Fowzia Adde: Overcoming barriers for refugee women

Fowzia Adde is at work in her office in the Townsite Center in Moorhead. Every minute, it seems, a bing from her computer indicates the arrival of another email—from businesses seeking funds from her organization, groups inviting her to conferences on gender equality and female empowerment, an elderly relative asking for help coming to America.

Fowzia Adde at the IDC. Photo by Katie Beedy.
Fowzia Adde at the IDC. Photo by Katie Beedy.

Adde is the executive director of the Immigrant Development Center, a nonprofit organization committed to helping immigrants and refugees find economic prosperity in the Fargo-Moorhead community. Symbols of her accomplishments can be found on every surface of the spacious room: framed certificates sit on her bookshelves, blueprints of the IDC’s latest project, the International Marketplace, hang on the beige walls next to photographs of her eight children, and a glass trophy bearing the words “YWCA Woman of the Year” pokes out from beneath the clutter of papers and coffee cups that cover her desk. A ray of sun shines through the window and falls on the award, catching Adde’s eye.

“It didn’t happen magically,” she says, taking the trophy in her hands. “It was a lifetime of changes that brought me here.”

Since 1997, Adde has learned to maneuver a new life as a minority among minorities: a refugee woman in a country that has for so long catered to white, English-speaking men.

Adde’s experience, while remarkable, is not singular. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, women and girls comprise about half of the tens of thousands of refugees who come to America in search of sanctuary every year. It is not possible for native United States citizens to fully comprehend the hardships that any refugee, regardless of gender, must endure; this experience becomes even more complicated when the refugee is a woman.   As a result of gender roles and their position in society, they are at an increased risk for discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence.

“The huge sound of weapons, like thunder”

Thirteen-year-old Adde was in her form one classroom in Mogadishu, Somalia, when the war began. The year was 1990, and rebel groups, hoping to overthrow the regime of President Siad Barre, had entered the capital city. Adde and her classmates, just teenagers, sat terrified in their seats as the sounds of screams and gunfire echoed outside.

“If you didn’t come from a country that’s war-torn, it’s hard to realize,” she said.  “It’s the huge sound of weapons, like thunder.”

The sounds grew closer and closer to the school as parents began to arrive. Adde watched as her friends were taken in the arms of their crying parents, not knowing whether she would see them again. Her own mother finally came to bring her home, to what they thought was safety.  Once home, Adde and her six younger siblings were ushered into the basement. Her father, who was working for the government at the time, had already fled. “He was the first target,” she said.

The house shook and dust began to fall from the ceiling, and Adde’s mother knew that they could not remain hidden in that basement. They began making plans. All of the banks had been closed, so the residents of Mogadishu had to find other ways to get the money they needed. Luckily, her mother had a fair amount of gold jewelry saved. “She wanted to buy the new styles,” Adde said. “She didn’t know that this would be something that would save us in the future.”

Every day her mother would take those treasured pieces—necklaces, bracelets, rings— out from their boxes and drawers and sell them in the market for less than a quarter of what she had originally paid.  Three months later, with enough money saved, Adde’s mother gathered the children and told them to pack only what they could carry on their small backs.  Together they fled by foot and bus to the port town of Barawa, more than 200 km away.

Barawa, while farther from the violence, presented Adde’s family with its own challenges. Compared to Mogadishu, Barawa was a small, impoverished town.

“That was the worst thing that happened to us,” Adde said. “Nobody wanted to buy [gold] from her. Nobody had money.”

They stayed in Barawa for three months. During this time, Adde took on the role of daughter, sister, and mother. She would walk miles to fetch enough water to give each of the kids a bath. She entertained and comforted them while they waited for their mother to return with food. When she did return, she came bearing only the head of an animal and less than half a pound of rice— all to feed seven hungry children.

Prior to the war, meals had been a time for Adde and her family to gather around large, communal plates of hot meats and rice. The children would scoop up their own servings, always filling their stomachs. In Barawa, with food so limited, they let their mother divide their portions for them. Nobody wanted to share. “When life is like that, you lose your choices,” she said. “You just want to get out of that problem, and you want to look for a way out.”

A fishing boat to Kenya

Their way out was a small fishing boat traveling from Barawa to Kenya. Adde’s family survived the trip, but many others did not. She recalls watching whole boats go down in front of their own. But the coast of Kenya was no safer for them than the water; they were illegal refugees, some of the first to arrive in Kenya, and they came with no paperwork. For four days they sat in that crowded boat as the Kenyan government blocked them from setting foot on solid ground.

