Severely injured Somali woman finds hope in Atlanta
By Helena Olivier
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
It’s late August and Faduma Ahmed Mohamed, a 19-year-old woman from Somalia, emerges from a gate at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport concealed in gray scarves; even her hands are covered.
Phil Skinner firstname.lastname@example.org Two years after her marriage, the 19-year-old arrived in Atlanta, by herself, hiding the scars her husband gave her.
At 17 (top), Somalian refugee Faduma Mohamed was a new bride.
Phil Skinner email@example.com Hussien Mohamed first learned of Faduma’s plight through a video on the Internet. “I felt like I had to protect her. I just felt this huge sense of responsibility,” he said.
Phil Skinner firstname.lastname@example.org Ellen Beattie (from left), Sam Marie Engle and Hussien Mohamed (far right) were among the metro Atlanta community members who helped bring Faduma to America. Hussien Mohamed is her sponsor.
Hussien Mohamed, an Ethiopian American and no relation, recognizes the young woman’s eyes — big and round, sweet as can be — through her shroud.
Mohamed knows what Faduma is trying to hide. He’s also afraid — for her, mostly, but also for himself and the risk he’s taken bringing this young woman from Africa to Atlanta.
“We are here to help you,” he tells her reassuringly. “Everything is going to be OK.”
The first time Mohamed saw Faduma was on a computer screen in a YouTube video. She was weeping softly in a hospital bed in Kenya, begging for help.
Then, as at the airport, she tried to hide her body, lifting a polka-dotted hospital sheet to her chin. But the teenager couldn’t hide her tortured flesh. Her cheeks — twisted, bumpy and stretched like putty — didn’t belong on her cherubic face.
In late 2009, Faduma’s husband doused the pretty, then-17-year-old with flawless skin with kerosene, lit a match and set her on fire in a jealous rage. She was burned from her cheeks to her thighs.
And she suffered alone. Faduma’s parents were dead. Her sister was lost to her years ago in an arranged marriage. Languishing in a hospital for a year, Faduma’s life seemed hopeless.
But those faraway images of Faduma — burned, disfigured and in so much pain she couldn’t even lie down — eventually made their way to Mohamed’s computer screen in Atlanta.
What followed was a heroic campaign to rescue Faduma from her suffering and give her a new life in America. Men and women from across metro Atlanta, many of whom never met one another, joined to raise money, petition the U.S. State Department and create a home for her in Atlanta.
Staff at Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention drew on contacts in Africa, local churches and mosques raised money, and businesses contributed basics such as furniture and clothing.
“When I first heard about it, the story was horrific,” said Sam Marie Engle, senior associate director of Emory University’s Office of University/Community Partnerships. “And then when I saw the pictures later, it was even worse than I imagined. A beautiful young woman who didn’t deserve that. It’s one of those stories you hear about and there is no way you can’t do anything.”
Rarely does a refugee come to this country without a single family tie. Faduma had no one.
But Faduma now had Mohamed and others who hoped to grow into her new family.
“For me, on a very human level, I saw a woman who had no one in the world,” said Mohamed, an Ethiopian who fled to Somalia as a teenager in the 1980s. “She needed help. How could I not?”
Rallying the community
Mohamed’s work with refugees stems from his own experience. He was beaten during an attempted robbery shortly after arriving in Chicago in the early 1980s as an Ethiopian refugee.
Now at Emory University in the Office of University Community Partnerships, Mohamed hosts the Sagal Radio Services radio station, which broadcasts weekly programs in six languages geared to helping refugees adjust to life in Atlanta. His program teaches everything from fire and personal safety, to warning newly arriving refugees not to fear the booming fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Last December, Mohamed was doing his regular Saturday broadcast in Somali from his studio near Decatur when a distraught listener called to insist he watch a video of a severely burned teenage girl. The images were being viewed around the globe.
