I am a mom. But to me that has never meant only caring for my three daughters. I knew that to be true even as I fled my Somali homeland with my girls following the assassination of their father by Somali warlords. My husband’s peace-building program, “Drop the Gun, Pick Up the Pen” was a threat to those destroying Somali society for personal gain. He dedicated his life to eradicating violence, so I knew I had to continue his work.
My daughters and I went to Canada to find safe haven. But I knew I would return. Once settled, I told my daughters I was going back. They feared for my life and were frightened that they might lose their only parent. But I reminded them: Young boys in Somalia didn’t have work, didn’t have a future, and were forced to become child soldiers. Somali girls and women were abused, raped, and mutilated. The government denies these crimes and rejects justice for the victims. In many ways, I felt these young boys and girls, too, were my children. And, no mother would stand by idly while their children faced such atrocities. So I listened to my conscience, and I returned.
In honor of my husband, I started the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre to provide much-needed access to education. That’s where we began. In Somalia, education is often out of the question, a luxury unavailable to most. All too often, extremists take advantage of this, forcing young boys to become fighters even though they don’t really want to kill. They join because no other opportunities exist. But education gives these boys a choice. At Elman, 80 percent of those who want training will graduate with the skills they need to protect themselves and their futures.
For women who desperately needed hope, I started the Sister Somalia program to help girls in my country who have survived rape or escaped forced marriages. Now, for the first time, Somalia has a sexual violence hotline and rape crisis center. Today we can say we’ve reached 8,000 women and girls who were victims of sexual and gender-based violence. We offer counselling and medical services, business start-up kits and funds, entrepreneurial skills training, and relocation to a safe place. It has been so rewarding to see the unimaginable — girls finding their voice, leaving the center, more empowered, knowing we stand with them.
We’ve even begun to see a behavioral and cultural shift due to our work. We’re slowly breaking apart the social norms that ignored such heinous violence against women and girls. We’ve put pressure on international bodies like the United Nations to hold peacekeepers accountable for their abuse, and it’s led to tangible change. My daughters now understand why I returned to Somalia to help their sisters and brothers, and this keeps me alive.
My own daughter, Ilwad, has joined me and dedicated herself to helping the community here, too. Words cannot describe how proud I am. As Ilwad says, “There is love, beauty, friendship and community thriving here. And if we heard more about that, it would allow people around the world to see themselves in the people they have ‘othered.’ And when they see themselves in others, that’s when we can really work toward peace.”
Through our work, I’ve come to realize that we all share one humanity. We are one human family. And whether for our own children or our country’s children, we have a responsibility to help those most at risk. It’s simply what a mother does.