“We thought, ‘what now? Now we reached a safe place, and nobody wants us,’” she said.

Finally, the United Nations and the Kenyan government reached a deal to take in refugees. Legs shaking from hunger and seasickness, Adde and her family stepped off the boat and began the journey to the refugee camp.

The camp was located on the outskirts of Mombasa, a very damp, muddy part of Kenya, where malaria ran rampant and the tents provided by the UN collapsed when the rain came. There were no sources of clean water, no private bathrooms. Adde’s immune system, accustomed to the mild weather in Mogadishu, was not prepared for such conditions. She contracted malaria in the first months.

“But I was one of the fortunate,” she said. “I made it through.”

Adde’s mother, desperate to provide a better life for her family, refused to stay in that camp for more than a year. She sold her belongings in downtown Mombasa and found an apartment in the city. Adde finished her high school education and learned medicine in Mombasa. Eventually, she was hired by the UN to become a nurse in the camps. She made a monthly salary of $50, but she never saw that check. Her mother would pick up Adde’s salary every month, and along with the money she continued to make in the markets, pay the rent on the apartment. The family lived in that apartment for six years.

“After that, I knew life will be better,” Adde says. “We just paid a lot for a price, you know?”

On June 16, 1997, Adde left her family and her war-torn home behind and fled to America; however, like many women, her struggle did not cease when she stepped off of that plane in Washington, D.C.

Refugee women face barriers and isolation

Hank Tkachuk, a professor of communication studies at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, has spent the last 30 years working with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Lutheran Social Services to help resettle refugees. He has also created curriculum which allows students in his Intercultural Communication class to act as mentors for local refugees every semester. For three decades he has worked with refugees, many of them women, attempting to break down the barriers that prevent them from beginning anew in America.

“Women were less likely to be educated, they were less likely to have linguistic skills, they were less likely to have worked outside of the home,” Tkachuk said. “Add those all up, it makes it much harder to be a refugee woman than be a man.”

Darci Ashe, who has collaborated with Tkachuk for much of her career, has worked with Adde and other refugee women for more than 20 years. She is a foster parent for unaccompanied minors, a former longtime employee at Lutheran Social Services, and the current Director of Development at the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment, or WE Center, in Fargo. Asche and her coworkers at the WE Center are committed to educating the community and helping New Americans grow accustomed to their new home. They offer resources like cultural competency training, new business training, behavioral health guidance, and a language exchange program.  In all of these roles, Ashe has been exposed to the challenges that these women face. The greatest obstacle she sees in the lives of the female refugees she works with is a sense of isolation. Many of them come from villages where family and friends lived side by side, offering companionship and sharing the burden of childbearing. When they come to America, they leave this community behind.

“If they have small children, it doesn’t really make sense for them to have a job and then try to figure out how to pay childcare,” she said. “So a lot of times the husband will have more than one job and the women will stay home with the children. That just completely puts a halt to any kind of integration because they’re stuck at home.”

Jonix Owino is not a refugee, but she is familiar with the experience of transitioning to American life as an African woman. She has also seen this kind of isolation at work. After completing her undergraduate work in her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya, Owino moved to Fargo to obtain her master’s of sociology degree at North Dakota State University. One day after moving to Fargo, she had a conversation with a refugee woman who had been in America for more than 10 years.

“I asked her, ‘Who are your friends? What are your networks?’” Owino said. “She told me that she had nobody outside of her immediate family.”

Owino was inspired by this one woman’s experience to complete her master’s thesis on the isolation of refugee women in America. She designed a study to see if such isolation was a common theme among all refugee women in the area and interviewed ten refugee women, all 40 years or older and from different countries. She found that all of them, to some extent, were experiencing the same isolation.

While compiling her research, Owino found that some of the most common causes of this isolation were cultural differences, language barriers, and a lack of opportunities to connect with local people. Many of these women are escaping war and violence in countries that placed a very strong emphasis on community and family. “Moving into a very individualistic society can make it harder for them to recover from their very distressing lives,” she said.

For this reason, Owino and Ashe agree that women like Adde, who come to America without a spouse or children, are at an advantage. Without a husband to rely on they are forced to integrate; to receive government benefits they are required to go out, learn English, and get a job.

