By Leslie Lindsay
Inspiring–and often devastating–story of one Somali woman’s tumultuous childhood as a shepherd girl in the sub-Saharan desert to successful Mayo Clinic R.N.
This book might be slim, but it’s message is mighty and powerful. Born to teenage parents through an arranged marriage, Habibo wailed in her bassinet in a Somali hospital as her young mother was deprived of food and emotional support (at the time, it was the custom of Somali friends and family to provide nourishment to their patients, and not the hospital’s responsibility). When her father came to the front desk, he asked the nurses, “What is the sex of the baby?”
When told she was a girl, he turned and walked away.
So begins Habibo’s life. Shuttled between her birth parents (who soon divorced) to her grandfather’s home, and then raised by her maternal grandmother, Habibo’s life was rift with emotional neglect, physical and sexual abuse.
At four, she was a shepherd girl caring for 150-plus goats, sheep, cows, coaxing them across the countryside to fertile pastures and clean drinking water. At seven, she reunited with her mother briefly–because the city of Mogadishu had better facilities–to treat her malaria. She was returned to her primitive, nomadic life, and her no-nonsense grandmother who was often harsh, never telling her granddaughter a job well done, or even that she loved her. Through years of starvation, depression, and more, Habibo learns to conquer the odds.
But her journey takes time, heartache, and just when you think nothing is going to improve for this young woman, it does.
While living in the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab in Kenya, Habibo and her cousin decide to apply for a seemingly untouchable lottery: the selection to leave the camp for America.
The girls check the lottery postings religiously, every Thursday or Friday afternoon as they are posted on the doors of the UN Center. Weeks go by, then months. Finally, the news they’ve been waiting for–they’ve been chosen.
It’s August of 1998. In a Midwestern college town, thousands of miles away, I am beginning my second year in a 4-year nursing program. My skin is white. My eyes are blue. As I child I had oodles of Barbie dolls, attended Kindergarten, and was given every opportunity to receive an education. I did not witness a crocodile devour a small child, I had not walked for miles in the desert, tired and thirsty and wondering when–or if–I would ever receive a drop of water or find a piece of fruit to stave off the thirst.
Habibo and I are alike in that we are both nurses. We are both women. We both work(ed) for one of the world’s top medical institutions. And while our similarities bind in some ways, our differences are striking.
I am so honored to welcome Habibo to the blog couch. Please join us.
Leslie Lindsay: Habibo, it’s funny the way people are connected. Twenty years ago, I would never have guessed our paths would have crossed. But they did and I find that inspiring. So why this book, why now?
Habibo Haji: I wrote this book because I want to give people hope. I want them to know that regardless of our past we can always influence how our future turns out. We do not have to live in our past. Our past does not determine our future. We can leverage our pain to harness our future. Often, people are stuck on the past, the pain, the failure, get into blame game, and lose sight of what is really important.
L.L.: When you look back on your life in Somalia, what three vital lessons stand out?
Habibi Haji: I have learned that life has many lessons such as pleasant and unpleasant ones. I do not have to live in pain because people who were supposed protected me let me down. I can forgive, work hard, and live my life on my own terms. In our life whether we are young or old people will disappoint us because they are human but it is up to us not to take things personal.
L.L.: I’ve had the opportunity to travel, but I’ve never been to Africa. Can you set the scene for us? What is Somalia like, geographically? Can you describe the hut you grew up in?
Habibo Haji: My grandmother lived in a small village called Balcad, which is located eastern Somalia about three miles north of the Indian Ocean. The Shabeelle River runs through Somalia, where everyone in the village got their water, washed their clothing, swam, and watered the animals. Balcad, like many of the villages around it, has about thirty huts, each one surrounded by a fence made from poles and branches to keep the domestic animals in and the wild animals out. Approximately three hundred men, women, and children live there, along with all their cows, sheep, goats, donkeys and a few chickens here and there. Surrounding the village life thousands of miles of grasslands, scrub, bush, and forested areas where the people graze their animals.
My grandmother’s hut, like all the rest of the huts in the village, was made of tree limbs tied together like an igloo and covered with grass woven mats, which can house an average of about four people. The huts are built of long grass, woven into many “filiq,” or rugs, which are used to cover a frame made from about twenty tree limbs tied together to form a rounded structure with a wide open door on one side which can be covered by a filiq in bad weather. The Filiq is handmade by the ladies.
[Leslie’s note: You may appreciate this website of The Somali Museum of Minnesota, which describes the customs and culture of the Somali people]
L.L.: This passage, in CONQUERING THE ODDS, resonated with me, maybe it’s because my daughter is 12, as you were at the time: “I lost a lot of weight due to tape worms, in addition to head lice. You could tell by looking at me that I was not very happy. I was exhausted, tired of being afraid and fighting abuse. I was lonely.” This speaks volumes. You then speak of happiness and becoming a loner. Can you talk more about that, please?
