When I recently visited the CWS refugee center in Jakarta, Indonesia, I spoke with a 16-year-old girl from Somalia. Covered in the traditional Muslim hijab, she had a thin frame and shy demeanor. For security reasons, I’m not able to reveal her name nor show her face. But I can tell her story.
“I saw my friends being victims to early forced marriage and sexual assault,” she told me, as we sat in a private upper room of the refugee center. They [al-Shabab] were forcing girls, like animals in the jungle.”
For more than two decades, Somalia has experienced wide civil unrest. Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group whose authority rose in 2006, has fought against Somalia’s internationally-backed government.
She described the control that al-Shabab currently has over her country, “There’s no internet, no telephone, no music,” she said. If someone smokes a cigarette, he would be beaten. No one is allowed to play sports or even wear logos on a shirt. There isn’t much freedom.
Females have it worse. Girls must be covered head to toe and are whipped if they don’t comply. Women can’t even greet men by shaking hands; the punishment: being stoned to death.
She described al-Shabab having a “religious obsession.” The group, “The Youth” in Arabic, has recruited soldiers, ages 13-25 years old. “They go to the mosques, pray and fast but their ideology…I don’t know where that comes from. If you protested [them],” she said, “you would die.”
Luckily, the girl didn’t have to remain in this reality. She was able to flee the country.
She recounts tragic events, “There was a bomb in the road and my father [the driver] and brother [the money counter] were on a bus. My father died in the explosion and my brother lost one of his legs.”
These bombings are typical for the area, and it’s hard to know if this was a targeted attack.
After the incident, private journalists interviewed her brother. The recording of the interview was replayed on TV. “He then received a notice that if he didn’t stop talking, they would kill me,” the girl said. At that point, she planned her escape.
“[My brother] was in the hospital at the time and had changed hospitals to try to keep safe,” she continued. Al-Shabab soldiers went to their home and questioned her mother about where he was, threatening to kill her if she didn’t speak. Her mother told them that she didn’t know where her son was. She then instructed her children to leave and find safety.
Usually family members pay the smugglers thousands of dollars to help loved ones escape. This young girl traveled from Somalia to Malaysia then arrived in Indonesia July of 2013.
She hasn’t had any contact with her mom since leaving. Her brother left for Australia, but she said plainly, “I don’t have any information from him. He could be dead in the sea.” Missing her family, she explains, “I want a better life than this. I hope to connect with my family and see them again.”
Though very homesick, she now lives in safety, free of threats of violence.
CWS, in partnership with UNCHR, has placed her in secure housing with a monthly stipend. English and computer classes are provided each week, along with health care, vocational school, a semester outing and psychological support available for all unaccompanied minors. Girls are placed with foster parents/adults, who are either Indonesian or refugees who speak the same language. CWS serves her and many other unaccompanied minors—asylum seekers under the age of 18—fleeing from their home countries to regain their lives.
She currently lives with another Somalian girl her age, along with a Somalian woman, both who are refugees assisted by CWS. “I am not afraid now. I’m safe. I’m living as a human. When I’m with them, it feels like I have a mother and a sister. They are treating me well.”
She plans to soon be resettled in the U.S.