Adde: Help from strangers

Adde was a registered nurse in Kenya, trained to help treat refugees like herself who suffered from disease and injury. In America, she considered herself lucky when she found her first job: working as a housekeeper at the Savoy Hotel. But the back-breaking work cleaning rooms could barely pay for her first month’s rent, so she took on a second job as a cashier at 7/11.

At this convenience store in Southeast Washington, one of the district’s most dangerous neighborhoods, Adde had her first encounter with the danger and discrimination so notoriously faced by refugee women.

“There was a supervisor there who was a very bad man,” she said. “He knew I was young and he knew I was innocent, I was new. He took advantage of me. I worked 40 hours, I would only get paid for 25. I don’t know what he did with my other hours…To this day, I curse him. He used me. I needed that money, you know? And he took advantage of me.”

At the time, Adde did not fight back. “I wish I knew how to complain… I didn’t pick up my voice. I didn’t want to lose my job.”

Despite the injustice she faced during those long two-shift days,  Adde’s bright smile and trusting heart helped her find company in the least likely places.  First, there were her neighbors: a family of Vietnamese refugees, who made her dinner on her first night in America. Then there was the middle-aged Spanish woman who trained her at the Savoy and whose resilience and work ethic inspired her to keep going. There was the bus driver who drove her home after all of her two-shift days, calling out “Fowzia! It’s 16th Avenue. Go home,” on the nights when she fell asleep in her seat. Finally, there were the customers she met at the 7/11. There was a school for the deaf in the neighborhood, and students would often stop by the store between classes. She spoke to them in hand gestures, her own improvised version of American Sign Language.

“You know what I liked about the deaf university?” she asks. “I could understand them because my language is already deaf in this country.”

The challenge of culture shock
Even when refugee women are able to find work and some sense of community, culture shock can still prevent them from growing accustomed to their new life.

“For a lot of the women, where they’re coming from, there’s already a kind of oppression,” Ashe explains. “And so when they come to the U.S., often times women are struggling to kind of figure out how to maneuver in that more progressive atmosphere.”

In many ways, this new, progressive society can bring with it new forms of oppression. Many of the traditions and customs that these women have known their whole lives are no longer acceptable when they come to America, and they are forced to choose between carrying on a tradition that is considered  inappropriate or to give up a piece of themselves.

One drastic difference that refugee women must adapt to is a new kind of childrearing. “Childrearing customs and habits vary widely, and they’re not always acceptable here,” Tkachuk said. “Most of the places where these refugee women come from use more corporal punishment… so it’s harder, even, because they don’t have parenting strategies that are okay here.”
Clothing is another point of contention for many refugee women, specifically those escaping violence and turmoil in a primarily Muslim nation. Tkachuk has experienced this struggle secondhand in his time resettling refugees.

“Men are easy, because men will wear Western clothing,” he said. “We can get used or thrift store pants, shirts, and a suit coat for men,  and they’re happy as clams…. The women do not wear Western clothing.”

Adde, who wears long, flowing dresses in her office rather than Western slacks or a suit, agrees. “If you are a Muslim woman, you carry the tradition,” she said. “You cover your hair, you wear a long dress, and automatically you are a target of some fools who are racist. I think that people who are racist are very sick… There is no space in me for racism. I feel a human being is a human being. Woman carries tradition, so she is the number one target.”

After six months of working two jobs, sleeping only on the bus rides between shifts, and being harassed by her boss only to barely make enough money to pay her rent and put food on her table, Adde decided to leave Washington, D.C. Several of her friends from the refugee camp in Kenya had been resettled in Fargo, where they told her the rent was cheaper, the people were kinder,  and the jobs were easier to find.

“Good stuff” happened in Fargo

In December of 1997, in the middle of one of the city’s snowiest winters, Adde arrived in Fargo by bus. “Then, a lot of good stuff happened.” She found an apartment that cost $420 a month— half of the rent on her apartment in D.C. She got a full-time job working on a production line at Sheyenne Dakota, Inc. She began taking English classes in the evening. She got married and gave birth to her first child in 1998.

This life, while more pleasant and prosperous than the brief one she led in Washington,  still bore its own disappointments.

“I lost my hope of being a nurse anymore,” Adde said. “I told my caseworker that I used to be a nurse, and I gave her all of my certificates. She tried to find me a job working somewhere close, a clinic or the family health center or something, she applied me to three jobs and I couldn’t get any jobs. It was fine with me, I said ‘to hell of it,’ you know?”

