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By Lane Hartill
In a shaft of sunlight streaming in the door of the mud shack, the teenager looks serene, almost angelic. The shawl over her head, her graceful downcast face, the baby in her arms; the scene looks like a Michelangelo sculpture. The young woman gently shifts her sleeping baby on her lap, a tiny two-month girl in a green shirt and a swish of black hair.
Isnino Adan, and her daughter, Habibo, are serenity itself.
But then you start to notice things. There’s a subtle shell-shocked air about Isnino, her brown eyes are wide and unblinking. She talks in short staccato bursts, as if she just wants to get it over with. You learn the sheet on her bed is actually the wrap she was wearing when she gave birth, the same material she used to wrap newborn Habibo. When she tries to smile, it’s lopsided and awkward, like she hasn’t done it in a while.
Habibo, you discover, is something of a miracle.
Isnino, the teen mom in front of me, is another.
Isnino shifts Habibo in her arms, recrosses her legs, laces her toes together and gently recounts the horror that has been her life.
She grew up in Bu’aale, a town in Middle Juba, a region that was once the breadbasket of Somalia. It produced everything from sorghum to papayas. But in recent years, conflict and drought forced thousands to flee.
Isnino’s childhood was marked by one tragedy after another. Just as Isnino was entering her teens, the time a girl needs her mom more than ever, her father divorced her mother. She clashed with her new step mother. And then, when she was 13 years old, her father married her off to a man she couldn’t stand. Not long after, she became pregnant.
As Isnino reveals the facts of her life, each one more awful than the last, you shift uncomfortably, trying to understand how someone so gentle could have survived such torment. But the worst has yet to come; Isnino is just getting started.
* * *
Sitting next to Isnino in the mud shack is Ibrahim, a wiry 48 year old. At first glance, he looks like a typical male refugee in Dadaab camp, wearing a sarong—the typical attire for Somali men—and old sandals that are blown out at the seams. He wouldn’t stand out from the hundreds of thousands who live here near the border of Somalia and Kenya.
But Isnino sees him as a savior, someone who cares for her in a way her own father never did. Ibrahim gives her what few people have: attention and respect. Two things that have been in short supply in her life.
* * *
Ibrahim’s story is similar to thousands of men in Dadaab. He dropped out of school when he was 10 years old and spent his teen years raising cattle, goats and camels in Somalia. But in the early 1990s, when Somalia devolved into chaos, Ibrahim’s wife and three children all fell ill and died. When the fighting became too intense, and the baked earth couldn’t support his animals anymore, he left for Kenya.
He got a job selling chickens in Dadaab refugee camp, home to 440,000 refugees. On a good day, he makes a dollar or two a day. After a day in the market, he returns to his compound, a sandy courtyard surrounded by a fence of thorn bushes. A few mud shacks and a kitchen made of sticks and wallpapered with old cardboard boxes is home. A blackboard is propped up against a wall where he teaches his children—four sons and a daughter—the few lessons he remembers from grade school.
Ibrahim doesn’t have much. But he’s got something many men lack: a way with kids. His love for children strikes you as soon as you meet him. They climb on him like kittens, grabbing his shirt, lolling in his lap and using his lap and sarong as a swinging hammock. But he’s no pushover. He parents. In the middle of an interview, he shushes one child, disciplines another, and, without missing a beat, picks up with the interview again.
Ibrahim is one of 350 foster parents in Dadaab who work with Save the Children. He has been fostering two other children placed with him a few years ago, and has now opened his home to Isnino. Helping children is in his blood: His parents—who he credits with making him the man he is today—took in and raised 12 children when Ibrahim was a boy. That was in addition to nine children of their own.
“It doesn’t matter if you are Christian or Muslim,” he says. “If you see someone suffering, you need to intervene.”
* * *
When Ibrahim saw Isnino, there was no question she was suffering.
The nightmare started a few months ago. She fled Bu’aale when the city ran out of food or water. A few months pregnant and out of options, she escaped from her husband and went in search of her mother. For weeks she wandered, living off of water from streams, a few leaves, and food she begged from nomads. She roamed for weeks, thinking about her mother and worried about her future.
With a growing belly, no sign of her mom and a country dissolving into chaos, Isnino knew her only hope of survival was getting to Dadaab, the massive refugee camp in Kenya. But the route to Dadaab had become a gauntlet. Bandits stalked the road, stealing possessions and killing travelers.
“All I was thinking about was saving my life,” she says.
It was dangerous for her and the group she was travelling with to stand on the road and flag down a passing vehicle. It made them easy targets for thieves. So Isnino and her group spent days in the bush well off the road, passing themselves off as nomads. They would send a single person to the road in the evenings in the hopes of flagging down a truck.
When a truck finally pulled over, the hidden group quickly piled in. The truck was dangerously overcrowded truck. Isnino wasn’t sure how far along she was in her pregnancy, but her belly was big. Still, she filtered down to the bottom of the truck. As the driver sped through the night on the uneven road, it jounced and slammed people into Isnino’s abdomen. There was no room to move so she took the pounding, hoping it would soon be over.
“People were sitting on top of each other,” Isnino says. “They were vomiting and defecating; there was an awful smell.”
The passengers were so tightly jammed, Isnino says, that someone died. It may have been from suffocation. She’s not sure. She just focused on keeping herself and her baby alive.
For two days and two nights they traveled like this, a pile of humanity roaring toward freedom. But Isnino wasn’t thinking about her new life. She just wanted the trip to be over with.
Someone was sitting on top of her stomach, crushing her unborn child. She realized at one point, her baby had stopped moving. She thought it might have died. At that point, she just hoped she survived the journey.
Around noon on the last day of the trip, the truck approached the town of Dhobley, near the Kenyan border. Maybe it was the pain in the rest of her body, or her mind’s ability to block it out, but Isnino never felt the contractions.
“There was a man sitting next to me was shouting that this girl is giving birth,” she says. “ ‘We need to help her’, he said. But nobody noticed.”
In the back of that filthy overcrowded truck, without the privacy of a hospital or the help of a midwife, Isnino pulled Habibo screaming into the world.
She had no water to wash her newborn. She took the skirt she was wearing, wrapped Habibo in it, and did her best to protect her from the refugees piled around her.
Ibrahim was in a meeting with when he got the call. He rushed to the reception center and picked up Isnino and Habibo and accompanied them back to his house. He made them as comfortable as possible, letting the two sleep under a blue mosquito net. He gave Isnino a few of his wife’s old dresses. They didn’t really fit, but Isnino was thankful.
It’s been a few months since Isnino has been with Ibrahim and his family. In the cool of the evenings, after dinner, Ibrahim and Isnino talk about her life. Isnino opens up a little more each night. Those years of anguish slowly come out. Ibrahim just listens, offering advice where he can.
Isnino feels comfortable here. She plays with Ibrahim’s children and has already become a member of the family.
She’s even started calling Ibrahim father, and he treats her like his daughter.
Best of all, her smile is starting to work again.