Finding family – a refugee’s journey back
As a young child Hamdi Ubeed was taken from her family by an ‘aunt’ who promised to remove her from the dangers of the then raging Somalian civil war.
The ‘aunt’ – a distant relative of her father – and her extended family escaped the brutal conflict, but along the way Hamdi’s name was changed and all trace of her biological family wiped away.
And instead of safety, peace and a new life, what followed for Hamdi were years of fear, heartache and betrayal.
“My aunt asked my family if she could take me to a better place so she adopted me and we moved to a camp in Egypt,” Hamdi said.
“My aunt changed my last name, she counted me as one of her kids and she told everyone I was her daughter,” she said.
After years as refugees in camps in Egypt the family was eventually granted resettlement places in Australia in 2000.
When she turned 15 in 2006, Hamdi found out she had been adopted and announced that she wanted to find her biological family.
Her ‘aunt’ immediately threw her out of their home.
“I found out my ‘aunt’ wasn’t my real mum when I heard the other kids talking,” Hamdi said.
“I told her ‘I need to look for my family and my mum and dad’. My aunt said if I did, she would throw me out,” she said.
“I decided I had to know what had happened to my family, so she threw me out of the house. She said ‘I don’t care where you go. Just go’,” Hamdi said.
Hamdi was taken in by a cousin and she began improving her English attending a language school in Melbourne’s west.
But one day she became lost after getting on the wrong bus.
“I could not speak much English and I did not know where I was. I couldn’t ask anyone for help,” Hamdi said.
“I was very scared, I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
Eventually she was approached by a Somali taxi driver who took her to some members of the Somali community in Footscray and eventually her cousin was tracked down and she was taken home.
It was these accidental community connections that ironically eventually connected her with her biological family after a four year search.
She met a Somali man who frequently travelled to East Africa for business.
“I asked him if he could ask about my family and eventually he got word that my family was living in a small town in western Somalia called Abudwak,” Hamdi said.
In 2011 at just 20-years-of-age, Hamdi travelled alone to her homeland to find her family.
After a flight to Abu Dhabi, two internal flights in Somalia and a 16 hour mini-bus ride, she found her family.
“It was very emotional and wonderful to meet my family after so long. They were very surprised, they didn’t know I was coming,” Hamdi said.
“My family knew I was overseas somewhere but not where. And because my name had been changed, they had no way of finding me,” she said.
“At first I was takes to my uncle’s house and then he took me to see my mum and brothers. She was crying and I was crying,” Hamdi said.
She spent three happy months living with her family in Abudwak before returning to Australia.
But tragedy seems never far away in her blighted homeland.
Soon after she left, a savage drought struck the area where he family was living and they were forced to move to the capital Mogadishu.
At the time the Islamic militant group Al Shabaab controlled vast swathes of the city and they came to Hamdi’ mother’s house and kidnapped two of her brothers.
“Some men came to my mother’s house and kidnapped two of my brothers. They were from Al Shabaab – this is a group that is very bad, they take teenagers and brainwash them and make them fight for them,” Hamdi said.
“At the time my mother was at home with my brothers and she refused to let them go but the men hit my mother with the butt of their guns and they took my brothers with them,” she said.
“We don’t know what happened to them and we have never heard from them again,” Hamdi said.
Fearing for her other three sons, Hamdi’s mother fled to Kenya where they spent six months in the Dadaab refugee camp – the world’s largest.
But violence and threats there forced her to flee again in 2012 – this time to the only slightly smaller Kakuma camp – where they remain.
Now 26 and married, Hamdi works in a child care centre and at the Horn of Africa Community Centre, in Melbourne’s west.
She says she would dearly love to bring her family to Melbourne but their applications have been rejected three times.
Hamdi almost didn’t make it to Australia. As an 11-year-old living as a refugee in Egypt she had an inkling that she had family still in Somalia and when her ‘aunt’ received a visa to come to Australia with her family, Hamdi refused.
“The Australian embassy interviewed me and asked why I didn’t want to go,” Hamdi said.
“My aunt had told them I had a boyfriend and that was why I didn’t want to go. She thought the embassy might reject her if they found out I wasn’t her daughter,” she said.
“So she told me that I had to tell them I had a boyfriend and that was the reason I didn’t want to go. She told me she would do something bad to me unless I told them that.
“I told the embassy people what she wanted because I was very scared of her.
“Sometimes I regret that because if I had told the truth, I might have my own family here with me now,” Hamdi said tearfully.
“But in Egypt I was only 11 and I had no one to help me. And if I had stayed there myself I would not have survived. I had no money and no family.
“I told the embassy I broke up with my boyfriend, I got a visa and I came to Australia,” she said.
After spending time in women’s refuges and in emergency housing, Hamdi was finally able to get on her feet and find work.
“I thank God that in Australia there are good people and a government that helps people. This is the reason I am here today,” she said.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist