Why is always a good question to ask either before, during, or after we embark on a project or journey. It brings clarity and understanding. It helps to keep asking this to make sure we're putting our energy into the right things. Why are we doing this? What is the purpose? Try it sometime - ask yourself WHY before launching into a new venture.
When asked why we go to Somalia, or really anywhere in the world, the answer is simple. Love. That may seem too elementary, but love is actually the truest explanation for why we spend our time flying to some of the most dangerous places in the world to try to change even just one life. Love is the reason I met Hannah, and her story has left an unremovable stamp on my heart.
Last September, we landed in Mogadishu, Somalia with our bullet proof vests packed in our luggage, ready to put on as soon as we picked them up from baggage claim. We headed out of the airport in our dark, window tinted SUV surrounded by guards with guns and made our way, jet lagged and excited, to our safe house in the middle of the war torn, bomb riddled city. We passed a sink hole in the pavement from a car bomb earlier that morning and it reminded us that for so many this is place of constant fear and sleepless nights. The terrorist group Al-Shabab had attacked the presidential palace, killing 20 people. It felt like we were going in slow motion as we passed the wreckage and rubble, surrounded by soldiers, tanks, and so many guns.
When we arrived at our safe house, our friends Fartuun and Ilwad greeted us with hugs and so much joy. They live in Mogadishu and run our safe house, among many other incredible projects. Together, we have the only safe house for women and children in Somalia who have been victims of gender based violence. All of the girls had been through heartbreaking experiences. Many of them were forced to marry old men or experienced traumatic rape or abuse living in IDP (internally displaced people) camps.
Despite their stories, they have these deep wells full of joy and a sense of resilience. They have been through the worst, and they know they can survive. Even though I can see the pain in their eyes it's the joy that I can't miss. It’s the combination of the two that makes this place and these girls so unforgettable.
One of the girls in particular stands out in my mind. Hannah's story changed everything for me. The first time she caught my eyes she was with her son, Matthew. He was just learning to walk and she protectively held his hands as he tilted back and forth on his little legs, laughing the whole time. I realized suddenly that she was speaking English, and had a British accent. My curiosity got the best of me so I asked her to come sit with us and she began sharing her story.
It started two years ago. She was a typical girl, living in London. Like many kids, she didn’t always get along with her parents. Her mom thought she was too westernized, too wild. One day, her mom said she had a surprise for Hannah - they were going to go to Dubai on holiday! Naturally, Hannah was thrilled. She had to get a new passport, and her mom held on to it for safe-keeping.
They got on the plane and headed out for their adventure. Hannah slept on the red-eye flight and when she woke up, groggy with jet lag, her mom said they’d arrived. The airport seemed smaller than she expected, and suddenly, she realized something was wrong. They hadn’t flown to Dubai after all, but to Mogadishu, Somalia. "What in the world are we doing here?" Hannah asked her mom. She got no answer. Instead, they got in a taxi outside the airport and headed into the city. Hannah was greeted by the same sights as me on my first time to Mogadishu; rubble, guns, masks and tanks. But unlike me, Hannah didn’t have guards or a bullet proof vest or even an understanding of why she was there. She was disoriented and terrified. Her mother refused to answer her questions. The only thing she said to her was “It’s time for you to grow up.” Finally, they pulled up to a small, crumbling house and got out. An old man came out of the house and motioned them in with an impatient wave and they walked into the living room where an older lady sat.
Her mother turned to her and spoke the words that would completely shatter Hannah's life; "Hannah, meet your new husband."
From that point on, Hannah's life was torture. What seems unreal and baffling and impossible to me was just her daily reality. The day before her 14th birthday, she was forced to marry a 50 year old man who raped her and beat her regularly. She tried to call her mom to save her, but her mom changed her cell phone number and flew back to London with her passport. Before long, Hannah realized she was pregnant. She was also slowly starving. Given no food by her new husband and her mother in law, who made her work around the house and beg in the streets, Hannah was a shadow of the girl she used to be. She gave birth to her baby, a son, who she named Matthew, and suddenly life was even more terrifying. How could she love and take care of her baby in this environment?
Desperate, Hannah began finding ways to reach out to anyone who might help. It was difficult in the age when you don’t memorize people’s numbers anymore, don’t have access to internet or wifi or a phone, and have been living in a traumatic state for a year. But finally, she was able to connect with a friend back home, who then called the embassy in Mogadishu. They found Hannah and called us to help. We jumped in and brought Hannah into the safe house as quickly as possible, along with Matthew, now a year old. While Hannah’s husband does not know where she is because the safe house is in a concealed location, he somehow tracked down the phone number of Fartuun, who runs the safe house. Daily, he would call and threaten her, but she stood her ground. She doesn’t care when people threaten her - not when she has the more important job of protecting these girls.
Eventually, with a lot of care, rest, counseling, and regular food, Hannah has regained her girlish laugh and tentative but growing sense of joy and resilience. She’s been at the home for 9 months now, and Matthew just turned two. She tells her story with a lot of hand motions and a sparkle in her eyes. Pain flashes across her face periodically when relaying the details or her story, but then she brightens again and the joy comes back, along with a very evident sense of gratitude. She is thankful for her life, and her son’s life.
At the end of her story, I sit there for a few minutes, not knowing what to say. I think about all the people who give, even if it’s a little bit, to make this all possible. Suddenly, every effort is made so worthwhile. I feel energized to keep on with this work, knowing it’s actually having an impact - a huge one.
A few months after our visit to Mogadishu, we were finally able to get Hannah and her son new passports, and they returned to London. Now, Hannah lives in a home with other young moms, continuing the process of returning to a normal life. "A normal life," she says, laughing, "would be to just been a single mom, work, and take care of my baby. That’s all I want." I asked her if she would see her mom again, and she said she didn’t know. "Maybe someday, but not yet. Not yet."
Love is the reason any of this is possible. Love can get so confused and derailed - the love of a mother, so twisted and heartbreaking, created this nightmare of a story for Hannah. But her courage, and the love for her own son made her fight for their lives. The love of Fartuun and Ilwad, who have fearlessly dedicated their lives to help girls like Hannah, is making such a difference in the world. The love of her sisters in the home who welcomed her and cared for her like their own. The love of you, who have supported what we do, trusting us to these incredibly valuable things, so far away.
It’s your love of people you’ve never met which creates a beautiful picture of hope and courage. That's a good enough why for me.