Habibo Haji: That time was the lowest time in my teen life. I was very depressed, lonely and desperate. I had no one to turn to. I felt abandoned and unwanted. I felt as though the cows were more important than me. As I look back on that experience I am still unsure how I survived. All I know is that something greater was looking out for me. Because of my childhood experience of being alone and not having much interaction with people especially peers my age made me a bit loner as I gotten older.
L.L.: What might you say to a 12 year old girl now—perhaps your own, or a patient—who confides in not being happy?
Habibo Haji: We have to teach our children how to learn to love themselves. Help them build self-esteem because when he or she has a good self-image, they are less likely seek approval from others. We have to teach them failure, and disappointment is a part of life but they can lean ways to develop their resilience muscle. I would tell the young girl to surround herself with positive role models to help her reach her potential. Ever heard the expression “Birds of a feather flock together”? She HAS to choose her friends wisely!
L.L.: I’m in such awe about you leaving Dadaab. You mention that your odds of leaving the camp were very slim (about 1 in 150,000). What was that process like and what might have happened had you not been selected for America?
Habibo Haji: WOW! That was a miracle. The process was long and it took us about a year interviews, medical check-ups, orientations, and travel plans. My ticket was $892 which I had to pay back to the government once I got a job here in the States.
Had I not being selected, MY life WOULD have been VERY different. I probably would have about 10 kids all living in a tent in the refugee camp(compare to 3 kids now living in a beautiful suburb 4 bed 2 bath home). I would not have the education I have today. I wouldn’t have a job and would have depended on hand-outs from the World Food Organization which is given once a month.
[Leslie’s note: This June 2016 Washington Times article indicates the refugee camp has subsequently been closed.]
L.L.: What factored into your choice to become a nurse?
Habibo Haji: I had two jobs paying minimum wage ($4.75 per hour) and I was barely surviving. A neighbor told me about working in a nursing home and getting paid ($10.75 per hour). I thought wow, now I can become rich! I took the nursing assistant entrance exam and failed miserably because I did not speak English and did not have any education background. I was told to study and come back in 3 months. I went to the library got books and tape, asked for a tutor at the library. After 3 months I took the test and passed. I took the nursing assistant course and got a job at the local nursing home. That is how I started my nursing careers. I fell in love with the older people in the nursing home. They would share their stories which made me warm and loved. They use to call me “smiley” they said I always had a smile on my face. I guess I did because I was grateful for being in America and having a job.
L.L.: Can you tell us a little about your family—your daughters and son? And also the family left behind in Africa?
Habibo Haji: I have two lovely daughters, 16, and 14. They are becoming amazing young ladies. We laugh and joke about my childhood sometimes.
My son is 8 years old, and he is super adorable.
It is not easy to be a single mother of 3 children, but I am thankful every day that God chose me to be their mother. I am honored and grateful for the things I have in my life. Everything I do today I do it because of them. I want to be the best version of myself. They make me better human. They inspire me. They changed my world view.
L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from CONQUERING THE ODDS?
Habibo Haji: CONQUERING THE ODDS will inspire people to take bold actions in their life. We all have struggles big or small. It is important not to settle in setbacks and adversity but rather take risks and develop high resiliency in order to overcome the hardships. Are we holding back from becoming the best version of ourselves because we are afraid of what others will say about us? Whenever I feel overwhelmed about what other people are saying about me or feel judged, I recite this quote from Les Brown:
“Other people’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality.”
L.L.: Habibo, this has been so touching and so enlightening. Thank you! Is there anything I forgot to ask that you would like to share?
Habibo Haji: Thanks, Leslie for giving me this opportunity to share my journey with your readers. One of the many reasons, I wrote this book is connect with the youth. I want to use my journey and help them learn they too can be resilient in their own struggles whether that is peer pressure, bullying, alcohol or drugs.
Per the CDC: Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2015 CDC WISQAR). 4/5 teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs. I want to be able to reach as many teens as I possibly can to enlighten them about resilience. I have been going to schools around the Midwest sharing my journey. I know with force we can help our youth make better decisions.
[Leslie’s Note: 2017 World Suicide Prevention Day is September 10th and outreach usually continues the week following. My own mother is a victim of suicide. As a former child/adolescent psych R.N. and mother of two tween girls, this is real, this is important.]
For more information, to purchase a copy of CONQUERING THE ODDS, or to connect with Habibo through social media, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: From shepherd girl in the dessert of Somalia to a bestselling Amazon author and Registered Nurse at Mayo Clinic, Habibo’s extraordinary story of how she went from struggling nomad and refugee to working at the number medical facility in the world. Habibo has helped people transformed their lives to be the best version of themselves. Habibo helps people realize struggles and hardship can be harnessed to build resilience and positive outlook in life.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:
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[Cover and author image courtesy of H. Haji and used with permission. Image of Somalian hut retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted, image of children getting water from ibtimes.uk.co, refugee camp tents retrieved from June 2016 Washington Times article, Habibo at Longfellow School via Twitter, all on 9.3.17]