Two Kenyan sisters fled violence and found refuge in Mesa

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Refugee sisters Samah Mohamed, 17, and Huda Mohamed, 14, made their home in Mesa, Ariz. after fleeing from Kenya six years ago. Refugee sisters Samah Mohamed, 17, and Huda Mohamed, 14, made their home in Mesa, Ariz. after fleeing from Kenya six years ago.
Growing up, sisters Samah Mohamed and Huda Mohamed were scared to go to school because of militant tribes in Nairobi Growing up, sisters Samah Mohamed and Huda Mohamed were scared to go to school because of militant tribes in Nairobi

By ALLIE BICE, Cronkite News

MESA – Samah and Huda Mohamed shared a single, blue-walled bedroom with their two sisters and parents in Nairobi, Kenya before hostile tribes forced them to flee their country and resettle in America six years ago.

Samah remembers hearing gunshots as she walked the mile to school. Huda was worried about being followed by militant members. The Muslim sisters grew up hearing gunshots, but didn’t fully understand what the tribal fighting was about.

“We didn’t go to school for one whole week, because we were afraid that (the tribes) might actually attack us,” Samah said. “They can’t stand each other, (the tribes are) always fighting.

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“They would burn down houses. They would shoot each other. They would throw rocks at each other,” she said.

The tribes — the Kikuyu and the Jalou — traditionally support different Kenyan presidential candidates and act in violence if their preferred candidate loses, said Edwin Okong’o, a journalist from Kenya. Since the country gained independence in 1963, rigged presidential and parliamentary elections were part of the “culture we were brought into,” he said.

Samah was 11 and Huda was 8 when they fled Nairobi with their family. Now 17 and 14, Samah and Huda have found their voices in Arizona. Both are involved in clubs at school and in their community.

The sisters also share their experiences through poetry.

“The life that is full of strife,” a poem from Samah reads. “Look at me, look at my eyes, Witness everything that I have survived. I am a Muslim with so many dreams with your help I will feel at ease.”

“I speak on the behalf of those who have been ripped from their homes,” Samah’s poem continues. “Can’t you see that it is poverty and war that Muslims are so desperately trying to escape from. They are not here for the luxuries you have in your life. They only want to survive.”

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The number of Kenyan refugees in Arizona increased from six to 41 between 2008 and 2010, Arizona Department of Economic Security numbers show. The department oversees the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program.

This increase, according to Okong’o, was because of the country’s 2007 election — one of the most contested presidential elections.

Kenya’s first president held his seat for 14 years, and as a Kikuyu, began the dynasty that is currently known in Kenya. To those outside the Kikuyu tribe, the country’s first president was seen as a European puppet, Okong’o said, making moves that were beneficial to the European elite and not Kenyans. Contempt between the ethnic tribes grew with each election.

The 2007 race was between a Kikuyu leader and a Jalou leader — two longstanding opposing tribes. The “elections were rigged” and another Kikuyu leader won by millions of votes, Okong’o said.

“By the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008, violence broke out,” Okong’o said. “People were burning their neighbors and people were fleeing.”

And there has been a recent uprising in Kenya, which led to a new election on Oct. 26.

“You have both sides where no one has a cooler head. It’s like two (President) Trumps … Even today we haven’t understood the ruling government and the public,” Okong’o said.

The 2007 elections caused ethnic tribal fighting and forced many in Nairobi — entire families like Samah and Huda’s — to flee.

In the family’s living space, Huda recalled a place in the room that was for her “Papa,” a spot in the room where her dad would sleep. Her father would also rent out room space for money.

“Thinking back, I should’ve been scared,” Huda said. “You never know what they might’ve done.”

There was one bed and typically, four people would sleep on it, but it always depended on how many guests were renting the space.

“We’d see that our parents were stressed, but we didn’t know what they were going through,” Huda said. “They would try to keep us out of it.”

Water was scarce.

“Water would run out all the time. Water would stop for several days, weeks and months at a time,” Huda said. “Just to be prepared we would take buckets full of water from the shower (on days it worked).”

“We didn’t have lights either,” Samah said. “The only times the lights were available was during the night, and in the morning he would turn the lights off.”

The sisters said their father did odd jobs to get by, and said sometimes, the family couldn’t pay rent because “jobs were so hard to find.”

“We almost lost that apartment because my parents couldn’t pay for it anymore,” Huda said.

When they found out they were resettling to America, Samah remembers lying on the bed with her sisters and thinking: “What’s the first thing we’ll do in America?”

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“Everyone there thinks of America as paradise,” Huda said.

The journey to Arizona in 2011 required the family to travel to a Kenyan refugee transit camp, a Kenyan hotel. Then to London, New York and finally, Phoenix.

Their family originally lived in Phoenix with the help of a resettlement agency and then moved to Chandler. With the help of refugee friends, they found an even more affordable home in Mesa.

The sisters found a refugee community in Mesa and started to get involved in organizations like the American Muslim Women’s Association (AMWA).

Arhem Barkatullah, the president of the association’s tutoring program, Refugee Integration, Stability, and Education, called the sisters “the golden children” of the group.

“Samah and Huda serve as examples for what we want for all of our students in RISE, to succeed academically and get involved in their communities and at school,” Barkatullah said.

The sisters found a passion in poetry, which allowed them to write about their experiences and feelings as Muslim, Kenyan refugee women.

Samah said tutors within the AMWA program helped her write her poem, but she shared it reluctantly. Her poetry, she says, is meant to “prevent hatred and spread peace.”

“I speak on behalf of my unwanted Muslim brothers and sisters. Who have experienced discrimination. Who have seen destroyed nations. And the families of those nations killed,” Samah’s poem read.

But she said she’s “not very good” with poetry and prefers sciences like chemistry and biology.

Huda wrote several different poems about her life.

“I am a proud hijabi muslim. I wonder how I can help reunite my whole family from all over the world,” Huda’s poem read. “I hear my mom’s worries and cries for my grandma and siblings. I see my families pain and frustration. I am a proud hijabi muslim.”

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