The Story of Zakarya Abdulrihaman
Today I'm sharing with you the story of my son whom I have never met in person. I'm sharing this story for a couple of compelling reasons. First, that a young man in Somalia and a mature woman in the United States would forge such a deep bond despite never having met is truly remarkable. It represents the extraordinary power of the World Wide Web. The second is that it is my hope that by sharing this story with as many people as possible, a door will open that will allow Zakarya to come to the United States for an education and work, our shared wildest, greatest dream.
In early April, 2003, I received a note from Zak saying, "I am a Somali boy of 21 years. I now have decided to farm vanilla but I don't know where to sell my harvest, which will be due in a couple of months… I would be very gratified to attain your precious guidance. Yours faithfully…. " I wrote back and said that I needed more information – was the vanilla green or cured? How much vanilla was he selling? This was during the crisis when vanilla was in great demand and I received letters from farmers nearly daily. What was unique about his story was that he was in Somalia, and that he and his father were the only vanilla farmers in Somalia since colonial times.
The next letter from Zak informed me that a local insurgency had broken out, that he would contact me again when he could. I responded saying that I would be here and to contact me when he could. I added, "Please take care of yourself. I care."
The next note was wrenching. He said, "Thank you for your gold hearted comment. It brought tears to my eyes. I never ever felt happy this much. Since the death of my mother my days have been dark and dull. Now it's better than any present to know that someone really cares. I'm very much grateful for every help you have given me. With lots of luv, Zakarya A." And thus our incredible story began.
Within the next three weeks I learned that his entire extended family had been massacred during the horrifying civil war that has raged in Somalia since Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991 and the country fell into anarchy. He was orphaned as a teenager and survived by his wits. He came from a wealthy family who lived about 80 km from Mogadishu, in the narrow band of arable land in Somalia. His father was a banana producer and Zak had been home-schooled. He learned about vanilla from the Internet and told his father about it. His father had seen wild vines left over from colonial times growing by the Shebele River and so they gathered the vines and began to grow the vanilla. Then the family was murdered and their home destroyed. He continued to live in the shell of the home and grew the vanilla, but he wasn't sure how to cure and dry it and then find a market, which is when he contacted me.
In one of his letters he wrote about his beans and how grateful he was that I would take the time for him. "Auntie, my beans are not yet goldish yellow at the tips. Is it okay to send you green beans for sampling in case of emergency? Currently you are the only one who cares about me. I do not know how to pay back your kindness. May God bless your kind soul. Your Somalian nephew."
I responded with long letters, giving him advice about vanilla, but more, giving him as much love and hope as I could send via the Internet. His situation was dire and I felt helpless to ease it, so I did what I could to help him feel cared about and connected, reaching out across the thousands of miles separating us as if he were my own child.
One morning I received a message mid-morning saying, "Auntie, I'm sorry this reply is so short. At this moment there is heavy gunfire, but I will reply. God will decide my fate. The roads are really dangerous…Things are bad right now. I have to go. Pray for my safety. If God lets me live another 24 hours I will be in a safe place. Bye dear auntie." My assistant Gina and I both burst into tears when I read this note out loud. Holding each other, we prayed for this brave young man, that he should remain alive despite the odds.
We heard nothing for several weeks. In the meantime I sent messages of hope and asked my friends to write to him as well. His Yahoo account became jammed and I had to contact Yahoo to ask them to clear out the spam or give him a larger box. When I explained why it mattered, they did it immediately. Finally one day we received a letter. He had been struck by shrapnel but was starting to heal. He said, "This morning when I read your letters and the ones from many well wishers my heart gave away. I cried so hard that the people around me thought I had lost a loved one. Many of them saying quickly murmured apologies. I am very moved by your actions. I thank you with all my heart for your prayers and care."
It was at this point that I told him that as his elder and as his aunt, he must leave Somalia and go to Uganda where I knew vanilla farmers who would take him in. He struggled over leaving his family land and the vanilla he worked so hard to raise. Once gone, he would lose the land forever. At the same time he knew that if he stayed he would die. So one night Zakarya left Somalia on a trek through Kenya to Uganda. All he had were the clothes on his back, a small amount of cash and my e-mail address. I still don't know the exact night he left; I didn't hear from him for three months and I feared that he had died.
