Ngozi was a pretty girl with fine, delicate features and a dazzling smile. She was a happy girl and truly loved school. Her favorite subject was science and she read as much as she could at school because she did not have any books at home. Ngozi grew up in a Somali village until the age of nine. That was when the rebels came. They tore through, destroying the simple patch homes with fire, slaughtering innocence and driving out her family. Upon returning from school, Ngozi found her burning home but not her parents and siblings. Along with other schoolchildren and the few adults who dared come back to collect scattered belongings, she fled on foot away from all she had ever known. She walked and walked, frightened and unsure of where her steps led her. Days later temporary lodging was found and a terrified Ngozi was given to a family who agreed that she may stay with them until she could be reunited with her family. As the days passed, she often remembered her mother, sister, classmates and missed going to school. She remained with her adoptive “family” and in exchange for their generosity, she was required to care for the younger children, do laundry and help with cooking. She was not permitted to attend school or read. To comfort herself, she made a small doll to look like her mother out of leaves and straw. At the age of 12, as payment towards her servitude, Ngozi was forced into prostitution. She was unclean and therefore forced to sleep outside of the hut ruled by her adoptive father. By 14, she was in a violent arranged marriage which later gave to her a daughter of her own.
Ngozi and I met when she was about 19; her chubby cheeked daughter just a toddler. They had arrived to the U.S. only two weeks before with her husband. Upon arrival, an apartment had been secured for them in the same community as the husband’s family. This is common practice in refugee resettlement as it typically ensures a more successful resettlement process. However for Ngozi any dream she had of a better life, away from the camps was stolen from her. She had been kicked out of the home by her husband and forced to fend for herself. We had never seen this happen in our work before, but there she stood, a small torn suitcase in one hand and the other wrapped in her daughter’s tiny fingers. As a refugee, the agency with which I worked was able to provide some basic support services to Ngozi. However the help was minimal and it was imperative that she find work. Unsure of just how to handle the situation, Ngozi was brought to my office by her caseworker to see if I could arrange for special assistance. She stood quietly with her head down, not looking up to greet my eyes. She was slight of frame and it was a struggle to support the bustling activity of her very active little one. Ngozi did speak some English and in an attempt to converse with her, I asked if I could give her daughter a toy and lollipop. The child began playing on the floor, freeing Ngozi’s tired arms. I had lunch delivered for us and the look on her face was quite comical when she held the chicken and vegetable spinach wrap sandwich and fruit smoothie. She had never eaten green bread and looked at it skeptically. However she was hungry and within minutes the lunch had been completely consumed. The next order of business was locating an apartment for her. Concerned for Ngozi’s safety, I was able to find a one room apartment in the same community where I lived. This would remove her completely from the Somali community but provide someone she knew close by in case of retaliation or other emergency.
We were separated in age by only a few years. Somehow this provided her some comfort and her story began to unfold. As she spoke, her long, graceful fingers would sweep the delicate features of her face in shame. I remember thinking how beautiful her hands were considering the struggle that bound them. She was bright, hopeful…even in the face of all she experienced. She dreamed of becoming a teacher. For three months she lived as my neighbor. A few times a week, often late at night, I would hear a slight tapping on my door. Ngozi would stand there, always with an apology for disturbing me, although it never was a disturbance. Her daughter had a severe diaper rash, or she was unsure how to work the oven or she needed help understanding forms for medical and food assistance. I often saw her sweeping…sweeping not only her apartment in absence of a vacuum cleaner, but sweeping the stoop of the entire row of apartments that surrounded hers. As she swept, she would hum. Upon seeing me she would wave her hand with a shining smile. It is really quite amazing…the power of the human spirit to overcome extreme adversity and still smile so genuinely.
Her public assistance ran out and after trying for a few months to find work and take care of her child without any support, sadly Ngozi fell back into the violence of her husband’s home. Overwhelmed, hungry, without food or a job to provide money, she felt there was no other way. Unfortunately there was nothing more the agency could provide to her. The last time I saw her, she still hoped that one day she would find her parents and siblings and return to school. She still hoped.
Ngozi’s story is common to many women and children around the globe and here in our very own communities. I hope reading her story has made you think and want to take action. For more information and ways you can make a difference, go to: http://www.un.org/en/women/endviolence/index.shtml
The first step in building a society free from domestic abuse and violence is to take action rather than step back. Speak out against violence happening in your community.