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J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
windswept, remote outpost? Just
then, Ibrahim took off and ducked
into a tent.
Meeting Aisha
He emerged with a young So-
mali woman, dressed in a bright-
blue direh (billowing dress) with
her head covered in a turquoise-
colored scarf. An older Somali
male accompanied her. A group of
children and women quickly formed around us as we
were introduced outside the clinic.
“I want you to meet Aisha,” Ibrahim said, “and her
uncle, Abdi.” Ibrahim told me that Aisha’s family — her
father, mother and four brothers — had all been killed
during a gun battle in Mogadishu. She and her uncle
were the sole survivors.
Abdi had survived unscathed, but Aisha had been
shot several times. Four shots had shattered her right
arm just below the elbow. Abdi had taken her to a clinic
in Mogadishu, and a doctor had immediately amputated
the arm below her elbow to save her. She was 15 years
old at the time.
Ibrahim recounted how Aisha had managed to
scratch out a life for herself in the camp for the past two
years, helping other Somali women gather firewood,
fetch water and watch the younger children. Now 17,
she was hoping someday to marry a young man from her
clan and start a family.
“We Will Help You”
Aisha had proud, dark brown eyes and a delicate
beauty that was perfectly framed by her turquoise head-
scarf. Too shy to speak directly to us, she whispered to
her uncle who — through an interpreter — told us she
had asked whether the American could help her. With
only one arm, and a left arm at that, she worried that her
chances of attracting a Somali husband were slim.
I conferred with Ibrahim, who said the U.N. High
Commissioner for Refugees unfortunately did not have
any programs to provide prosthetic devices to victims of
violence. And the various agencies and organizations
working in the camp were all overburdened with their
own caseloads.
“We will help you,” I declared, with all the decisiveness
I could muster — even though I had no idea how to help
her. Just like that. No Inshallah
(“God willing”) appended to the
statement to give me an out if the
task proved too daunting. It was a
simple, declarative sentence — a
After all, I represented the
United States, the land of possibili-
ties. But did I really understand the
responsibility I had taken upon my-
self? Did I have a right to make
such a commitment without knowing for sure that I could
deliver on my promise?
Aisha smiled shyly and turned away. Had I given her
a false sense of hope? Or was she already so jaded by the
traumatic circumstances of her young life that she did
not expect much from a newly arrived foreigner who
would be gone by nightfall?
Working the System
When I returned to Addis Ababa the next day, I re-
solved to find out whether my UNHCR colleagues could
help me resolve Aisha’s dilemma. No one could offer a
practical solution, though, and the press of other refugee
business and planning for a visit to Somaliland soon con-
spired to push the issue to the back burner. But my
promise kept nagging at me.
An introductory call on the head of the International
Committee of the Red Cross in Addis a week later gave
me my first lead. During our discussion, the ICRC
chief mentioned his organization’s center for producing
and fitting prostheses for landmine victims. I told him
about Aisha and he said that even though she was not a
landmine victim, he would consider including her in the
program if I could get her to Addis and provide for her
welfare during her stay.
Later that afternoon, I called my UNHCR contacts
and asked if they could fly Aisha and her uncle (Somali
custom would not permit her to travel unaccompanied)
to the capital on one of their regular logistics support
flights from eastern Ethiopia. Again, I was told that the
case was unorthodox, but they would consider it if I
could guarantee them that someone would provide
shelter and meals for the two during their stay.
In the evening, I called my contact at the Interna-
tional Organization for Migration, which helped pro-
vide shelter for refugees in Addis before they were
Aisha had proud,
dark brown eyes and
a delicate beauty that was
perfectly framed by her
turquoise headscarf.