After a long day of shopping with my mother, I asked her a question as I drove her home: “Hooyo, how was your life like at the age of 22?” My mother had always told me little snippets about her life every now and then but not specifically at the age of 22 – which is how old I’ll be in a couple of months. Mum looked at me with an expression that said “Do you really want to know?” I nodded and told her I wanted to know every detail.
“At the age of 22, I was engaged to your father. I just finished university and decided to move to Yemen and worked part-time in Al Yamda – an airline company. My uncle was the manager and I used to work there in the afternoons. Your father and I had planned to move and work in Yemen. We didn’t even think about going to Europe at the time. So I moved to Yemen first and your father was going to come after me. But it didn’t go as planned.
I went to live with my cousin Khadija in Yemen (Sana’a) first and she was married with 3 young children. She was also a teacher in the morning and so was her husband so before I came to the country, her kids were looked after by the caretaker of the school and she used to pick them up after work. So when I came along and helped her out in the mornings, cooked food, cleaned the house, and put the kids to bed – she loved that. And guess what happened? Months after I settled in Yemen and started working, the civil war started – 1991 January. There were disruptions in Yemen too – everything went crazy.
I didn’t even know if my mother and father were alive or not. I used to cry every night, thinking about the worst but hoping for the best. I prayed and prayed. The war was getting worse in Somalia and people started fleeing the country. I received a phone call from your father one day: “I’m getting on the last plane leaving Somalia and it’s heading to Kenya. I can actually hear gunshots and bombs from the airport! I’ll give you a call when I get to Kenya.” Your father actually told me that the pilot didn’t want to take off because he feared the worst.
I also remember getting a call from a close friend of mine in Sudan and she was happy that your father was safe. She was ecstatic on the phone: “Your husband is safe!” I was stunned and said: ‘But my parents… I haven’t even heard from them yet.’ She continued to say: “But he’s your future husband, aren’t you happy?!” Of course I was happy, but I thought about my mum, dad, all my brothers, and sisters, cousins, aunties and uncles back in Somalia and I had no idea what state they were in.
Your father wanted to come to Yemen at the time but I said no. I was going through a rough patch with my cousin and she kicked me out of the house in the middle of Ramadan. And so I had to find a new place to live…”
“Wait pause, she did what? Why did she kick you out?” I said, completely interrupting the story. I was also gobsmacked that my mother was only 22 when all of this was happening.
She continued: “She didn’t want me to leave because she knew I was sitting at home all day, cooking and looking after her kids. I felt like a maid in her house and she loved that. She didn’t treat me well either. She was many years older than me. So I left.
I stayed in a home with 8 women and we had to sleep on mattresses lined up on the floor. I used to get up early in the morning and go to the Italian embassy, where my sister who lived in Italy, sent me money. I was contemplating going to Italy.
I received another message from your father: “I’m in India right now. Why don’t you come here? Please don’t go to Italy.” At that point, I didn’t see him for almost a year.
I also didn’t hear any news about my parents or my brothers and sisters. During the war, when everyone is fleeing the country, people were starving and bombs were dropping from the skies, no-one had the time to be calling others. People didn’t even have water, let alone phones to call them with. There was also a lot of violence and protests happening in Yemen too. I knew I had to leave. And so I decided to go to India.
Before departing, I started shopping and buying loads of jewelry. All this time, I didn’t know that your father was broke. He didn’t have a single penny to his name but he didn’t mention that to me at any point in our regular phone calls.
It was only when I arrived in India when I found out. ‘How come you didn’t tell me?’ I asked him. ‘You knew I had some money and I spent most of it in Yemen. Don’t you think I would’ve brought some money here?’ He replied with: “I didn’t want to tell you I had no money otherwise you would’ve gone to Italy instead.”
Oh and did you know that I wanted to have a big wedding? But when I arrived in India and saw your father at the airport, all alone, I thought: “What’s the point? It’s only us here.”
Besides, I haven’t heard from my family in months. A wedding isn’t important right now. A few months later, I fell pregnant. There was a time when we had nothing. Your father and I were eating just white rice every day. And any income we’d get would be spent on health checks or doctor’s appointments. We were relying on your aunties in Italy and Canada and they’d always send us some money. I started selling my gold, even my favourite ones, just to help us get by.
We ended up moving to Bombay and stayed in a hotel where loads of Somalis were staying. Your father and I had been in India for less than a year and I was heavily pregnant. This was only a few weeks before flying to the UK.
But the atmosphere at the hotel was weird. I sensed something very weird about the way other Somalis looked at me. I found out that one of my distant cousins was staying there and we had a little catch up. Little did I know, a bomb had exploded outside my home in Somalia, injuring my youngest sister and my brother. They were both in critical condition in the hospital. I had no idea about this but everyone around me knew. My cousin was standing right there in front of me and she didn’t mention it because of my pregnancy. She didn’t want to shock me.
Sooner or later, I received a phone call from my sister in Italy and she told me everything. “Muna and Maslah are both in hospital,” she cried on the phone. “A bomb exploded outside our house… Maslah has lost an eye and Muna’s legs are badly severed.. she may lose both legs. Everyone else is okay. Hooyo, Aabo.. they’re all okay.”
I couldn’t feel my legs. I was angry, confused, upset, and just shocked. All this time, all these months when I didn’t hear from anyone, this has happened? I ran back to my cousin and screamed:
‘Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me?’
“Please forgive me! I didn’t know how to tell you. You’re 9 months pregnant!!”, she kept saying.
My baby sister’s legs weren’t amputated in the end, alhamdulilah. Both of my siblings were okay. My parents were alive and well. I cried tears of joy when I found out. They all moved to America, Ohio.
We finally arrived in the UK, where I gave birth to my first child 16 days later. We started off in Harrow then moved to Manchester for a few years.”
My mother is now a District Nurse and is studying to get her masters too. She came to the UK with nothing, had three kids and then started teaching and getting experience. She then moved on to getting a nursing degree whilst she was pregnant with her fourth child. And yet she is still standing on both feet, taking care of this family. She inspires me every single day. Some of us take our parents for granted and don’t realise how much they have done for us and how much they have struggled. I pray that Allah showers His mercy on all of our parents for their hard work and determination for a better life.