Naïma, 51 years old, from Somalia
Naïma loved trading back in Somalia. “The market, it is always changing, it is never the same...” she recalls.
“My family was growing vegetables and raising goats, while I was selling everything in the markets. After work, I was went to a school in the afternoon. It was an Islamic girls school for adults. There I learned about the Quran and how to read and write Arabic. I made girlfriends there.”
But one day, Naïma came to realize who the school was working with. “I did not know, but my girlfriends were all part of Al Shabaab. They asked me to join their organization. They talked to me about Islam, and that I would go to paradise if I became a kamikaze for their organization. I told them that I couldn’t work for them, as I already had a job, selling my family’s produce on the market. But they threatened me, saying they would bomb my only resources and kill me.”
Naïma is a devout Muslim, but she did not believe Al Shabaab represented Islam, as they spread evil throughout her country. She refused to join the terrorist organization. “I decided to leave because everyone knows there are two possible scenarios: either you work with them, or you die. It took me 20 days of discussions and preparations with my family. Every night, for 20 days, I was hiding so they wouldn’t find me, and I constantly had to change my hideout.”
Naïma doesn’t have children, so only her close family knew what was happening. “I hid in my home village for a week while my family was gathering enough money for the journey. That, added to my personal savings was just enough to pay for my escape. I needed 800 dollars to pay the smugglers.”
Once she had enough money, she went to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, where she requested a passport from the government.
When asked if the government does anything in Somalia to protect its population from the Al Shabaab terrorists, Naïma answers: “The government itself is afraid of Al Shabaab. It is you, who has to save your life by yourself.”
When all of her papers were in order, and with the help of the money she had collected, Naïma finally boarded a plane to Turkey. “I couldn’t go further than that, I didn’t have any money left. Also, crossing the sea frightened me.”
Nevertheless, from Turkey, the sea route to Greece was the only path to Europe. So when her family sent her money to continue the journey onward, she took her chance on crossing the Mediterranean.
When Naïma started to recall the rest of her story, she covered her face with her hands.
“I have a heart disease,” she started, “the smugglers in Turkey made me march and run in the mountains for hours, I couldn’t breath and I didn’t even have the time to drink the water that was in my bag.” She re-enacts the scene and simulates being out of breath. “I thought I was about to die. That was the most difficult part of my journey.”
When Naïma and the other refugees she was going with saw the rubber boats waiting for them for the crossing, a lot of women, including herself, refused to get on. “But the smugglers forced us to get on the boats, because they cannot take you back.” Indeed, if they do so the police might find them and the smugglers could put themselves at risk of arrest.
“On the boat, no one could move an inch, you had to keep the position you had when you arrived on the boat, otherwise someone could fall in the water.”
She stepped onto Greek soil in January 2016. “It was the New Year, and it was extremely cold, which made it extremely difficult. Men, women and children were sleeping in a big abandoned building with just two blankets per person. With one blanket under me and another on top of me I could not sleep. In the morning, we got up early and started queuing to have a chance to get the papers that we needed to go to the mainland. Some men were pushing the women to get ahead in line.”
After 5 days of queuing daily in the freezing winter weather, Naïma left the Greek island to travel to the mainland. This was one year ago, and now, she is still waiting here, at a refugee camp in mainland Greece.
With sudden enthusiasm she explains what still makes her happy each day: “When I wake up and see it is the morning, and I go outside to get fresh air, and people who are walking around greet me, they just say hello to me. That makes me happy.”
Naïma, whose name means happiness, now hopes to get her papers in order to obtain legal refugee status and acquire the right to stay and live in Europe. “I hope that I can walk in Europe peacefully. I want to be free.”
Photos: Shayanne Gal / Story: Romane Boyer