Fatima was assigned to go back to her country, back to her region, back to her community which she had known as a safe place, as a place that she could freely move around. And then she arrived to a place that was completely shut down, where there were checkpoints all over the place, where people are darting from one place to the other terrified that a suicide bomb is going to blow them up. She was completely shocked at how Boko Haram had taken over her world, and that affected her deeply. But for Fatima, the power of her work is seeing results.
“You can actually see when you’re in the field you can see the impact of what you are doing. It could be family reunification. It could be support to victims of domestic violence. It could be a simple thing like registration whereby refugees come from the border with absolutely nothing and you register them and that’s the ticket for them to get food. So you can see the impact of what you’re doing and after Ethiopia I never looked back. I always wanted to work in similar situations out in the field.”
Edited Transcript: Fatima Mohammed
Melissa Fleming (MF): One of the things that really struck me from this interview she really learns a lot about herself that actually she isn’t as tough as she thought she was, and she learns that because she was assigned to go back to her country back to her region back to her community which she had known as a safe place as a place that she was a student and she could freely move around and friends and freedom of movement. And then all of a sudden she arrives to a place that was completely shut down where there were checkpoints all over the place where people are darting from one place to the other terrified that a suicide bomb is going to blow them up. I mean she was just completely shocked at what had happened, that Boko Haram had taken over her world. And that affected her deeply.
Fatima Mohammed (FM): I’ve worked in worse situations, for example in Sri Lanka and in Somalia but maybe this time around because I am part of that community, it was really so difficult for me – and we’ve been trained as humanitarians to try and control your emotions so that you could be able to think clearly and be able to give support. But in this situation I actually began to doubt myself.
Melissa Fleming (MF): Fatima Mohammed has worked in ten countries, including Somalia and Sierra Leone. She grew up in a region of Nigeria which was later taken over by Islamist militants known as Boko Haram. I’m Melissa Fleming, the spokesperson for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and for this series I want to know what makes someone go to the front line of a conflict to try to save lives. I’m asking my colleagues to do something they very rarely do – to bare their souls, and to tell me what keeps them awake at night.
Melissa Fleming (MF): Fatima, welcome to the studio. Thanks so much for participating in this interview in this podcast. It’s a pleasure to speak to you.
Fatima Mohammed (FM): Thank you very much for having me Melissa.
Melissa Fleming (MF): Tell me about where you come from.
Fatima Mohammed (FM): I’m Nigerian and I’m from my ethnic group called Hausa. They actually dominate the northern part of Nigeria but the ethnic group also cuts across Niger, Chad and also Cameroon. I come from a very traditional and very conservative Hausa family but very educated. Yes. So they insisted that school was very important for you and how many siblings I have. Surprisingly because being a Muslim normally in northern Nigeria is a practice of the four wives. And my father is married to my mother and we’re six in number: three girls, three boys. And while I was growing up one of the first things that I learned from my father was don’t think of marriage — education comes first.
MF: Was that unusual.
FM: Very unusual. Very, very unusual. And that’s the way it went. We were not allowed to think of marriage my sisters and I, until after we had completed postgraduate education.
MF: Wow. So it was all the way to postgraduate and before that no boyfriend, no marriage?
FM: Well being a teenager you can get away with it. I mean it’s a very conservative but at the same time also very liberal. You can see by the way I dress. My head is not covered.
MF: Tell me a little bit about your dad then — he seems like an enlightened man growing up in a conservative part of Nigeria.
FM: He was a civil servant. Now he’s retired. He worked with the immigration service for Nigeria and then surprisingly he also worked with the Nigerian refugee commission and that’s how my interest in terms of refugees came about.
MF: Like father, like daughter
MF: Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants hit the headlines in 2014, when they abducted almost 300 school girls from Chibok. There was international condemnation. But for Fatima this was personal. The epicentre of Boko Haram’s insurgency was the town of Maiduguri, where she grew up. The extremists were forced out. But she chose to go back and work with the traumatised people who had fled their homes. Internally displaced people – known as IDPs.
