Madam Secretary

Refugee’s baby thrown like ball into the sea; story told to award-winning photojournalist

Can you even begin to imagine the heartache of watching your newborn baby being tossed into the sea? That’s what happened to Salima, the young Somali refugee in the photo above. I was alerted to her photo and story by an email last week from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The woman who ...

Alixandra Fazzina, Courtesy of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
Alixandra Fazzina, Courtesy of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees

Can you even begin to imagine the heartache of watching your newborn baby being tossed into the sea? That's what happened to Salima, the young Somali refugee in the photo above. I was alerted to her photo and story by an email last week from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The woman who captured Salima's image, photojournalist Alixandra Fazzina, is being honored with the UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award for her "tireless dedication to uncovering and portraying the overlooked human consequences of war." Fazzina spent two years in Somalia following refugees escaping across the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Peninsula. Salima's portrait graces the cover of Fizzina's resulting book, A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia, forthcoming in September.

Here's a summarized paraphrasing of the moving caption that accompanied Salima's photo:

Basatine, Yemen, March 2008 -- Salima, 19, now lives in a cramped, dark safe house controlled by human traffickers. Once she saves up $25 through begging, the traffickers will drive her to the desert, allowing her to get to Saudi Arabia, where she'll most likely spend her days enslaved as a maid in someone's home.

Can you even begin to imagine the heartache of watching your newborn baby being tossed into the sea? That’s what happened to Salima, the young Somali refugee in the photo above. I was alerted to her photo and story by an email last week from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The woman who captured Salima’s image, photojournalist Alixandra Fazzina, is being honored with the UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award for her "tireless dedication to uncovering and portraying the overlooked human consequences of war." Fazzina spent two years in Somalia following refugees escaping across the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Peninsula. Salima’s portrait graces the cover of Fizzina’s resulting book, A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia, forthcoming in September.

Here’s a summarized paraphrasing of the moving caption that accompanied Salima’s photo:

Basatine, Yemen, March 2008 — Salima, 19, now lives in a cramped, dark safe house controlled by human traffickers. Once she saves up $25 through begging, the traffickers will drive her to the desert, allowing her to get to Saudi Arabia, where she’ll most likely spend her days enslaved as a maid in someone’s home.

The last six weeks have been a nightmare for Salima. She had been living in Mogadishu, Somalia, with her baby boy and husband. Six weeks ago, while pregnant with her second child, she left her home to buy bread. While out, mortars hit her house. "I found my husband and child, but they were not with us anymore," she told Fazzina, the photojournalist. The two had perished in a random attack perpetrated by the very soldiers who had been entrusted to protect the people.

Seven months pregnant, Salima decided to escape. She journeyed northward 20 days in a truck until she reached the area near Bosaso. Salima, along with 120 others, entered the water and were hauled onto a small, wooden boat. Because she was pregnant, she was allowed to sit with her legs out. Everyone else had to sit with their knee to their chins. 

In the rough seas, Salima began to get contractions and started bleeding. The crew, who had been drinking gin and smoking marijuana, and who were armed with guns, knives, and hammers, moved her to the front of the boat. She thought they were helping her. Salima passed out. When she woke up, she saw a crew member toss her newborn baby into the sea — like it was nothing more than a ball. "My baby was all I had left of my husband," Salima told Fizzina.

After landing at a deserted Yemeni beach, Salima was registered at a UNHCR-operated center. She even saw a doctor, but it was too painful for her to talk about what had happened. Now, all alone, without family, she is a traumatized teenager, barely an adult. So, she’s back with the traffickers. Her final destination? "Where Allah takes me," she says. Realistically, she’ll toil in virtual slavery as a maid  in someone’s home in  Saudi Arabia.

On June 18, in honor of June 20’s World Refugee Day, Secretary Clinton spoke about what the refugee issue means for Americans:

[Supporting refugees] goes to the core of who we are as a people and a country because the United States is not only a nation of immigrants — we are also a nation of refugees. We know from our collective experience that most people want the same basic things in life: safe communities, food, water, lives free of political and religious and other persecution. And when these basic needs go unmet and families are forced to flee their homes in desperation, we should all be there with a helping hand.

She also said:

We help because it is the right thing to do. We happen to believe it’s also the smart thing to do, but even in cases where it doesn’t appear all that smart, it’s still often right. And therefore, we proceed.

Preeti Aroon was copy chief at Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2016 and was an FP assistant editor from 2007 to 2009. Twitter: @pjaroonFP

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