International, a UK-based educational charity, Fatumo is now a student at Nova Scotia Agricultural College. She plans to change her major to social work this winter and take those skills "wherever the people are most in need."

Dadaab is now visible from outer space. Camps there have been growing for 20 years, gathering people from conflicts across Africa and claiming a sizeable chunk of Earth to become the fourth largest "city" in Kenya.

Some might assume that poverty, confinement and food handouts make it easy to lapse into self-pity or complacency.

Instead, refugees fight against all odds to sustain themselves and to help each other. Mosques collect donations for new arrivals; families already settled take in those who are too weak to set up shelters. The fledgling city has a quasi-functional economy, with kiosks hawking cell phone minutes and soft drinks, and even The Refugee, a newspaper.

If Fatumo, born into civil war and raised a stateless refugee, can still devote her life to helping others, surely Canadians can follow her example and give generously to East Africa. If Fatumo could hold onto her dream for years, arrive at school and still make plans to return where need is greatest -- surely Canadians can support the dreams of those in need.

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