It isn’t easy for soccer enthusiast and Wheaton, IL resident, Bisharo Amir, 17, to speak of her past. “My mother gave birth to my little brother under a tree, with the sound of bombs and machine guns blasting, and through it all my brothers and sisters who were small children were crying for her attention,” she shudders. “Can you imagine that?”
Bisharo is originally from Somalia. When war broke out with Ethiopia nearly two decades ago, her family and hundreds of thousands of others fled to Kenya. “It was very sudden. No one knew what was happening. For power and money, friends betrayed each other,” she says of the embattled nations. Bisharo, then three, spent her childhood in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, which was originally established in 1992 for the 20,000 refugees fleeing Sudan.
“My little niece there,” she points to a three-year-old, “children her age shouldn’t have to see so much killing, so much blood, but they have. That’s not good. I don’t think about it, otherwise I won’t be healthy mentally, physically, emotionally. I just don’t think about those days,” says Bisharo. “I can’t believe that a 7-year-old had a gun and wanted to kill people.”
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that at the height of the civil wars in Ethiopia and Somalia in 1991 and 1992, thousands of wounded and famished refugees arrived daily in Kenya's remote border regions. Fighting in neighboring Sudan prompted the flight of thousands more to Kenya, mostly boys escaping the conflict and/or forced military service. By 1992, UNHCR had established 17 refugee camps in Kenya to care for a refugee population of 420,000. 1
As Bisharo explains, refugee camps can be largely lawless. At Kakuma, not only were there diverse refugee populations from all over Africa, but there were also ethnic groupings from a single country who were in conflict with each other back home. “We look very different from Somali people,” says Bisharo, lifting her hijab. “Their hair is straight, ours is curly. We are from Somalia but we are Bantu and we were enemies,” she says.
Proximity to areas of civil strife further enabled easy access to weapons. “When they came for your money and you didn’t give it to them, they’d torture you and even kill you,” recalls Bisharo. She remembers one horrifying night when a neighbor whom she was staying over with was robbed, pulled out of her hutment and raped. “I curled up like a ball in the corner with her children, trying to keep them calm,” says Bisharo, who was no more than a child herself at the time. Rape continues to be a common crisis in refugee camps. Sometimes the police, too, take the liberty to harass refugees. “It was like a prison,” Bisharo observes.
Asked what the hardest thing for her was, Bisharo replies, “not having a father. He was running for his life because they were forcing boys and men into the army. He had also married again, which is very common in African culture. For 2 to 3 years there, I didn’t have a father and I’d see other fathers with their kids, hugging them, playing with them, buying them candy,” she says. “I was ten years old and used to wonder why I was alive? What purpose was I alive for? We needed him emotionally. Now he’s back with us and I don’t hold anything against him. He had to do what he had to do.”
Bisharo glances over at her niece again. “I feel happy for her,” she says. “She has what I didn’t have.”
Her elder sister, now 26, tried filling the void left by their father by working as domestic help in Kenya to help make ends meet.
“We owe her our life,” says Bisharo. “Most of her life she spent doing whatever she could to make us happy. When the food rations UNHCR gave us ran out, we had to work in other people’s homes without a break, without any rest. It was like being Cinderella. I wrote an essay about myself for school (in Wheaton) and I got 100 per cent. My teacher thought it was really good. I told her that wasn’t even half my story,” adds Bisharo, who is learning to play the piano.
To hear Bisharo speak in her English fluent and confident voice, her animated conversation punctuated with laughter, one can’t imagine she moved to the suburbs of Chicago only two years ago.
“My father was a teacher and he knew even girls should go to school,” she says, explaining why her English is so good. “In Africa, they say girls aren’t supposed to go to school. That’s pathetic! That’s lame! My friends’ parents used to say I’ve lost it because I used to go to school. My dad took me to school. Girls grow up early there and get married at 13 or 14.”