FM: To be honest with you when the Boko Haram started I was in denial because you hear stories, read about it in the media, when I go home on vacation I hear about it. I live in Abuja so a bit distance from where the actual Boko Haram activities are. So I was in denial because I didn’t want to believe that many of the places that I knew were actually now occupied by the Boko Haram. So by the time I began to visibly see the internally displaced in Nigeria I couldn’t believe it. And the stories that they tell you is unbelievable. I still can’t believe that that is happening in my country in communities where I lived before. As I said my father was a civil servant, so he moved around a lot and three of the regions that he served in were then actually under the Boko Haram insurgency. Now liberated, but a few years ago they were under the Boko Haram.
MF: And you lived there with them or you visited him there?
FM: I lived there. I did my primary school and I also did my secondary school in some of these locations. For example in Maiduguri itself I did my primary education.
MF: What was your school like?
FM: We had so much fun. That’s the first thing I can tell you. The first thing that I remember about Maiduguri was the number of mango trees and the mango season. It’s everywhere. You don’t need to buy mangoes and I remember in the school we had so many mango trees that we could when we have breaks we just go and we that’s the fun that we had. You rub it on your school uniform and you just eat mangoes ripe – it’s mango season. Everyone just enjoys the mangoes. I also did my university in Maiduguri. It was an open community where you can celebrate Christmas with the Christians and then when it’s time for Eid for the Muslims you also celebrate. So it was a very free and open community.
MF: And safe. So what has happened to your community now must be devastating for you to think about.
FM: Going back to Maiduguri in 2017, I think it was 2017 I went back, the first thing that before I was deployed I had a very good manager who said; ‘look I know you are from Nigeria, I know you’re from the north and I know you’ve even been to Maiduguri. Please let me know if you cannot handle the situation.’ Thinking that I was a super-woman and the situation would not affect me, I willingly agreed to go on mission to Maiduguri. And the first thing is — I have worked in Somalia and worked in Sri Lanka when we had the LTTE controlled areas, my father has never questioned any of my UNHCR deployments. But he questioned my deployment to Maiduguri. The first thing I remember when I told him that I was going into Maiduguri he said well I hope that the UN has put in structures to ensure your safety. So the first thing that I said to him is but why should you ask me that, because you have never really asked me any questions in relation to my deployment and he said he has been to Maiduguri a couple of times and he was shocked at the level in which the destruction was made. So he didn’t know and he said it’s a place that he knows before the insurgency and during the insurgency but he said places like Somalia, places like Sri Lanka he only watches it on television. So he wasn’t able to see it in in real life, but he said the insurgency in Nigeria is a reality for him.
The first year arrived at the airport, the first thing I realized it was completely deserted. No commercial airlines. It was just the UN flight that we arrived with. And this was an airport, previously had a lot of local flights. So that was a first shocker. for me I mean the second shocker was the number of we call them police and military checkpoints all over town between the airport to the UNHCR guesthouse I can count about five checkpoints. So you can imagine the impact. I left, Maiduguri about 15 years ago and it was a free community where you can move at night. And then I returned to a community that had checkpoints but also had curfew so you can imagine the initial shock that I felt.
MF: A very tense security environment. And then you started talking to some of the people who were affected. What were some of the things they told you?
FM: I’m sure you’ve heard about the Chibok girls, the 300. These were the girls that were abducted in school. Then I had the opportunity in one of the IDP camps, to actually interview, not a Chibok girl, but a few of the girls actually that had been abducted by the Boko Haram and then released by the Nigerian Army. The two girls that we interviewed were under 20. I think one was in a farm and then they came the insurgents came in a bus they started shooting. She said they tried to run. She was in a farm with her father and mother and brother I think and they killed all three. They killed the brother, the mother and the father and she was left. So what they told her then was if she accepts to go with them she will not be killed. So she said she will not go with them. She would prefer to be killed. I think repeatedly they kept asking her the same thing for her to realize what she was saying. And then finally she agreed to go with them. Normally the Boko Haram insurgents marry them and she said she was married to one man and she lived with him. And I asked her how did you communicate. She said there was no communication. He goes out first thing in the morning. She knows if there’s going to be an attack if they’re going to attack a village or a location based on what he carries — maybe his gun ammunition etc. and that was it.
MF: What kind of state did you find her in and then how did you feel about that? This is your people.
FM: Not even my people – maybe some of them my cousins. You know you have distant relatives that you don’t know about. Because I’m from the north-east and you have relatives that have married and married again so any time I visit a refugee camp when I was on a mission I always thought that I could have a distant relative that I’m not aware of. And that is right here.
