A Narrow Escape from Death, at a High Price

Arafat Yassin works on geometry, his hardest class, with East Kentwood High School teacher David Emoett

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Arafat’s story about his experiences in Somalia before coming to America. Read about Arafat’s experience in America: From Desperation to Diploma: A Somalian Refugee’s Story

My name is Arafat and I am 18 years old. I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. I have five brothers and four sisters on my mom’s side. I’m the third oldest. My father has many other children, some of whom I have never met. In total, I have 24 siblings.

During my childhood, I remember my dad would leave for several months at a time. Family members would look for him to make sure he was still alive. I knew when he came back problems would start between him and my mom.

My earliest memory is when my mom took me to Dugsi, which is a school for instruction on the Quran, when I was about 5 years old. At the school, teachers hit me and put ants down my shirt. The bugs would bite me really hard. My mother didn’t want me to be abused. She tried to talk to the teacher but the teacher ignored her, saying, “I do not talk to women, I only talk to the men.” My mother switched me to another school, and the abuse continued. I would end up being switched to several schools.

I remember one weekend my teacher tied my wrists and ankles together and locked me inside the school. I had to stay there all day. I used my teeth to free myself, but the teacher saw me. He caught me and tied me up again. A second time, I freed myself. He chased me as I ran until I crossed a highway called “The Road of the Death Angel.” I darted between cars, but the teacher dared not cross so I escaped.

By age 9 I had finished memorizing the entire Quran. I competed with other students in a contest reciting it, and won a 24-pack of Fanta for first prize. At the time, my mother worked at a restaurant to earn enough money to raise us. My father was no longer by her side. My brothers and I had to work too. My older brother started selling ice and I started selling cold water in the streets. My Uncle Abdi delivered food and fruits to government officials.

Arafat enjoys an English language-learner student’s narrative in English class
Arafat enjoys an English language-learner student’s narrative in English class

A Chilling Phone Call

The militant group al-Shabab is against anybody helping the government, and one night my family was at home and the phone rang. The number was blocked, which is the sign of al-Shabab! In Somalia, if someone calls you from a private number your days are numbered! My mother picked up the phone and the message came: “Yaa Kafir,” which means “infidels.” The voice meant we had been marked as non-believers and would be killed.

Al-Shabab leaders believe that anyone who does not support them are infidels, or nonbelievers, and because we had helped the government officials they wanted to kill us. We were just trying to make money and survive by selling water and ice! They told us we would die that night, but al-Shabab was taunting us. Over several days, the calls came again and again. My grandmother begged for us to move, but my mother wanted to stay. She didn’t want to give in. She believed someone was pretending to be al-Shabab. My grandmother got angry at my mother, saying, “Are you waiting to die?”

But I was plagued with worry. Al-Shabab members must have seen me delivering the water to police. They could have also seen my mom serving food to the police. They could have also seen my uncle delivering food and fruits.

About a month passed, and the fear grew within my family. One day, our worst fears came true. As my uncle walked home from work, al-Shabab caught him in the middle of the road. They killed him like an animal, cutting off his head. They delivered his body to our house.

My country has been at war since even before I was born, and I have seen many things. But this was the worst. We had not experienced losing a family member. This was our first test. Still today, I hope it was not him who was killed. He was really a father to me, not just an uncle. He was a friend. When he was around, we were never hungry or bored. I wanted him to be with us instead of my dad. I never in my life saw my uncle angry.

That night no one slept. We cried and waited for the tiredness that comes after tears. He was a very important person to all of us, but had died a very, very painful death. It is not easy to accept that. To remember him is to miss him, and the heartache never goes away.

Despite the fact that al-Shabab was still targeting us, we had to return to work, selling food, fruit, ice and water on the streets. I saved all the money for the family, buying no bread. I wanted us to only eat rice. We loved to eat together as a family. Those are moments when you feel loved and happy.

Murder in the Night

My father was home with us at the time. In the middle of the night, we awoke to our grandfather shouting, “Wake up! They are here!” My grandfather rushed to our room and he was protecting us so we couldn’t get hurt. He refused to let the al-Shabab militants enter, and they shot him in front of my grandmother. He was killed.

My mom hid us in the corner of the room and piled clothes over us. Shots rang out in the dark and the men came into the house and shot my father in the hand. They continued to fire and the sound was so loud our ears rang and went deaf. My mother was shot in the ribs, leg, hand and stomach. She was shouting, “God save us, save my kids!” My young sisters were screaming. I was crying. I knew that we were going to die.

‘My mother picked up the phone and the message came: “Yaa Kafir,” which means “infidels.” The voice meant we had been marked as non-believers and would be killed.’

I came out from my hiding to check on my mom. Both my parents were lying on the ground. Dad was crying really bad and mom was talking softly, whispering, “Go back. Go back.” Dad looked like he was floating in blood.

The man was inside of the room holding his rifle. He swung it around hitting me with its back end in the back of my arm, cracking my elbow. I immediately started vomiting.Suddenly, they ran, disappearing into the night.

The neighbors came in and took Dad and Mom to a hospital. They also took my grandfather’s dead body to his bedroom and took us from the house. We split up to stay at different neighbors’ houses. My younger sisters might have slept but I stayed awake all night.

When my mom was out of the hospital we moved 10 or 15 kilometers away from home. We built our house out of small trees and paper and clothes. We stayed there for four months.

After that, there was a day my mom and I came back to our house to get what was left at the house, a few groceries and other items. On the way, I saw a dead body being eaten by a dog on the road. I told my mom I feared we would end up like that. She tried to comfort me, but I could tell my words had disturbed her.

As we walked past the pharmacy near my house, we saw the man who killed my grandfather. He was gathered with other men sitting on the ground chewing khat, a plant many Somalis chew because it is a drug that gets them high. I pointed at the man and asked, “Is that him?” My mom looked at him and grabbed me in shock and said, “Don’t look at him. Don’t let him see us. He almost killed us. Let’s go.”

To me, during the night especially in dark places, I see him through the window, mirror and in the sky. I used to draw his face in my notebook.

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