In Northern Kenyan refugee camp, Ethiopian single mom finds her strength

Sadia Happi Sora has become a leader Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya. Photo by Becky Palmstrom

Seventy-five thousand refugees moved to the U.S. in 2009, many settling here in the Bay to make a new life in America. But, before they arrive, here many lived in refugee camps for years. Some refugees spend their entire life in camps that were meant to be temporary. Reporter Becky Palmstrom visited one such refugee camp in northern Kenya, and she’s been bringing us stories from the crowded makeshift community – at least 50,000 people live in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya. That’s where Palmstrom met a young woman from Ethiopia, named Sadia Happi. Happi has been in the camp for almost three years now, and she’s only 19 years old, but she’s already become a community leader among the Oromo – a tribal group from Ethiopia. Here’s her story.

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BECKY PALMSTROM: On a burning Sunday afternoon we’re drinking sweet tea under a canopy of orange and blue cloth inside Sadia Happi’s home.  

SADIA HAPPI: I’m Sadia Happi Sora. I’m from Ethiopia.   

Happi cranks the music up on her mobile phone so she and her three-year-old son, Siad, can dance together. It’s a rare moment of leisure for the 19-year-old. Typically her home is full of women stopping by to ask for advice. And Happi is quick to give it.  

HAPPI: Don’t just sit there saying that I don’t have anything, my future is gone. No there’s nothing like that. You stand up. You look for your future. I just want to advise people outside there, women like me – don’t give up, the future is bright.

Optimism is in short supply here like so many things. Although refugee camps are supposed to be havens – Happi knows all too well the reality of life here in Kakuma.

HAPPI: Coming to Kakuma, I don’t want to lie. Life is difficult.

Under Kenyan law it is illegal for refugees to work for a real wage, own property, or even leave the camp without a permit. The UN agencies and NGO offices are behind a walled compound, inaccessible and intimidating to most of the refugees. But in the same way Happi taught herself English, Kiswahili and Somali – she’s also learned the structures of the camp – and how to get things done here.  

HAPPI: I can’t just sit, waiting for somebody to give me food and what.

She offers her home and sometimes her own money and food to the women who turn to her. That’s one of the reasons two years ago others from her tribal group, the Oromos, voted for her to represent them.  

HAPPI: I never ignore people, even if it is a small kid I listen to him or her.

The vote made her one of two Oromo “community leaders.” They’re official positions, recognized by the United Nations, which runs this camp of 75,000 people. Happi and the elected male leader resolve disputes over land, marriage, and child custody. If there are problems between the Oromos and the Somalians, or the Congolese, or any of the 14 other nationalities, she and her colleague are brought in. But most of all, Happi believes she is there to represent and fight for women.

HAPPI: What I am fighting for is that other women are not being destroyed in the camp.

Rape and domestic violence are commonplace – women often come to her for protection. So Happi advises other Muslim women about their husbands, but she has no husband of her own. She tells mothers what they should do with their teenage daughters, but at 19, she is still a teenager herself. She just has a year or two of schooling. And most surprising of all, she was voted in as the community leader even though she is a single mother – something that is shunned in Oromo society. Being one of the leaders doesn’t shield Happi from that criticism.  

HAPPI: People insult you, people abuse you. Right now I am called a prostitute in the camp. It hurts me, but he is my son. I carried him nine months. I can’t deny.

Calling single mothers prostitutes is pretty standard in the camp.  

HAPPI: If someone asks me, “Who is the father of your son?” I say, “There was a time I got married. I got divorced.” So that people will not know I was raped. I hide this. It is shame.  

Happi was 15 when she says she was gang raped in a prison in Ethiopia.  

HAPPI: I thought, I am dead. I thought I am dead. Those guys are not human.

Her attackers were government officials looking for rebels fighting against the state – but Happi was just a schoolgirl.  

HAPPI: And from there, I found myself to be pregnant. I don’t know where to start. I’m pregnant. I was 15.

She was dumped at her ransacked and empty home. She feared the men would return for her, so she took a bus to the border with money lent by her neighbors. From there she hitchhiked to Nairobi to work as a maid. Several months later she came to the camp. You almost never hear people talk about their past here; instead, they address cultural taboos through music. In a dusty courtyard in the sweltering heat a group of Congolese men are singing in Kiswahili about HIV and AIDS. The infections are widespread in the camp and it’s hard to contain them. While everyone in the camp receives food rations from the UN – it’s hard to get other basics such as clothes, mattresses, or enough firewood to cook for the whole month. That’s why some women turn to prostitution.

HAPPI: Women in the camp are very, very vulnerable so they depend on their private parts. I know it hurts, but we need to come out and speak.

Women rent their body for as little as 50 cents – enough for a meal, milk for a child, a piece of soap, or a few onions. But the men usually refuse to use condoms, so it often leads to HIV/AIDS – which is why songs like this are so popular.

HAPPI: Many of us are dying of HIV. I just come out and say this.

Happi doesn’t just sing about the difficulties for women here. She names them publicly, and she hopes that will inspire other women to do the same.

HAPPI: That’s why I said, “The world is cruel,” but I never give up. My future is still bright.

Happi says she can understand vulnerable people because of her own experience – and in a way that is a gift.

HAPPI: But one day I hope I’ll be out of this camp. And help and stand and fight for human right.

Happi applied for asylum in America, but she’s still waiting for it to come through. And while she waits, she says she will keep speaking out.

For Crosscurrents, I’m Becky Palmstrom. 

This story originally aired on Deutsche Welle Radio. It aired on KALW News on April 12, 2011.