Adde took the CNA test without going to a single class.

She scored 100%.

Even after this feat, Adde was unable to find a job in the medical field. However, she knew that she was meant to do more than turn down sheets in hotel rooms, work night shifts at convenience stores, and assemble wires on a production line.  She took an over-the-phone interpreting job through Network Omni, a translation service company out of Oakland, California. She worked out of her apartment in Fargo, and spent her days bridging the language gap between non-English speakers and their employers, caseworkers, doctors.

“I was like that movie, ‘Bruce Almighty,’” she said.  “I will hear everybody’s stories because I am interpreting. I would interpret somebody whose water was cut, and another one electricity cut, somebody broke their hip I am there, there is an accident or somebody’s getting a ticket I will be there. Somebody who is very sick in the hospital, somebody who’s kid ran away, everything.”

It became increasingly difficult for Adde to walk in the shoes of the disenfranchised for eight hours a day without becoming emotionally involved with her clients.

“When I see something wrong happening, I will interrupt,” she said. “I almost got in trouble a couple of times because they would say ‘Your job is to interpret, not to advocate. Stop caring for these people or you will lose your job.’ I said ‘Alright, I want to lose my job.’”

Adde left Network Omni without any idea what her next step would be. Without a job she had no money, but she still had to pay her rent. She was also sending money back to her mother and siblings in Africa every month.

Motivated by the stories she heard from her clients at Network Omni and her own experiences as a female refugee, Adde committed her time to volunteering with several groups in the Fargo-Moorhead area. She became a voice for the racially, sexually, and financially oppressed.

Adde picked up the trophy on her desk. “When I got this, I didn’t know I was a ‘Young Leader of Today,’” she said. “The women around me decided that. I was just volunteering. I would do everything.”

Adde's award sits on her desk at IDC. Photo by Katie Beedy.
Adde’s award sits on her desk at IDC. Photo by Katie Beedy.

In 2003, the same year that she received the award from the YWCA, Adde’s volunteer work culminated in the creation of the Immigrant Development Center. Today, Adde and the IDC assist new Americans by providing funding and entrepreneurial training for those who wish to start businesses in the area. Some of the businesses that they have helped create include restaurants, ethnic grocery stores, and clothing stores.

“It came together because I have seen a lot of stuff that’s missing from the programs that are giving to the refugee community,” she said. “There is a need for an increase in programs. There is a need of making sure they have a chance. It’s not people who want to destroy this country…it’s people who decided to come to a land of opportunity, and want to make it better for their family, you know? They are hard workers. They are looking for chances to be given, and this is that chance. It’s for the believers.”

Programs to help women aren’t accessible

Asche explains that the lack of assistance available to refugee women in the Fargo-Moorhead area is not due to a lack of trying. “There are programs that are out there and there are programs that are available,” she says. “It’s just that they’re not accessible, either for financial reasons or just sheer need.” The Adult Learning Center, which offers English language classes to New Americans, fills to capacity. Southeast Human Services and the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center work with victims of sexual violence, a common occurrence with refugee women, but their resources are limited. Asche hopes to form a women’s group through the Consortium, where refugee women can talk about their experiences in a comfortable communal atmosphere. Again, money is her greatest obstacle.

“You know, there’s nobody throwing around $400,000 to form a women’s program,” she says.

Ashe says that Adde’s success and her contributions to the F-M are just one example of the things refugee women can accomplish, if only they are given support and assistance.

“I think the number one top word for working with refugee women is ‘resilience’,” she said. “Just seeing how resilient they are, considering what they’ve been through. I still can’t imagine it. Sometimes I think I suffer secondhand just from hearing their story. I’m dumbfounded by how they can just come to a new place, not speak the language, sometimes not have a formal education, and then just achieve these really amazing accomplishments.”

Adde believes that this resilience is at the core of the human spirit, and if one can find it, they can get through anything. Refugee women, and any other oppressed group, can fight through the hardship if only they believe in their own strength.

“I have seen what poor means,” she said. “What refugee means. What it means to be a low-income family in America. What it means to be a middle-income American. I am part of the American Dream. I put together a project that’s over a million and a half projects and I am achieving that for me. I was like, ‘you got it Fowzia. The rest is history, you know?”


This piece was completed for the Investigating and Narrating the News course where all students reported  on refugee issues and stories in Fargo-Moorhead.

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