Mohamed clicked on the YouTube video and nearly broke down. The teenager’s arms were charred; they didn’t look like they could be attached to anyone living. The skin on her neck was pinched and missing flesh.
“I just thought to myself, how does this happen to someone?” said Mohamed.
The impulse to help Faduma was immediate. Buoyed by his listeners, Mohamed went door to door in his neighborhood with a plastic bag, asking for donations for Faduma. He collected $1,300 and sent her the money for food, medical care and other basics.
Mohamed gave his listeners frequent updates. They urged him to do more. And in his heart, he knew he had to do more — much more.
He sent emails to everyone he knew, including his boss, Sam Marie Engle at Emory. Pleas to help Faduma landed on multiple CDC listservs and in thousands of Atlanta area residents’ in-boxes.
With a sense of urgency, Engle reached out to her contacts among Emory doctors, local nonprofits and other professionals. Ultimately, that led her to Dr. Rachel Eidex, a CDC employee in Nairobi. And within about a week, Eidex visited Faduma in her hospital bed and saw firsthand the severity of her burns.
Already a plan was taking shape to bring Faduma to Atlanta as a refugee from Somalia. But Faduma needed one important thing: a sponsor.
“I knew I was in the position to be her sponsor,” said Mohamed, who is divorced and has a 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. “I remember thinking, what if this was my daughter or my mother? I would want someone to help.”
As Faduma’s sponsor, Mohamed was given a list of ways to help, such as furnishing her apartment, meeting her at the airport and offering her emotional support. Asked to commit to some of them, he instead checked every box.
The eyewitness report from Eidex also proved critical: It made the case in Faduma’s application that refugee status should be expedited for medical reasons.
Faduma’s application to the State Department — initially filed in April 2009 and one of thousands from Somalis hoping to start a new life in America — suddenly rose to the top. The State Department approved her application in July, seven months after the Atlanta community pushed her case.
As word spread about Faduma’s impending arrival to Atlanta more people offered to help. A CORT furniture store in Atlanta donated a dining room table, a couch and bed. The Oak Grove United Methodist Church near Decatur started a collection, as did area mosques. Masso Fashion, a Clarkston clothing store, donated bags of scarves and dresses.
And just days before Faduma’s arrival, Bob Keegan, a retired CDC employee, called a group of friends and colleagues and suggested they turn their regular pizza get-together into a fundraiser for Faduma. He went home with a full belly and $770 for Faduma.
“I was alarmed and upset by it,” said Keegan, who read about Faduma’s plight on a CDC listserv. Keegan had visited Somalia three times while working at the CDC. “Just the thought of her being all alone affected me.”
The kitchen attack
By the time of her attack at the age of 17, Faduma was already a refugee. She left her native Somalia and moved to Kenya at the age of 13 to escape one of Africa’s cruelest civil wars.
Her father died when she was a baby; she doesn’t know what happened. Three years ago, her mom was working as a street sweeper in Mogadishu when a roadside bomb exploded. Faduma’s mother and dozens of others were killed.
When she was 14, she was wedded in an arranged marriage but it didn’t last. She married again within a few years.
On Dec. 28, 2009, Faduma awoke early to make breakfast. Her cellphone rang. It was her ex-husband. He called to tell her his sister had died. They spoke briefly.
She hung up the phone. Still in the kitchen, her husband threw kerosene over her body and lit the match.
Later, her refugee application to the State Department described the attack as occurring while she slept. Faduma believes she might have incorrectly related this detail just after the incident, while she slipped in and out of consciousness, or it might have been wrongly speculated during her earliest days in the hospital.
In her telling, she remembers racing to a neighbor’s house for help. The pain was so intense she passed out. Some time later, maybe hours, maybe days, she woke up in a clinic, an oxygen mask around her neck. With her body swollen and her burns severe, she was transferred to Nairobi.
Faduma’s burns had fused her thighs together. Her arms were cemented to her side; her neck was attached to her shoulder. All told, more than 60 percent of her body was severely burned — stretching from her cheeks and arms, her hands and chest, all the way to her thighs.