MF: What was that like for you?
FM: At the beginning I was enthusiastic and I was actually quite happy that I will be going back to my community. There maybe could even be able to contribute to a lot of things. But I think I was hit by the by the level of destruction, the level of displacement, the emotions that you can tell on people’s faces when you’re in a vehicle passing. You could see that everyone was in a hurry to get to a location because you didn’t want to hang around on the streets because the suicide bomb attacks happen anywhere. At mosques, at checkpoints, in the IDP camp at the gate when you are even entering the IDP camp anything can happen. So it has changed from when I was a university student life was free.
There was a famous market that we used to go to it was called Monday market where we used to go every Saturday or Sunday to do grocery shopping. This was off limits for the U.N. staff based on the number of attacks in terms of suicide attacks by the Boko Haram. It was shocking for me that I couldn’t go out shopping. Anything that I bought to eat a driver had to take me quickly buy it. Everything was organized, from the guesthouse to the office from the office for a meeting. You have to report where you are. I didn’t have time to reconnect with some of the friends that I had that remained in Maiduguri. About 90 percent of the people that I know moved from Maiduguri. But a few were stubborn and they decided to stay but I could not reconnect with them because of the fact that I was heavily protected. I left Geneva a happy person, very enthusiastic going back to my country to serve my country for once, but then what I met was completely different.
MF: Is there a particular story you told one story or is there another story that really sticks out for you that you can’t forget?
FM: I lived on an off campus and when I was off campus I lived in a place called Polo Fields. So we had Internally Displaced People (IDPs) now in the Polo Fields, so I decided to one day when we met for protection monitoring I told the driver I used to live in this area and I would want to trace the former house that I stayed in. I could not, and it was so emotional for me. And the reason why I could not trace it was one the number of IDP camps that were all over before were displaced. Secondly the destruction of houses. After some time, I think after I spent about a month, I actually stopped going to the IDP camps because I could no longer contain the feelings any time I go to the camp. It was it was too emotional for me.
MF: Could you describe those feelings?
FM: I’ve worked in worse situations in terms of refugee situation than even IDP situations like for example in Sri Lanka and in Somalia, but maybe this time around because I am part of that community it was really so difficult for me. And we’ve been trained as humanitarians to try and control your emotions so that you could be able to think clearly and be able to give support. But in this situation I actually began to doubt myself because I had a feeling that if I go to the camp I might to some extent jeopardize UNHCR’s relationship with the government because there were so many gaps in the camp. The thing about Nigeria, is how the set up was in the camps was the camps were managed by the government, and there were a lot of gaps. And I think the humanitarian agencies have tried their best to see how they could be able to improve the assistance provided for IDPs. But it was to some extend beyond what we could do. So I felt if I continued to go to the IDP camps I might … Being a local, I speak the language, I’m Muslim, I understand them they know I’m from there. I feel that I might jeopardize the diplomatic relationship that we’re supposed to maintain. So I stopped going. That’s number one. The second thing was I didn’t want a situation whereby I would … I didn’t want to become too involved, too involved in the sense that I would now start. For example I had money, I had food. I didn’t want to now start assisting through giving out assistance of which we are not allowed because if I help this person what of the next person, what of the next person, what of the next person..? That means I’m not being fair to everyone. So I felt as if I would begin to emotionally be involved in the humanitarian response and that was one part. But then the other part was also for the Nigerians it was such a pride to see — they call me their daughter — to see their daughter actually from the North working with such a prestigious humanitarian organization like UNHCR. So often times when we go for meetings, if it goes good if the meeting is good they would say oh you know she is one of us she’s sometimes they claim I’m from Maiduguri, which I’m not, but if it goes bad then they now tend to say that but Fatima you should be able to understand it from our point of view. You should go back and tell the U.N. that you need to do this. So I felt at some point that they became a pawn and I was being used by the government based on the situation and that was something that was something I didn’t like. Then my relatives, everyone because of the situation in Nigeria everyone was calling me wanting job opportunities. As far as they’re concerned I work with the U.N. and I should help them. So at some point I had to change my local number. So when I explained this to my father he said you know what just tell them you’ll try your best to see what you can do because I needed to maintain my relationship with my family members and when I say my family — not my direct family but friends and extended family members — as far as they’re concerned you work with the U.N. you’re high profile you should be able to give jobs to everybody, so that’s not possible.
