Life as an Urban Refugee

Religious Diversity in the Safe House: Ramadan

This Wednesday marks the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic month of repentance, the most holy month in Muslim tradition. As many of Heshima Kenya’s participants observe Ramadan, we have been spending a lot of time preparing for how things will change with our schedules and programming. Through these discussions I have learned how difficult – and yet how important – it is to create a place of peace, safety, and respect for religious diversity, especially in Heshima Kenya’s Safe House. The girls who live in the Safe House come from a wide range of backgrounds. They are not only from different countries (such as Somalia, Ethiopia, DR Congo, and Rwanda) but from different religions, tribes, and families. On the other hand, they are all refugees and have very similar histories of violence and trauma. One always hopes that these girls can set aside their differences in recognition of their common pasts and current situations, yet in the face of practical concerns this is unfortunately not always the case.

For example, during the month of Ramadan, the girls who are observing must fast for a straight 13 hours throughout the day. They are able to eat but only after sundown and before dawn. Traditionally, the meal they eat after sundown is a feast of samosas, dates, juice, and rice. For all of the girls who live in the Safe House and mostly eat rice and beans, this is seen as a really special treat. So is it fair to only give these foods to the girls who observe Ramadan?

On the other hand, in a house where the girls are responsible for their own cooking, is it fair to the Muslim girls to have to cook samosas (since they are the only ones who know how to make them) for everyone, when they are the ones who have been fasting all day?

It may seem like a small and trivial matter, but this is a real issue that has been disputed and discussed over and over again by both the girls and the entire staff. If our goal is to create a place of peace, we can’t give something to one girl that we don’t provide for the entire group. We also can’t make divisions along religious lines. Therefore, we have to explain to the girls that while their religious observance and cultural customs are honored and valued, we also have to honor and value the community that we are trying to build at Heshima Kenya. It’s a fine balance that we are constantly trying to maintain.

Fatuma, the GEP coordinator at Heshima Kenya, explained to me that Ramadan is the time when you focus on being the best possible version of yourself. I hope that during Ramadan, despite our religious or cultural differences, we can all work towards being the best possible version of ourselves, to treat each other with respect and dignity.  True Heshima.

Bridging the Gap: A Rights Training with Ethiopian Women

Living in Westlands, Nairobi, my neighborhood is filled with expats and fancy malls. However, on June 24, 2010 I boarded my first matatu (a 14 passenger van that is the common form of public transportation around here) and met Anne, the SGBV Training Coordinator, to go to Kariobangi, a large slum about an hour away where many Ethiopian refugees currently reside. Once we arrived, I followed Anne through a short maze of small tin houses and shops, past men building wooden furniture and selling candies & phone cards. We entered a meeting hall with two windows and no lights, so we left the door open in order to see. There, we waited. Anne informed me that she had scheduled a Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) training for 8:30 am, which meant that the women in the community would not be getting there until around 9:30 am. This is because the women who would be joining us that morning have several children and several mouths to feed, with barely any means to provide for them. Even if they got up at dawn to do all of the household chores, clean the house, and find and prepare food for their children, it would be extremely difficult for them to all find a way to be at the same place at the same time.

Slowly, women started to trickle into the meeting hall until the room was packed with around thirty Oromo Ethiopian refugee women. They all shook my hand and said "Habari" (How are you?) but Anne explained to me that many of the women actually speak Oromo or Amharic, the national and native languages of Ethiopia, so Anne would be giving the training in Swahili and a few of the women would be translating for the rest of them.

Anne started the training by asking the women if they knew the meaning of Sexual and Gender Based Violence. At first it was difficult because there is no direct translation for "gender" in Oromo or Amharic, but once Anne explained it the answers came pouring out: rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence. Anne then went on to explain that there were several different types of violence that the women may not even think of as SGBV. For example, she asked the women if they had ever heard of marital rape. She informed them that when a husband forces his wife to have intercourse, even when she is feeling very sick, it could be considered a form of sexual violence. When the women first heard this they were a little taken aback, because they said that many people in their community consider it to be the wife’s duty to always say “yes” to her husband, no matter the circumstance. However, one woman talked about how every night she hears her neighbor crying because her husband forces himself upon her. As the conversation progressed, all of the women began to recognize that sexual violence comes in many different forms.

Anne asked the women what they do when they hear about, see, or experience such forms of violence. Most of the women shrugged their shoulders. Several participants said that they know they are supposed to go to the hospital to get tested and treated, but the hospital costs too much money and is too far away. Anne said she gets this response a lot. “Most people do not know that there are free medical services available and that hospitals do not charge for testing or treatment related to SGBV. They know they are supposed to go to a hospital but they do not know what kinds of help they can actually get.” Therefore, Anne handed out brochures in Swahili, Oromo, and Amharic with a list of all of the places they could go to along with the services that each place provides. This was the key to Anne’s training. When the women were asked about the most important thing they learned that day, virtually every person said it was where to go, what to do, and who to call in the case of SGBV.

