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Somali author and refugee shares her story at UWRF

September 28, 2016

This year’s Diversity and Inclusivity speaker series kicked off on Sept. 22 with two events detailing the firsthand story of a Somali refugee.

Habibo Haji, who is now a registered nurse at the Mayo Clinic, spoke about her experiences growing up in and ultimately fleeing from Somalia and her journey from shepherd to American citizen.

When Haji was 3 years old, her grandmother began training her as a shepherd. By the time she reached 4, Haji was trusted to handle the sheep and goats alone. This involved leaving in the morning, walking with the animals and returning approximately 14 hours later every day of the year.

“That was my school,” Haji said. “Where you go preschool, kindergarten, first grade, for me it was how to get through the day without getting attacked by boys, not losing the sheep or goats and not having them eaten by jackals or hyenas.”

Once Haji turned 7, she was given responsibility for the cows, which involved much longer trips, sometimes lasting months. Haji said that she was gone for extended periods of time twice before she turned 13. The role involved sleeping outside completely alone every night.

“Imagine being 12 and having to sleep outside every night and being afraid that you might be molested while you sleep,” Haji said.

Haji said that she made a rope and tied her feet and legs together to protect herself from being raped while asleep. She said that the goal was that if something did happen, she would wake up before the attacker finished untying the rope.

That was Haji’s life until 1993, when the civil war that had broken out in Somalia in 1991 reached her. She went to live with her mom, eventually ending up at the largest refugee camp in the world in Dadaab, Kenya. The civil war in Somalia is still ongoing, and the site now holds over 260,000 Somali refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Food was given out once every month, and Haji said that nights were difficult because they had to make sure no one took their things or attacked them. She said that she remembers her mother needing to buy milk for her sick brother and not having enough money.

Around that time, Haji was selected to come to the United States through the lottery process, which involves filling out paperwork and hoping that one gets chosen. Coming to the United States alone at age 16, Haji said that she was scared but knew that she could endure anything.

“I didn’t speak English. I didn’t have any money. I had no resources. One thing I had was me. I’ve always survived on myself since I was 4,” Haji said.

Haji initially worked as a dishwasher, but later took steps to further her education by getting her GED certificate and earning a college degree. She eventually moved from nursing assistant to registered nurse and now lives in Rochester, Minnesota, with her three children. Haji now is one of approximately 25,000 people with Somali ancestry living in Minnesota, according to 2010 information from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Jill Coleman Wasik, assistant professor of environmental science at UWRF, is part of Faculty Senate’s Diversity and Inclusivity Committee. She said that the committee, which organized the events along with Journey House Campus Ministry, chose immigration as a theme for this year’s speaker series.

Coleman Wasik said that it is easy to discuss the refugee crisis and people fleeing violence in the classroom because many students at UWRF are not directly affected by the events. She said that having Haji tell her story seemed like a good way to show the humanity of the situation.

“Bringing someone who has actually had these experiences, I think, can touch people in a different way,” Coleman Wasik said. “Instead of just reading news stories or hearing about it in a class or having to do some sort of reading or homework around it, you can talk to the person who’s actually experienced it.”

Coleman Wasik said that the committee may plan more events centered around sharing stories similar to Haji’s later this academic year.

Some audience members could relate to Haji’s story. Christopher Jurewitsch, a UWRF junior, said that he attended the presentation because he enjoys motivational speeches and events but ended up seeing some similarities to his own life.

“Both of my parents are immigrants,” Jurewitsch said. “My dad is originally from Germany and my mom was a refugee from Laos, and I figure I can kind of relate to her speech a little bit, being that both of my parents had to deal with a lot of the same situations that she had to.”

For others, Haji’s story was interesting. Kate Maiers, a junior, said that she went out of curiosity and to see what she could take away from it. Maiers spoke with Haji after the presentation and called her gracious.

Haji said that she believes there is always a way for people to achieve their goals and that people have to be persistent and look for it, even if it isn’t pleasant.

“There’s always a way. If you want something bad enough, you’ll find a way,” Haji said. “Just never give up, always be persistent and don’t be afraid to ask for help, because sometimes we think other people don’t care or won’t help, but you’d be surprised.”

Haji has written a book about her experiences, called “Conquering the Odds, Journey of a Shepherd Girl.”