Does she plan to tie the knot soon, too? “I worked so hard for my education. I’m going to lose everything if I get married now because I’m going to have to be responsible for my husband. Then if you get pregnant, you’re responsible for the children too. I have to find where I am going first. I just have to go till I end up where I need to go,” she says, resolutely. “If I do get married, it’s not going to stop me because he married me when I was studying and I’m studying hard and you want me to stop? It’s not going to happen!” Is that her advice for her friends as well? Bisharo shakes her head. “They have to do what they want to do.”
A high-school student at Wheaton North High School, Bisharo started out as an ESL student. She topped that class and they bumped her up to the next level, where she came first again. “I didn’t even have to study for health. ‘This is going too far,’ they said, and the next semester I was in a regular class,” she laughs. “I get A’s and B’s but I barely passed history. I’m an average kid,” she says rolling her eyes, then swiftly adds, “but I’m a quick learner.”
Asked about her adjustment to life in America, Bisharo responds by describing her friends. “They are so fun! Americans don’t judge you before they know you. I am a mutt but I hate people calling me a half-breed. My mother speaks Kizigwa and my Dad speaks Mai Mai. I speak both those languages, Somali, Swahili and English! Africans ask me, ‘Who do you like better? Your mother or your father?’ or they ask me, ‘Why did you mother marry your father? Her culture is better.’ I tell them I don’t have to choose between my parents. And about why my parents married? Isn’t that a personal question? So be it, if you think I am a half-breed and don’t like me.”
What else does she like about her new homeland? “Boys and girls are treated equally. Here we can choose. In Africa, our choices are made for us depending on if we are a girl or a boy. It’s not fair! Also, in Africa you can’t be seen walking with a boy because people will gossip. Here, we can joke with boys.”
A tomboy, Bisharo loves that she can be one without it being a big deal like it would be in Africa. “My mother’s friends here tell her she is going to have such a problem with me. But my mum says as long as I am happy, that’s all that matters.”
Bisharo yearns for her aunts and grand-mother who are still in the refugee camps. She wants to become a doctor, loves Japanese Anime and dreams of learning to play the violin. “It would be an honor to learn music. I love Chinese music. It’s so harmonious and peaceful. People used to live in peace in Africa…a long time ago. It’s so much better here.”
Does she think allowing more refugees access to resettlement in other nations is the answer? Bisharo hesitates. “Some people there may threaten you into saying they are family and come with you.” In her answer, you can see ghosts of the past threatening her newfound sense of security. “The future is not written yet. You can only think about now,” she concludes.
1 UNHCR Publications; http://www.unhcr.org/publ/PUBL/3eaff43f16.html
RESOURCE CENTER OFFERS REFUGEES SECOND CHANCES
By Naazish YarKhan
“Ha,ha, ha. Now whose the fairest of us all?” the wicked Queen chortled, sauntering away from the unconscious Princess Blanca Flor. The audience cheered for the cast, which ranged from elementary school–goers to high schoolers. The actors, the majority of whom were African refugees, represented 12 countries and all attend the after-school program run by Glen Ellyn Community Resource Center (GECRC).
“I’m not really, actually evil, but I liked being evil to the princess,” 4th grader, Nania Chol, says after the play. “Hey, I’m [sitting] right here you know,” retorts Elsita Alarcon, 9, who’d played Blanca Flor, just moments ago. “I always wanted to be a princess,” enthuses the 4th grader, who adores Shirley Temple and Hannah Montana. “I was surprised I got the part. We had to practice a lot to get it all memorized. It was so much fun!” she says. “How did we get the part? Last year, we were in a play called Rabbit in the Well, so I think they had a sense that we’re good actors,” she says on behalf of herself and Chol.
However, their enactment of Blanca Flor, the Mexican version of ‘Snow White’, was more than a play. It was a means to learn English, proper pronunciation and grammar, said GECRC Director, Daniel Zagami, who has a Masters in Intercultural Studies and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), as does GECRC Assistant Director, Margaret Kraai. “They practiced for three months, thrice a week, 30 minutes a day,” said Zagami. “Many of our students are from cultures that are traditionally oral. I really believe we can teach English by teaching the students oral culture. Kids have a great ability to memorize a lot of information. Instead of written exercises, we used drama to teach grammar, including verbs and tenses.”
