A Woman Who Fled Violence Abroad, On Finding Hope In Cleveland

Defending his travel ban on seven majority-Muslim countries, President Trump has said the people he’s keeping out are dangerous criminals. But meeting Juma* — a 23-year-old Sudanese refugee who is making a new life here with her young son — paints a vastly different picture.

The single mother arrived in Cleveland just before the election, after fleeing the violent marriage her own family sold her into in Kenya. She’s starting over with the help of Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services — and has a lot to say about who’s really being blocked by the president’s executive order.

Juma recently sat down with Refinery29 to share her story.

You arrived in Cleveland in October: What was your life like before that, and how did you become a refugee?

“When I was 19, in my heart I wanted to finish up my education, but my uncle said I had to get married. One day, he told me that we were going to Nairobi for an eye check up, and that they were going to buy me eyeglasses. I thought that I would be happy, and I would be able to read again. But when we got to Nairobi, they took me to a man’s home and said, ‘This is your husband. If you don’t accept him, you have no way to get money to go back home.’ I said I will not accept him as my husband, so they left me there. The man had paid my uncle, but I didn’t know that.

“He tied me down and beat me so he could rape me. There was a housemaid in that home, and one day when she brought food inside, I told her, ‘Please, you’re a girl like me, help me, I want to escape, I don’t like this man.’ So she gave me some money and took me to a bus station. I called my mom, but she said that since I escaped from my husband she doesn’t want to see my face again. Then I called my sister, but she said if I went to her home they would beat her.

“I went to the police, but they were going to put my mom in prison for what she did to me. I told them she’s still my mom, even if she did this to me, she’s still my mom. They cannot put her in prison. The police called child protective services, and they took me to a boarding school for girls.

“When I was in school, I felt my stomach get hard. I would take a rock sometimes and hit my stomach and wonder, what is this? They took me to a hospital where they found out I was pregnant.

“From there, I went to a U.N. refugee camp, where I delivered my baby. They took care of me and provided for me. I’ve never seen my mom since then, or my sister. I’ve only spoken with my sister on the phone.”

What was life like in the refugee camp?
“Life in the camp was hard. It was hard for us to eat sometimes, and it was hard to get money. They have food stamps in the refugee camp but it was not enough to survive on. I used to style hair, and women would give me something so I could buy sandals or other things, that’s how we survived.

“My son used to get sick every day. I lost hope and thought he was going to die. I thought, God, will you to take away my child? I’ve suffered too much. I had nothing to give him, he was only breastfeeding. But since we came here, he’s been okay. He’s not sick anymore.”


Illustrated by Abby Winters.
Had you ever heard of Cleveland before you came here?
“No, they did not tell me anything about Cleveland. I just received a letter that said I was going to the United States. I was just happy, even if I didn’t know where I was going. I was just happy to hear I was leaving. I couldn’t wait to see it. When I arrived in October, I thought it was a beautiful place. I like it.”

What’s life been like since you arrived?
"American life is very different from life back home. Life in America is very good because there is freedom, you can go to school and you can work. But in Kenya you cannot work if you do not have a certificate of education and so it’s difficult to get a job. [Juma didn't have a chance to finish school and get her certificate in Kenya.]

"I am starting the good life now. I like it here in Ohio. Since I came here my child has not gotten sick. Back in Kenya I wasn’t able to give him what he needed with food and supplies. Life is good to me because I see my son is healthy now. And the people of Catholic Charities have given me a lot of support."

Has the move to Ohio been difficult?
"When I was leaving Kenya, people told me that life was going to be very hard because I'm not married, I have no husband and no support. But there has not been any hard part since coming to Cleveland."
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Really, nothing has been hard since moving to a new country?
[Laughing] "No, nothing!"

What do you like most about living here?
"The aspect I love the most is how people work hard here, both the refugees and the aid workers, and I want to be one of those people who work hard. I love how there is a whole program for single mothers (at Catholic Charities) and the workers work hard to make sure the refugees are okay, and also the refugees because their job is to support their families."
Many people hate the winters in Cleveland. Now that you've experienced a Cleveland winter, what are your thoughts on the weather here?
"It was my first time seeing the snow when I came here. It was very difficult to adjust to the weather; I got sick at first and stayed inside all the time. But I’m getting used to it now."
Illustrated by Abby Winters.
How do you feel about President Trump’s travel ban, and the refugees who aren’t allowed in now?
“I feel sorry for them, because they are human like us, and it’s going to make them lose hope. We are all human beings. In God’s eyes, we are all one. There is nothing like a Muslim or a Christian. Those refugees are running because of war, and they are coming here to look for a new life and to make sure their kids are educated. They have nowhere to go, there is nowhere but here. America is the only place to come and for their kids to be educated.”

What would have happened to you if you hadn’t come to the U.S.?
“I think if I did not come here, the man could have come back and looked for his child. He did not want me, but he would have taken my child away from me.”

Do you plan to ever return to your home?

“No, I think I will stay here because I have nowhere to go. I think I can be an American citizen. If my parents are annoyed with me, where am I to go? It’s better to start a new life with my son and stay here.

“Maybe in the future if he grows up and wants to see where he’s from, he can go back to visit, but I will not.”

What are your plans for the future?
“I have to first get a job to work. I have to make sure I have everything I need, then I can go back to school. I’m just willing to do any job. In my future, I would like to become a doctor, a surgeon.”

*Her name has been changed.

This interview has been translated, edited, and condensed.
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