Another thing they learned was the importance of not keeping quiet when they or another member of their community experiences SGBV. While it may be difficult for one woman to stand up against her husband or another man, the women who were meeting that morning could collectively protect each other by not letting any incidence of SGBV go unnoticed and by helping other members of their community get help. They would be the eyes, ears, and support for each other, not only to protect themselves but women in the future from ever becoming victims.

Empowering women to prevent themselves from SGBV is not as clear cut as knowing to speak up and seek help, however. One of the women brought up an important issue to all of them: the tension between having to provide for your family and needing to protect yourself from violence. She said a common place women have been threatened with SGBV is when they are looking for jobs. Often, getting a job means having to offer your body along with the work you had originally signed up to do. In addition, since many of the women do not speak fluent Swahili or English, they find it difficult to stand up for themselves against sexual exploitation in the workforce. Anne once again brought up the power of community. “Look outside,” she said, “you see the men selling candies and making chapatis on the corner? You could do something like that!” She said that she understood how easy it is to feel defeated and overburdened by just trying to survive, but she has seen women come together in the past and she knows it can happen with these women as well.

After the training, every woman stayed after to speak with Anne in private about their own personal experiences. I was shocked to hear from Anne that most of the women approached her because they had been victims of gender based violence themselves. Even though we had stayed for two hours longer than we were supposed to, Anne listened to each one patiently, gave referrals for counseling, and promised to follow up with the most difficult cases. On the bus ride back, I marveled at Anne’s patience and devotion to her work, but it wasn’t until I looked at the photos I had taken that morning that I noticed how her face lights up when she is giving her trainings. I think this is partly because she is so good at what she does, but mostly I think it is because she knows that these trainings are giving women necessary tools to protect themselves and their community from one of the most common – and most atrocious – forms of violence that both women and men, and particularly refugees, experience today. -- Sasha

The Power of Music

Music plays such a big role in my everyday life. Growing up in a Muslim family, my mother never fails to remind me about how haram (forbidden) it is. I often get laughed at for wearing big ear phones over my hijab or going to concerts, but it helps me get through certain things occurring in my life. Music causes me to bring out emotions I didn’t know even existed. I often leave my iPod on shuffle, allowing for random songs to be selected and within 20 minutes, I can feel excited, sad, happy and angry. When I was getting ready to leave for Nairobi I made sure my iPod was updated with the most recent music by my favourite artists. Until now, I’ve never been to Kenya so I really had no idea what the music was like here. I expected everyone here would be listening to local Kenyan singers. My first few days here were exactly as I had predicted. The majority of the cab drivers played music I didn’t understand.

About a week into my arrival in Kenya, I started interning at Heshima. After getting the run down on how everything goes and what I would be doing there, I had the opportunity to begin interacting with the girls. After asking me my name, where I came from and if I had a boyfriend, the girls asked me if I liked music. I explained to them that “like” was an understatement. Within an hour of getting to know the girls my ideas revolving around Kenya and music were proven wrong. The girls were so up to date with the music in North America, I was quite shocked. Girls who could barely speak English, knew every single word of Justin Beiber’s songs. It put the biggest smile on my face. I knew the girls and I were going to form a great relationship over the next couple of months.

As I got to know each of the girls more and more everyday, I began to see how important music is in each of their lives. The way they brighten up when talking about their favourite song, or the way they start to blush when talking about how cute they think Chris Brown is. It’s crazy to see how people use and interpret music in different ways. Personally, I use music to help me study, get me through a workout at the gym, or to help me fall asleep. The girls at Heshima Kenya seem to use it for something totally different.  They spend the majority of the day within their circle of friends; whether they are in the classroom, doing tailoring, or having lunch. But I have noticed that when talking or listening to music, the girls all come together. It really is such an unbelievable thing to see a group of girls, from different countries, who speak different dialects, and have different problems, connect through the power of music!

Along with the ability to create friendships, I feel like music truly helps the girls who are going through a complicated time in their lives. By turning up the volume on the CD player and dancing with their friends, I sense the girls use music to escape their struggles and dilemmas. It helps reduce their stress levels by allowing them to forget their problems and just have fun. It creates unity amongst the girls, bringing them together, and making them feel like they all belong. I always knew music was something potent, but the girls really prove how powerful a device music can really be!

-Amal Absiye