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A project of the ACTION Support Centre


"The civil war broke everything. It broke my heart, it broke my family. Many of the people I knew died. Even the streets are gone"


I had the privilege of being involved in a project recording the stories of a rarely heard set of voices: the Somali refugee women of South Africa.

If you didn’t know, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed over the course of the conflicts in Somalia, and over a million have been internally displaced, with a further almost one million scattered as refugees in surrounding countries.

The history of war in Somalia is a complex one, and there are plenty of detailed analyses of the situation there. But abstract descriptions can never capture the lived experience of people who endure such times. These experiences are made up of bullets, bombs, running and hiding. Sometimes they didn’t even know who their attackers were. Most lost loved ones, and some still don’t know whether their child, parent, sibling or partner is alive or not.


"First they broke into our house, then they took my husband outside. They grabbed him, they took him by force outside, and they shot and killed him. In front of us. We were watching from the window."


The facts of the political situation also tell us nothing of what it’s like to be a woman living in and fleeing from a war torn country. Their stories tell of being raped, stabbed and beaten, of being forced to stay indoors and denied education because of their gender, of being kidnapped and shown videos of executions, of forced marriages to members of Al Shabaab, and of being used as a human bomb.

So they ran away.

Some embarked immediately on the dangerous journey to South Africa, while others moved from country to country until they eventually made their way to South Africa. For many, South Africa is not their final destination – it is a stop along the way in their quest to find a safe and peaceful life. Many wish to go back to Somalia, if only the fighting would stop. They crave a home - a place where they are not on the margins.


"I was held hostage for 20 days. When I still refused to marry, they injured me. They beat me and stabbed me with a knife. They wanted me to just accept it."


As they wrestle to re-start their lives in South Africa, there are those who have helped them and those who have hurt them. Refugees are commonly perceived as a threat – they are no longer seen as fellow humans, but outsiders infiltrating the country and usurping jobs, space, services and opportunities meant for citizens.

Whose responsibility are they?

The cliché holds true, that if we all play our part, using whatever skills and influence we have, we can create greater equality for the less advantaged among us.

These women are survivors but also agents of change, and working together it is possible for greater understanding and trust to be built, for us to view each other as collaborators in creating better futures for all, rather than opponents and contenders for opportunities.

With this in mind, I echo the call of the ASC and others who have heard the real life stories of refugees:

“we call upon citizens everywhere to embrace neighbours from another country and help those who question them to understand them better. We appeal to medics in public and private facilities to create a culture that welcomes anyone seeking their care, and to police to champion the cause of justice to whoever walks through their doors. We call upon Home Affairs and the decision makers at government level to stand against corruption in their departments, and take on board feedback given by refugees and work together to ensure their human rights are enforceable and they do not suffer needlessly because of documentation. We ask those who can teach English or other skills to make them accessible to disadvantaged groups, and for social workers and trauma counsellors to extend their services to these communities. We call upon businesses to accept refugee applicants, because they have a right to work even if they don’t hold a green ID.”

We call upon you, the reader, wherever you are and whatever your position may be, to take the time to read and then share a few of the stories you have read, and to start a discussion with those around you.

You can start with Sahro’s story. The full publication is available for download here.

These stories speak for themselves, and we need only listen. There are many reports that examine information like this to produce statistics and analyses profiling the refugee situation. But let’s not lose the essence of the story teller – they are not numbers, nor are they just an item in the category “woman”, “refugee”, “Somali” or “Muslim”. This publication has sought to understand the challenges that exist, not through statistics and broad political explanations, but by getting to know the people behind the numbers and generalisations.


"Women are the victims of the civil war, and they are the ones who took on the roles of mother and of father. They are the breadwinners of the communities."


Pictured above: the ACTION Support Centre held a series of intercultural events and dialogues that brought the Somali community together with South Africans to share stories and experiences, and build mutual understanding. A strong focus was the celebration of cultural differences. The events were eye-opening for many of the South Africans and cathartic for the Somalis.

Pictured below: A South African woman dressed in colorful cultural attire shows off a drying henna tattoo applied by Somali women.


*This article uses and adapts segments of writing from the Listening Voices introduction and conclusion, both of which were written by me

*For the safety of those involved in the project, I have not used real names


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