How My Bookworm Sister Left Our Refugee Camp | KUOW News and Information

How My Bookworm Sister Left Our Refugee Camp

Feb 18, 2016

My sister Nasteha Muse fought hard to get an education.

We grew up in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Our parents migrated there because of the conflict in Somalia, where they are from. Nasteha remembers the camp as "very harsh, dusty and hot." 

"The whole place was really very hostile," she told me.

I didn't know anything about the world, so I would go to the library, just pick books and read.

I am the youngest of eight siblings and the only one that was born in Kakuma, so I had a different experience in the camp. Kakuma was actually really fun for me, like a playground.

I didn't worry about going to school. Nasteha, the eldest of our eight siblings, did. 

In the United States we take the right to public education for granted. That's not the case for many refugees, like me and my siblings.  

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Our parents didn't work and couldn't afford education for us. Nasteha was determined to learn anyway. Reading was an escape for her, and she read anything she could find.

"I didn't know anything about the world," she said, "so I would go to the library, just pick books and read."

When Nasteha was 14 years old, she took a test. It was the same test all middle schoolers in Kenya had to take to get into high school, but there was no high school at Kakuma. Nasteha figured that after middle school she would stay home like any other student in the camp.

After she took the exam, workers from the United Nations refugee agency came to our house and explained to Nasteha that she had scored very well on the test. She had received the highest score of all the girls in the camp. Because of this, she got a scholarship to get into high school.

Nasteha was placed into Chepareria Girl's Secondary School, a Catholic boarding school located a day away from Kakuma. At first, however, our mom refused to let Nasteha go.

"The UN came and said they wanted to take my daughter to school," my mother told me. "I said no. They came back again. I said no again.

"I was afraid she was going to be kidnapped because the school was so far away."

The distance between the boarding school and the refugee camp: 

I never went to school and was taught to take care of animals. I realized I didn't want the same for my daughter just because she was a girl.

The UN workers were persistent. They said they would pay for everything – the backpacks, books and pencils –and invited our mom to visit the school. That was a turning point for our mother. After visiting the school, she realized how important education was.

"[Nasteha] was always an open-minded girl who loved to learn," she said. "I grew up in a small village with cows and camels. I never went to school and was taught to take care of animals. I realized I didn't want the same for my daughter just because she was a girl."

Kakuma Refugee Camp
Credit Flickr / tom albinson

Nasteha left the refugee camp and moved into the boarding school. She started doing well right away. She took Christian religious studies, English, biology and Kiswahili, and was always second or third in her class. She liked her biology and English teachers the most. 

Nasteha said her English teacher had a big influence on her. 

"She was my friend and was actually one of the reasons I was in the school. Whenever I fought, she would advise me, 'Contain your anger. Don't fight.  It's not worth it.' She always encouraged me."

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Once Nasteha got suspended for two days for protesting the transfer of her favorite biology teacher to a different school. After the suspension, she had to bring a parent to the school to discuss the matter.

Nasteha confided in her English teacher that she couldn't go home, because our mom wouldn't let her come back to school. Her teacher said "OK, let's get someone that looks like your mom."

Nasteha's teacher knew a woman "who looked Somali, but she was Kenyan. She had the hijab and everything." The woman went with Nasteha to school, claimed to be her aunt, and signed the necessary papers for her.

"And that was it!" Nesteha said. "I kept that secret. I didn't tell anybody!" 

The English teacher is the principal of the school now, and she and Nasteha are still Facebook friends.

Faise Muse at RadioActive's Community Listening Party
Credit Colleen McDevitt / KUOW

After living in Kakuma for eight  years, our family moved to Seattle in 2006. It was a culture shock. I started going to school for the first time. It was not what I expected when I came to Seattle. I thought the U.S. would be similar to the refugee camp where I just stayed home and played with my  friends all day.

My sister now had to worry about making money while figuring out a way to continue her education.

"Here I was forced to grow up so quickly," she told me. "The first thing even before I started college was to get a job."

Nasteha worked and went to school. She attended Highline Community College for two years, then transferred to the University of Washington where she majored in public health. Now 28, Nasteha works as a health and nutrition coordinator.

Nasteha took pride in being a role model for me and my siblings. She always told me: "Never worry about what you're going to do. Just do it. Try your best now, because education lasts forever."

RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW's program for youth age 16 to 20ish. This story was produced in RadioActive's Intro to Radio Journalism Workshop at the Seattle Public Library - Columbia Branch. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

Flickr Photos (CC BY-ND 2.0) by European Commission DG ECHO (top) and Tom Albinson (center).