Hawa, a new Muslim, newly wed and ready to take on the world, set out to Ethiopia with her husband for their first adventure together. She was nervous and nearly two months pregnant at the time but she was eager to meet her brother who had moved there a few months earlier. The butterflies churned in her stomach as she landed but any nerves quickly dissipated as she was overwhelmed with joy on meeting her family. Her home there was surrounded with peace and love, sharing her happiness of newly wed bliss with her family; her hopes and fears for her soon to be child. Little did Hawa realise, just how things would drastically change – unbeknown to her, war was imminentâ€¦
Hawa’s dream quickly descended into a nightmare as war broke out with a neighbouring country. Hawa, her husband and a group of foreigners were rushed away, being told women and men would need to be separated in order to reach safety. Hawa said goodbye to her beloved husband, looking at him, for the very last time, for comfort; she recalls her night of departure:
“You saw all these sisters crying and crying with their husbandsâ€¦ I felt so numb. He said to me softly, ‘Fear Allah and you will be okay, we will see each other at the border.'”
Hawa looked at the women before her, all of them looked so vulnerable, an American sister caught her eye. She was ill, with a seven month year old, five year old girl and nine year old boy and saying goodbye to her husband. How would she make it through this journey? Hawa thought to herself.
With the sound of gun shots and screaming filling the air, Hawa was rushed into a mini bus with a group of women, all of whom were pregnant or with children. The windows were shattered and the door broken, as Hawa curled up in a corner and began to pray.
“It was a horrible journey and one sister had a miscarriage. It was through the bushes with heavy bumps. The heat was intense. There was no food or drink, and kids were crying and vomiting.”
They continued the journey for another twelve hours to another town when they were informed it was Eid al Adha. The town was flooded and with no alternative, Hawa and the sisters stopped to drink dirty water. With cans of tuna in their hands, they laughed at the ‘Qurbani tuna’ before them.
“I felt really vulnerable without my husband; looking back I don’t know how I handled it. You know when you feel completely powerless? Because there is a situation and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Either it was this, or death.”
Back into the ‘mini-van’, Hawa and the other women continued their journey. Suddenly, they could hear the terrifying sound of helicopters and bullets flying around them. The man driving yelled for them to get out of the car. They ran and hid in some bushes. When the helicopters disappeared, they made their way back into the bus. Hawa looked at the American sister again; by now, she was hallucinating, calling out to her husband, her eyes wide and her body shaking. “Where’s my husband, where’s my husband?!” She pleaded to know. Her nine year old son, Abdul Rahman, was alert and awake, standing guard over his mother and baby sisters. The American sister’s condition was deteriorating, when sleep eventually overcame Abdurrahman. As he drifted off, she began to say to him, ‘I love you, I love you’, then she said to her daughter, ‘I love you’, then turning and looking into the distance, she called out to her husband.
Hawa took her baby off her and asked the brother to stop the car. The sister was losing her mind, as soon as she was taken out of the truck her breathing began to slow, Hawa was panicking; no one knew how to resuscitate and before she knew it, this American sister, whom she was acquainted with for such a brief period of time, breathed her lastâ€¦
Hawa was broken, she was crying out and confused. But with so little time to grieve, Hawa took responsibility of the sisters’ three children. Her son Abdul Rahman kept asking Hawa, ‘Where is my mum?’ Hawa tried to reassure him that she was in a car that was ahead of them and that she would soon meet them at the border. But Abdul Rahman had matured beyond his years; he nodded, realising that that his mother had departed from this world.
With no time to stop, they set off again, but this time, the car got stuck in a flood and the sisters had to continue their journey on foot. The heat of the sun was bearing down on them, insects stinging them, the kids screaming and crying. They ate dry rice and drank flood water. They rested during the day and continued their journey on foot at night.
“When we got to the border, I pretended to be the kids’ mum. The little girl started to get confused and called me Mum but her brother would reassure her that she is our pretend mum. The little one had a nappy rash and couldn’t sleep.”
Suddenly, Hawa, the sisters and the children were ambushed by African and American soldiers.
“A group of African troops surrounded us and we started to repeat the shahada (declaration of faith), we thought this was it, we are going to die. They ordered the youngest of them to squat down to shoot us. They shot my friend who was five months pregnant in the back”.
They grabbed Hawa’s money and gold and put all of the women aboard a helicopter to their base in Kenya.
“All of these soldiers were staring at us, ‘These are the terrorists’, they said. I was terrified that I would be raped.”