Faduma underwent seven surgeries at a Kenyan hospital to help break her limbs free. She still had limited use of her body. The pain and discomfort were acute. And she continued to experience shortness of breath.
What kept Faduma going, against all odds, she said, were the doctors and nurses.
“They were always encouraging me,” she said through an interpreter, “telling me I will have a new life.”
Ellen Beattie, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta, serves about 900 refugees moving here every year, and is the local resettlement agency for Faduma.
Beattie knew Faduma’s situation would be particularly challenging. She needed a job — and specialized care to cope with the trauma of her injuries and anxiety of her disfigurement.
Refugees arriving in the U.S. are given limited public assistance and then typically are on their own — often within eight months. Faduma is receiving about $1,100 in cash and goods for her first three months to help pay for food, clothing, rent and utilities. She will then get $350 a month for rent for three months, and $200 a month in food stamps. Her Medicaid coverage will likely expire early next year. In less than a year, unless special provisions are made, she will be on her own and will not have government assistance to help cover her expenses or medical care.
Even for people who regularly work with refugees, the situation was daunting.
“I was scared,” said Mohamed. “Faduma was putting her trust in me. I felt like I had to protect her. I just felt this huge sense of responsibility.”
Beattie and Mohamed discussed ways to meet Faduma’s special needs. They liked the idea of getting Faduma a roommate for companionship but worried that she might need more of a caregiver.
They weren’t sure if Faduma could cook or dress herself.
But Faduma surprised everyone.
At Hartsfield-Jackson, Faduma’s first introduction to American life was threatening: She was afraid of the escalators. Mohamed assured her they were safe, and showed her how they worked.
Mohamed drove her to her new apartment in the Atlanta area. It was fully furnished. The refrigerator was stocked.
Mohamed continues to check on Faduma every day. He does her grocery shopping, accompanies her to see doctors.
Mohamed reached out to women who speak Somali and Swahili (Faduma speaks both). He knew women could provide a special kinship, and inevitably, she would feel more comfortable tackling some subjects with other women. Some of her new friends stop by with food, or to wash her dishes and clean her apartment.
Shortly after arriving here, Mohamed showed Faduma emails and cards written by concerned residents wanting to help.
“I feel the love,” she said through an interpreter. “It makes me feel good. It gives me hope.”
Faduma is petrified of the stove and has yet to turn it on, not even to make tea.
Still, Faduma pushes herself every day.
“Every time I ask her if she can do things, she says yes,” said Mohamed.
She cooks. She cleans. She can dress herself.
And while tears sometimes roll down her cheeks, she also has an easy smile. She looks forward to her visits from women in the Somali community. She’s eager to learn English. And she likes to try new things. One day she excitedly called Mohamed.
“She said, ‘I just tried these little chickens in a red sauce. I really like them,’” said Mohamed. “Chicken wings. Who would have thought it?’”
But she’s also tormented by the appearance of her scars. She avoids going outside; she doesn’t want people to stare at her burns. And she struggles to sleep every night.
Sometimes, she said, she’ll catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Or she’ll look at one of the four photographs of herself she brought with her. Each one shows a pretty young woman, her whole life ahead of her.
Faduma said her dream is to go into medicine and help burn victims. Mohamed said he could see Faduma someday working in the medical field.
For now, Faduma knows she must first save herself.
And she’s comforted she’s not alone.
If you’d like to help
To find out ways you can help Faduma, contact Hussien Mohamed at email@example.com or Sam Marie Engle of Emory University’s Office of University/Community Partnerships at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta at www.rescue.org/Atlanta
AJC reporter Helena Oliviero interviewed Faduma Ahmed Mohamed through a translator to capture a powerful story of a young woman in need, and the Atlanta community that came to her aid. Her extensive account, available only in the AJC, is the first published report of Faduma’s extraordinary rescue from an African hospital.