Students are divided into groups based on Teacher’s Evaluations indicating literacy levels, and Assessments he and Krai developed and conduct three times a year. GECRC volunteers also fill in a daily Competency Log tracking students’ progress. “Most of the students [in the program] are behind their grade levels. There are clear improvements and in the summer when school is out, we know those improvements are because of the program,” says Zagami.
Between 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day, “we’re trying to hit things that they don’t cover during school. We teach them to write their name, address and phone number, learn to use a ruler, weigh things, learn synonyms, antonyms...”
The organization was created five years ago when Kasey Sanders, a current GECRC Board member, saw the need for ESL help for some Hispanic families who attended Lincoln Elementary School, in Glen Ellyn, where her own children studied. Today, the program is housed at Lincoln Elementary School itself, since most of its attendees attend Lincoln during the school year. Much of its funding is from the County and Infant Welfare.
“ I liked how everyone had their costumes and looked like their characters and got to say their parts very well,” says Catherine Tarpeh, 11, who arrived from Liberia two years ago, and played the Mirror on the wall. It took her two days to have red extensions, befitting her character, put into her hair. She likes them enough to keep them in until school lets out. Would she ever go back home? “No thank you,” comes the prompt response. Not surprising for a child who has fled the murderous violence that claimed her grandparents and uncles.
“We have 12 or 13 cultural backgrounds, including different languages and religions, and it’s a K-12 program, so we have different age groups too. It’s great to have that cultural diversity but it’s also challenging to accomplish the literacy goals that we have, and have kids work together, because of that,” says Zagami. He is interested in having the children perform at other locations too, so that they can continue to build confidence and practice their English.
(630) 858-0100 ext. 239 or (630) 899-9919;
When ABC News’ Good Morning America, in collaboration with Simon and Schuster, asked its viewers to write for “Story of My Life” describing their life experiences, the network was deluged with 6,000 entries and more than twenty thousand pages of inspiring stories. A panel of best-selling authors and editors chose three finalists, and viewers voted one from among these, to be published. . Farah Ahmedi’s story was that book.
Rarely does a book move one’s soul the way this one does, forcing us to reconsider our own good fortune and persuading us that we are on this earth to be our brother’s keepers.
In The Other Side of the Sky, we learn that after the landmine blast, seven-year-old Farah spent two lonely years hospitalized in Germany, away from her family. Her story is shaped by the context of decades of war in her home country. After the fall of the Soviet occupation, the Taliban took over war-torn Afghanistan and imposed their version of Islamic rule. With millions of men dead and women prohibited from working, countless families were reduced to poverty. The Taliban also conscripted young men and boys into their army; coercing many.Fearing for their sons, Farah’s well-to-do parents sent their sons to Pakistan. That was the last time Farah and her family saw the boys. Weeks later Farah and her mother returned from a shopping trip to find rubble and death where their home had once been. Farah’s father and sisters had been killed in a bomb blast.
Farah and her mother, Fatima, joined the thousands fleeing Afghanistan for Pakistan. Unlike Iran, which had closed its borders to Afghan refugees at the time, there were millions streaming into Pakistan. Achieving freedom from the constant gunfire and bombs was like finding heaven on earth, says Farah. “When we finally made it, we couldn’t stop laughing and praising God from sheer relief.”
Once there, Farah’s trials would include servitude to children her own age, where she and her mother lived as refugees, and becoming caretaker to her mother who suffered from asthma. But despite these setbacks, Farah was sustained by her faith in Allah.
Coming to America was not part of their initial plans, until news of the UN program to accept Afghani refugees spread like wild fire. Farah spent days trying to convince her mother to apply and when she heard the program was looking for widows and children with disabilities, she knew it was worth giving it a shot. “We’d been in Pakistan as refugees for four years. People tried to discourage us from applying for a UN program that was taking Afghan refugees to America. They said in America, we would be slaves. That’s what they had heard based on American history, but they didn’t know America had changed. My mother didn’t want to go. But I had been in Germany and I knew that America could be like Germany. It would be a place where someone with a handicap could still have dignity. I knew that wasn’t possible in Pakistan. I would have been a servant or beggar all my life in Pakistan,” says Farah.