Then one day I received a note telling me that he was in the home of a woman Somali refugee and her children in the slums of Kampala. His body was worn out from the journey and he was wracked with malaria. I attempted to send him money but it was stolen by the woman's uncle who claimed he had been robbed after picking it up. And then the nightmares began to overtake his mind and body.
Now that Zak was in a safe place the horrors that had been suppressed for the previous three years hit him full-force. He had a breakdown from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I had suggested he contact someone who was ready to take him in but he never returned to meet the man. It was eight months before I learned that he had been hospitalized with PTSD and malaria. It was also during this time that I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and told to put my affairs in order. It was a dark time for us both.
It was Mariam who located Zak for me and finally got in touch with him. Mariam is my niece, the same Mariam of "Mariam's Cows" who will be coming to the Women Leaders for the World cohort at Santa Clara University this year. She went into the slum, found Zak and brought him money from me. He was very ill with pneumonia; Mariam said he looked like the starving children in Ethiopia we see on posters. He was amazed that I had remembered me after so many months. How could I possibly forget?
The next two years were very difficult for Zak. While he speaks fluent English (very unusual in Somalia) and KiSwahili, he doesn't speak Luganda, the language of Uganda. He also didn't have working papers; even if he had, getting work is very difficult in Kampala, which has tens of thousands of refugees who have fled wars in Northern Uganda, the Congo, Somalia and Darfur. By the time that he was well, the vanilla prices had collapsed and the farmers couldn't afford to take him in and give him work.
Zak and I remained in touch via the Internet and occasional phone calls, and I sent him what cash I could to keep him alive. He was resourceful but he often lived on the streets and frequently caught pneumonia. I was in cancer treatment and faced with huge medical bills so I couldn't give him the financial support he needed to survive or even to bribe low-level UN officials for a place in the filthy refugee camps. Although he knew I had cancer he didn't know that it was serious. He had enough to manage without worrying about me.
In early 2006 Zak heard that the UN was going back into Somalia to help rebuild the northern part of the country (much safer than the South). He wanted to return home to help in the rebuilding of his country so we needed to find a way to get him there. Then, through my network with the Global Women's Leadership Network, an extremely generous woman gave him the funds to travel by bus to Kenya and then by plane to Puntland, or Northern Somalia.
When Zak arrived he found that these were all ghost projects (see below in his description of the war). Daily life was very, very bad for everyone. Anarchy reigned and gangs of young men were unemployed, desperate and easily signed into the Islamic extremist militias or with clan warlords. Wanting to find work for these young men, Zak learned all that he could about solar power and I connected him with "Solar Mike" a solar specialist here in Santa Cruz. They worked out a plan but the costs were phenomenal to launch the project and Mike couldn't find anyone to donate materials. A project that could have helped the locals died before it could be started.
With options exhausted and no paying work, Zak and I were at a loss for what to do next. Then the war escalated in Mogadishu and the bombings began. While the worst violence is in Southern Somalia, the entire country has been affected. We decided that the best strategy would be to get him out of the country as soon as possible. I wrote twice to the Office of Tropical Immigration in Nairobi but they didn't respond. I met another generous woman who said she'd pay for his trip to Nairobi. Then the borders closed. Planes are leaving from Northern Somalia but security is tight and bribes are crucial for getting out. For the moment, it's a waiting game. Even if we get him out of Somalia, the question is, where should he go? And how can we get him to the US?
In the meantime, we communicate when we can. There is no way to send money directly to Somalia as Western Union doesn't serve the country. I cannot call in. Phone cards are very expensive so Zak can't call out or e-mail me except when he has gotten extra schillings from a short-term job. I recently sent him $100 through someone in Nairobi. By the time the money was transferred to a service from Nairobi to Somalia and the middlemen took their cuts, he got $40.00.
