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Somali woman forced into exile by her love of the beautiful game

Telling the Human Story, 15 March 2012

© UNHCR/G.Beals
Refugee and mother Maymun shows off her football skills in a Djibouti camp.

ALI ADDEH REFUGEE CAMP, Djibouti, March 15 (UNHCR) Maymun Muhyadine Mohamed loved to run and play football in the streets of Mogadishu. Her skills won her a medal and a cap at a local competition.

But Somalia's Al Shabaab militia saw her enjoyment as an act of defiance. "They said 'women are not allowed to play sports. You have to stop playing and put on your hijab [modest Islamic clothing and head covering],'" Maymun said, recounting her story at the Ali Addeh Refiugee Camp in Djibouti.

It wasn't as if Maymun was un-Islamic. She wore Islamic dress when she wasn't playing football. It was just that when she was running and manoeuvering on the field of play, the long garments impeded her movement. She was told that if she continued to play sports, she would be executed.

Last year, the militants instructed Maymun's husband to control his wife. But Abdi Abu Bakar, 23, saw the joy his wife received from football. He told them to mind their own business. And so, as happens all too often in Somalia, one night their house was attacked and her husband was murdered.

"When my husband died. I was four months pregnant," she said. Maymun waited in Mogadishu until her daughter, Fahima, was born before she decided to escape. She sold her medal and her cap for US$30 to get the money to leave Somalia it was as if she was selling a piece of her soul.

Maymun had a choice: either flee towards the refugee camps at Dadaab in Kenya or take the longer trip north to Djibouti. "There was a lot of fighting on the way to Dadaab," she said. "But the road to Djibouti is safe." She caught a lorry with her baby, but the $30 was not enough to make it to the border.

She found herself begging for help and fearful of what might happen to her and her child. But there was more kindness along the road than she expected. Trucks filled with vegetables were making their way towards Somaliland and Djibouti. The drivers were kind enough to give rides to other survivors of conflict trying to flee Somalia.

She reached the border with Djibouti and was surprised by another phenomenon. Many of those who were leaving Somalia had plans to travel across the Red Sea to work in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

"We were 38 people crossing the border," she said, adding that 31 of the group opted to continue by boat to Yemen. Maymun refused to take the risk of such a dangerous crossing. She was the mother of a young child and had found something approaching normalcy. "I was assisted by the refugee agencies of this country [Djibouti]," she said. "I don't want die at sea."

In the Ali Addeh camp, Maymun attends primary school during the morning and plays football with the boys in the afternoon. Smugglers have come to the camp, trying to lure refugees to journey to Yemen or the Persian Gulf with promises of well-paid jobs as servants. But Maymun continues to refuse. Like most refugees who flee Somalia, she would like to be resettled in a third country. She wants to go about the process legally and safely.

But above all she never wants to lose the joy in her life. She still remembers the day that her husband was killed and the moment when she had to sell her precious sports trophies to escape the violence and the shelling. "Inshallah, if I ever win a medal or a cap again I will never sell them," she says. "I will keep them in a safe place and show them to my child when she grows up."

For Maymun, the perfect future is not about conflict, or power or even financial security. "I don't want money. I don't need money," she says. "I only want the chance to continue playing football and feeling joy."

By Greg Beals and Charlemagne Kekou Akan in Ali Addeh Refugee Camp, Djibouti

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