“A woman that fled from Syria is stuck in Tanzania” was all I needed to read in a post from Nuri Kino, a freelance journalist, human rights activist and founder of A Demand For Action, to move me enough to act. I immediately contacted him and asked how I could help.
Although it has been deeply fulfilling to work in Kenya for the past six years empowering its people, ever since the civil war in Syria and ISIS attacks in Iraq broke out, I had a deep desire to respond to the needs of the refugees affected, especially, considering that was my home land. I guess God heard my yearning to help and I was put in contact with Rimista.
I arrive at her hostel in Dar es Salaam, a place Rimista says makes her sad because she sees mothers with their children and husbands, living in safety, free in their own country. It’s been years since she’s felt that way. She looks very weak and is trying to fight off cold-like symptoms. She takes me to the tiny room she shares with her younger son. We sit on the bed and Rimista begins telling me her story – a story that will forever be embedded in my mind.
It sounds like the stuff you see in movies. Details which I’d already read in Nuri’s article shock me still – forced to flee, husband kidnapped, beaten and held for ransom, fake passports, jail.. She talks of her journey to Turkey, and describes how she was beaten and humiliated as her young son watched on.
Reality hit me as she spoke; this refugee who had suffered unimaginable grief. I was engrossed in her story but tried to tame my emotions and anger so as not to overwhelm her even more. As she wiped away the constant tears cascading down her cheeks, she still shook her head in disbelief at what she had experienced. By this point, Rimista had totally consumed me. I was not in Africa. I was not in Dar es Salaam, nor in that hostel. I was in Istanbul. I was in that jail cell listening to her screams and watching a woman endure suffering in its highest degree. My stomach churned in disgust and my heart crumbled into a billion little pieces. My mind raged with anger. Our eyes met again, both swollen with tears and for a moment, there was silence. No words were needed. It was as though I could read her emotions and absorb her pain.
“I was taken from jail straight onto a plane, in handcuffs,” she tells me. “As I walked down the aisle of the plane, I shouted ‘Look at me. l am handcuffed because I am Syrian, because I am Christian. I am not a criminal, I am a refugee.’” An English gentleman snatched the keys from the police and unlocked the handcuffs himself.”
As she spoke of her experience, I thought of the amount of racism and discrimination endured by refugees. Unless you have personally experienced it, no words can accurately describe it. It saddened me to think that a woman who had lost everything because of the upheaval in her country, who was forced to leave everything about her comfortable life behind, still continued to suffer because of her identity as a Christian, a Syrian, a woman and, now, a refugee.
I have been with Rimista for a couple of days now and in between meetings to solve her immigration issues, shopping for her and her son’s necessities and checking up on her health, we sit and we talk, allowing the punishing thoughts and emotions that have flooded her wash over both of us.
I am determined to find a way out for Rimista. The help from Fr. Vic Missiaen from the Ministries of Africa here in Tanzania has been a great comfort to her. I have also stayed in touch with Nuri, who is working tirelessly in the US to raise funds with the support of A Demand for Action and Catholic Churches. I have spoken to Rev. Ashur Elkhoury of the Assyrian Church of the East in California who is also doing his best to help. Support has come in the way of funds and attempts to obtain a visa from Germany, Sweden and even Australia, where my dear mother is trying to secure a legal way for Rimista to get into the country. It warms my heart and renews my hope in humanity.
Rimista wants to return to her husband and older son in Iraq. I encourage her to have the strength and the patience to work on a visa for somewhere that can promise freedom, security and opportunity for her, her husband and her 2 boys.
“Rimista, we were not chosen to carry a child for nine months and suffer through labour if we were not a representation of strength,” I tell her. “Our spirits were built to be strong, heal and create life and that can never be broken or stolen from us.” I look into her eyes again, “You, my sister, are a courageous woman with great strength.”
“Sumer, you have given me that strength and all I have done is make you cry.”
I tell her she has misunderstood me.
“Yes I may have tears but listening to your story has only awakened the full potential strength of my womanhood in order to see others just like you regain their freedom. So just as I have given you strength, you have done the same for me; enough strength to knock down any barriers of injustice, inequality and disrespect for other woman that I may come across.”