She is not exaggerating. Landmines and cluster bombs continue to harm children like Farah in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and Palestine who, given the impoverished conditions of these nations, now live with few choices at ever having a normal life. These devices inflict damage long after wars are over. Further, according to recent estimates from the U.S. Committee for Refugees, there are 12 million refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world and 21 million internally displaced persons in need of protection and assistance. In 2005, more than three million people became newly uprooted from their homes and/or countries.
Injury, disability, internal displacement and then status as a refugee could certainly have led to the grim future Farah predicted for herself. Following interviews with the American Embassy in Pakistan, Farah and her mother were amongst the families choosen to be sent to America. At New York, some of the Afghani families were sent to California while Farah and her mother were put on a plane to Chicago. The resettlement agency receiving them in Chicago was World Relief. It turned out to be a bumpy, bewildering beginning, but also one that eventually connected Farah and Fatima with Alyce Litz.. A volunteer with Illinois-based World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency, Litz was to become Farah’s friend, mentor and guide in America, demonstrating that love can transcend boundaries of culture and faith. Alyce has been a mother-figure to Farah for the past five years and is also the founder of Helping Hands Inc., a refugee assistance organization for all faiths.
“As soon as I met Farah, I saw her determination,” says Alyce. She and her husband recognized the potential in Farah and decided to move Farah and her mother to a better school district where subsidized housing was available. “We knew if she attended Glenbard North, the school closest to where she lived, she’d go the refugee route. She’d be in school till sixteen and then be pulled out to go to work. I didn’t want that for her,” says Alyce.
“Alyce moved us to a subsidized apartment, and since we were still on a waiting list for it, she agreed to pay the $900 per month herself. She was that determined for me to go to a good school,” says Farah. As it happened, because they were in occupancy, under the regulations of the time, Farah and her mother were automatically moved to first position on the wait list. Their rent became affordable on their limited income from government aid.
When Farah arrived at school, she didn’t know her English alphabet and she was old enough to be placed in the ninth grade. The last time she had been at school was as a second grader, before she’d lost her leg and before she’d spent two years recovering in a German hospital.
Alyce found tutors to get Farah up to speed and with a few months of hard work, Farah was a high school freshman. “There are so many bright, deserving children out there. I really feel that all it takes is for someone to care enough to give them some support and allow them to realize their potential,” says Alyce.
With Alyce’s help, Farah’s potential was soon realized—when she graduated from high school and went on to college, she quickly made the Dean’s List.
“She happened to be very worried one day. She said the Dean had sent her a letter and that she was on the Dean’s List. In high school that meant a student was in trouble, but I explained to her that in college it was a good thing. She got all A’s and B’s and that’s why she was on the Dean’s List,” says Alyce with a smile.
The Other Side of the Sky is the story of a girl who has already lived several lifetimes, facing obstacles and setbacks most of us cannot imagine. Farah’s journey has led her to establish Farah’s Wings of Hope, a non-profit foundation that helps other amputees with their specific needs, a cause she remains devoted to.
Is she a millionaire off the sales of her book? Not quite. According to the rules of the Good Morning America contest, the winner would be paid $10,000 but royalties from the winning entry belong to the ABC producer who developed the idea for the contest. Farah is, however, entitled to proceeds from the books that she and Alyce sell themselves.
Today Farah Ahmedi is the Youth Ambassador of United Nations Group, Adopt-a-Minefield. She has been featured in Teen Magazine as one of “20 People Who Can Change the World.” She has also been called a modern day Anne Frank by the Weekly Reader. With all these achievements within her grasp, does she now have dreams or do the nightmares of the past remain?
This shy but accomplished young woman admits, “I am still a little afraid to dream but my message remains, ‘Never Give Up!’”
To make a contribution to Farah’s Wings of Hope or to order The Other Side of the Sky, visit http://www.farahsworld.com/. To learn more about Alyce Litz’ organization, Helping Hands Inc., write to Ajlitz@aol.com.