Hawa was imprisoned for five days upon landing. On the fifth day, they dragged her out and tried to separate her from the children telling her they would be taken to the American embassy. The children began to scream, Hawa began to fight with all her might to stay with them. But they dragged her, kicking and screaming away from the children. She was blindfolded, handcuffed and placed in an airport where everyone else was sitting on the floor, subject to the same treatment. When she got off, she discovered she was back in Somalia again, only to face utter humiliation and intense psychological torture.
“I thought they’d bought us there to kill us. They put us in a small, dusty room with dozens of women and kids. There was no food for the first 24 hours.”
Then the humiliation began. The women were searched, insulted, shoved, their veils pulled off, as they were filmed.
“They just kept accusing us of being terrorists. They would film us and ask, ‘why did you become Muslim? Who in their right mind would believe in God? You fell in love with a terrorist!!’ It was just torture.”
Finally, after being moved again to Ethiopia, where she was detained for a further three months, Hawa was questioned by MI5, eventually released and put into a hotel.
With no passport and heavily pregnant, Hawa clung to the hope of her husband’s arrival. Perhaps he was delayed? Perhaps he had been arrested like me? Hawa thought. But just twelve weeks after her daughter’s birth, Hawa heard the heart breaking news that her beloved husband had passed away. Unquestionably the most difficult years of Hawa life, she was in a foreign land where she didn’t know the language, without her passport and had just lost her husband. With no one else to turn to, Hawa called up her non-Muslim father and let everything out. He was devastated to hear how her ‘new life’ had led her into an abyss. Her application for a passport was not accepted for three years, after which, she was finally able to return to the UK.
When Hawa returned to live with her sister, she felt like a burden. Emotionally fragile and vulnerable, with a three year old in tow, she was overwhelmed with helplessness and wholly dependent on others.
“It was the most depressing time. Everything seemed so different here, I was so stressed out and I felt like a burden.”
Finally, Hawa came to learn about HHUGS, who were able to step in immediately and provide Hawa with the emotional support and empowerment she so desperately needed.
“The sister I was speaking to really helped. She was there when I needed her, she was a beautiful sisterâ€¦ She would call me, we’d meet up, go to coffee mornings. Looking for work, applying for benefits, whenever I needed anything, I would contact her and she would be there.HHUGS was a relief in a lot of ways.” After assessing Hawa’s financial situation, HHUGS could see that she was in urgent need of financial support:
“HHUGS paid for my debt which was a huge relief, they helped me with home schooling, with rent, with purchasing furniture. They sent me monthly vouchers which lifted a massive burden off my chest. When HHUGS helped me, I could pay my bills. It was just such a relief. It was much – so much more than what I had expected.”
After a traumatic childhood, growing up without her father, HHUGS provided educational support to ensure that Hawa’s daughter Yusra would flourish.
“Her father, he said I need to make sure she is trained with good mannerisms and confidence in her faith and identity. The support from HHUGS helped a lot, it made it a lot easier, as she was born in Africa, to come here to a new place, encounter a new language. Being amongst Muslims made it really easy for her to adjust, with her hijab. Her father had only left some savings and we could no longer afford the school. When she began public school someone said, ‘you can’t stay with us because we’re allergic to Muslims’. It affected her deeply, and in turn, me. We both took it really hard. She understood their taunts, she didn’t feel herself. Academically, I could see she was failing. She was always a really bright girl at school, but when she started the local school she was really falling behind. I thought she had a problem, I even wondered if she was dyslexic or something?
Now she’s in a new school, it’s amazing, alhamdullilah, I’ve never seen her so free and happy, such a vast improvement in her literacy. Being comfortable with her surroundings, with people, it’s made a difference, to be confident with her hijab and religion. It makes a huge difference, for their confidence, just to build them up. From what I’ve seen of Yusra, it’s a huge, huge blessing.”
Hawa couldn’t afford to get her daughter naturalised, without which, her future in the country remained uncertain. So with the help of a lawyer who agreed to help on a pro bono basis, HHUGS paid for the Home Office fee for her to become a British citizen.
Within a year of HHUGS’ support, Hawa had become an independent mother, with her own income through her work, no longer requiring HHUGS assistance. Finally, Hawa she was able able to start putting her horrific past behind her and become the strong mother she always dreamed of becoming.
In order to give back, Hawa volunteered to help other women empower themselves.
“I feel in debt for everything that HHUGS has done for me. Volunteering is the least I can doâ€¦It is an honour for me to be a part of HHUGS, everything they do is amazing. I see charities everywhere, but HHUGS is different – not just because they helped me, but because they are so unique. May Allah bless, bless and bless their organisation, Ameen.”