At just 14 years old, Dahabo Hassan Maow was caught in the crossfire of her native Somalia’s civil war and injured so gravely that doctors were forced to amputate her leg at the knee. With no family (she was orphaned as a baby) or support, she fled her homeland, traveling by unpaved road to what she hoped would be the relative safety of Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, in Kenya.
But even greater challenges awaited upon her arrival. “I use crutches, so if I was able to stand in line for food, I couldn’t carry it back to where I was living,” Dahabo recalls. “I couldn’t fetch water for myself.” In the event that she found someone to help her transport her share of food back to her makeshift home, she still lacked the firewood needed to cook it. “I thought it was only me,” she said, “but I saw a lot of disabled people who didn’t have any help, who were going through the same problems.”
Dahabo’s dire situation is the reality for an estimated 6.5 million refugees today, according to the Women’s Refugee Commission, which saluted Dahabo on Friday with a Voices of Courage award—an annual honor that focused this year on celebrating champions of the disabled.
“In many ways, Dahabo’s story is an exception, for she has had quite a remarkable life in spite of this disability,” says Dale Buscher, Senior Director for Programs at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “Dahabo, who became self-reliant, represents what we know all refugees need: freedom of movement, the right to work, and dignity.” The other individual honored Thursday was Antim Caroline Ogwang, a 26-year-old deaf activist from South Sudan; the government of Australia was also saluted for its humanitarian work to help the disabled.
On her way to becoming a leader in her own right, Dahabo had to navigate an experience familiar to refugees not only in East Africa but around the world. Unsafe conditions in the camp prompted her to seek a better life in an urban area—in her case, as one of about 100,000 displaced people in Nairobi, Kenya’s largest city—and to appeal for help with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). After she registered, the agency advised Dahabo to relocate to another massive camp, Kakuma, in Kenya’s northwest region. “Surviving in an urban area as a refugee has always been tough,” says Buscher. “The government of Kenya has long had an encampment policy—that refugees should be in [camps like] Dadaab and Kakuma.”
But when three months in Kakuma proved just as unwelcoming, Dahabo returned to Nairobi—and to UNHCR—showing up at the office daily to plead her case. Through their referral, she connected with Heshima Kenya, which protects and assists refugee girls in the capital city. The organization moved Dahabo into a safe house, helped her enroll in school for the first time, and signed her up for a training program to learn the craft of hand-dying.
Eager to share her skills with her new friends in the safe house, Dahabo inspired the start of Heshima’s Maisha Collective in 2010, which fosters business development and leadership through the production and sale of artisanal scarves. “Since then, 25 of Dahabo's Heshima sisters have transitioned to become economically independent,” says Alisa Roadcup, Heshima’s Director of Advocacy and Development. “Dahabo's vision and leadership truly paved the way for this program's inception and success.”
Later that year, Dahabo was resettled by UNHCR in the United States—first in Fargo, North Dakota, and eventually in Minneapolis, which has one of the country’s largest Somali populations. She remains a Maisha Collective ambassador. “I talk with the girls at Heshima Kenya all the time,” she says. “I say, ‘You’re going to move forward, change your life and better your life—you’re the only one who can do that.’”
The Women’s Refugee Commission honor, says Roadcup, celebrates Dahabo’s impact on her fellow women: “Heshima girls say that [she] has taught them to keep hoping, and to keep working hard.” It is a bright spot for the organization at a nerve-wracking moment: In December, the Kenyan government issued a directive that all refugees needed to leave the urban areas for camps in the north. If enforced, the decree could once again displace the refugee girls. “We do know that camps all over the world—and those camps in Kenya, especially—are some of the least safe places refugee women and girls can be,” says Buscher.
“The girls who live in the safe house—if they are told to go back to the camps, what could happen to them?” asks Dahabo, reflecting on the number of her peers who came to Heshima Kenya pregnant as a result of rape within the camps. “What if they end up in a worse situation?”
For now, the government has issued a stay on the injunction, and Heshima Kenya is a part of a Nairobi-based coalition of nongovernmental organizations fighting to scrap it. “It would be devastating to the refugee girls and young women we serve,” says Roadcup. “Our girls would be relocated to refugee camps, suffer from interrupted education, lack of access to medical and legal services, and the loss of the supportive community that has Heshima Kenya has become.”
Dahabo, who is expecting her first child this summer, is cautiously optimistic, her hopes buoyed by the award, which she shares with the organization she calls her “first family.” “At least I know now that if the girls are with Heshima,” she says, “they’re safe.”