Zak is surviving by teaching village children English. The families are grateful for his help. They believe that the way to survive in the future is to "speak the white man's language." A college professor with no English is considered less valuable than a man on the street who speaks English. Zak's English is impeccable so he has value. In exchange for teaching the children, local people have given him a place to sleep and food.
Occasionally someone helps pay for his calling card so he can be in touch with me. We always begin with "I love you," and then the most important questions and answers about his survival and my health as the money quickly runs out on the phone cards. If we are blessed with extra time he asks about my grandsons and how I'm doing. He told me a couple of months ago that when things are bleak (and believe me, the war and desperate poverty has covered this once magnificent country with vast bleakness), he goes into his fantasy life where he imagines being in daily family life with me, my daughter and son-in-law and my grandsons Theo and Zane. I named a little cat that moved in with me after him, something that deeply touched him. I share the everyday stories that help to keep him connected with a reality more happy than the one he is living. And when we have the luxury to talk for more than a few minutes, we have the easy relationship of the adult child and parent. I know his deepest secrets and he worries about me as much as I worry about him. It was a great gift to him to know that at this time I'm doing very well.
This is why Zak is my son and I'm his mother. A petit white woman and a very tall black man from different cultures, religions and lives. Together we continue to look for the right door that will open and allow him to come to the US. Ideally he should go to college as he is extremely intelligent. In addition to his language skills he has sales and computer skills. He has learned to survive under unimaginable conditions. He is dedicated to peace and harmony and would be a hard-working, devoted employee. If you have any substantial ideas on how we can get Zak to the US, please let us know!
Finally, I asked Zak recently to give me his insider's view on the war in Somalia. It's difficult to learn much from the media and even more difficult to know how accurate it is. The following is a condensed version of what he has written to me:
"Why Somalia has been in war for the past sixteen years is not understandable even by we who have participated in it. For me it was a matter of life and death. For others it was war booty and territorial control. For some it has been revenge and vengeance. But one factor is very clear: tribalism has been a major fuel in this crisis. Somalians (actually most Africans) rely a lot on tribal identification for jobs, food, marriage, physical support and then manpower during war."Every nation has its susceptibilities and wicked people use people's susceptibilities for self gain. In Somalia, if I want to be a warlord, all I have to do is call together the elders of my clan, have enough capital for guns artillery and bombs and at least a few hundred hungry youth who will give allegiance to the cause just because in some vague way they are related to me. The elders will support me as I will have money for the elders'
salaries and khat (a mildly euphoric drug).
We will then make road tolls and begin collecting dues from passing cars. We will also take money from major business people to assure safe passage of their goods. All UN and other organisations under my area of jurisdiction will have to get the go-ahead from me to operate, and thus, the promotion of ghost projects and my clan members. A few years in this way and we are a force to reckon with. With more power comes the hunger for more territory and thus more bloodshed. The main cause of this endless bloodshed is the Somalian tribal philosophy, which is used by cunning warlords to achieve their own needs.The streets of Mogadishu are safe for the Hawiye clan.but not for Ethiopians and the peace-keeping forces. The Hawiye see this as another invasion of the Majerteen (a clan that is originally from Puntland, Northern Somalia) into their territory despite the fact that the prime minister of the interim government is Hawiye. They have been swearing not to let another Majerteen to rule them after Siad Barre (a ruthless dictator thrown over in 1991, which threw the country into anarchy) who was Majerteen. Siad Barre's clan has been ruined though there are a few clusters active in Kismaayo where they have forged allegiance with the interim government under Gen.Bari Hiiraale. But these clusters have been largely wiped out by the Islamic courts before the recent campaign. Siad Barre too sowed the seed of hatred that has brought unimaginable harvests of blood.
Somalians, especially Hawiye, will have to be killed in large numbers to achieve peace, because most Hawiye believe the moment the Majerteen take over the government it will be disastrous for them and that we, the Majerteen, will seek revenge for the atrocities they committed against our families and properties in the past. But, amazingly enough, Somalia has never been closer to achieving peace than now.