MF: So tell me how did you start working for UNHCR. What was your entry point?
FM: My first duty station was Ethiopia. If you ask me, my best duty station. Now, I’ve worked in about maybe 10 countries I’ll still say Ethiopia because it holds so much memories for me. One is that’s my first UNHCR duty station, but the culture in Ethiopia it’s rich, the people are beautiful they have beautiful mountains. It’s really a country that beautiful, delicious, delicious food. So Ethiopia was my first duty station.
MF: So you’ve worked in some tough places. You said you worked in some 10 countries but you did work in places like Somalia and Sierra Leone. How was it working as a woman in those countries?
FM: For Somalia, it wasn’t that difficult based on the fact that I understood the Islamic culture. So I made sure that I dressed right, when we go for meetings I always wear the Islamic Hijab and I knew that if you meet a man you don’t handshake, things like that. So in terms of Somalia I think in terms of the culture being a woman I knew how to position myself. And also I knew because then I was a senior protection officer and doing protection in Somalia I can tell you is difficult especially when it comes to issues relating to sexual and gender based violence. So what I did was because it was really difficult to explain abuse domestic violence to Somali men, and that happens a lot particularly issues relating to FGM — female genital mutilation FGM. It was difficult to explain it. So at some point what I did was I looked at it from an Islamic point of view and that was how I was able to discuss more with them and I found that if I tell them I’m a Muslim and if I start talking from a religious aspect doors are opened for me. So Somalia wasn’t that difficult in terms of engagement as a woman.
MF: You mentioned that your father was the one who actually influenced you to work for refugees and displaced and he encouraged you to work for UNHCR. Did he do the right thing?
FM: If you asked me this 20 years ago when I first joined I would say no, because often times I’ll call and tell him that I want to go home. Because any time I go to the refugee camp and I see something that touches on my emotions I come back and I call and say I think it’s time for me to go home. It was too much, and also with the Southern Sudanese there was a lot of they call it clan conflict. Now I witness violence in the refugee camp.
MF: What did they say to you?
FM: My father would not hear of it. He would say you need to continue to work.
MF: And why do you think so, because he must have missed you?
FM: They all did. A family of six. But I was the only one living at home because all the rest had left- working in Nigeria, but they were not living at home with my parents. So I did everything for them I paid the bills, I did the errands, market, I did everything while I still worked as a civil servant. But then over the over the years I got so attached with humanitarian work but specifically working with refugees.
MF: Why is that?
FM: When you’re in the field, you can see the impact of what you are doing. For example it could be family reunification. It could be support to victims of domestic violence. It could be a simple thing like registration whereby refugees come from the border with nothing, absolutely nothing. You register them and that’s the ticket for them to get food and they hold on to this we call it ration card. So you can see the impact of what you’re doing and after Ethiopia I never looked back. I always wanted to work in similar situations out in the field never at headquarters because I felt that the work is out there in the field. In fact I wouldn’t detach myself from working in hardship duty situations because at some point especially in my field because I started as an Associate Protection Officer you solve everything for the refugees. Issues relating to marriage birth, everything.
MF: So while you were helping them get married and have children what were your sacrificing for yourself?
FM: The thing about it is you get so carried away that you keep saying next year for yourself, next year for yourself, and next year down the road for me was I think I worked for UNHCR for eighteen years before I got married. And even if you want to because you’re in such a remote location the distance it creates. And then at some point I told myself that I have to marry a Nigerian I should marry a Nigerian because I wanted to maintain the cultural ties and then when I go for rest and recuperation I wanted home to be home you know. I see colleagues that are married to other nationalities and when it comes to home leave they sometimes they don’t know where to go. It’s two weeks here, two weeks there. But the thing about the community that I come from — as I said it’s very conservative — the Hausas, many of the men that I met they give me an ultimatum you have to come back and live in Nigeria if you want to settle down. And I think I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t ready to do that. And my father once told me he said your job should not be a condition for marriage. Yes!
MF: An enlightened man. So who was the lucky man? Where did you find somebody who would understand your lifestyle?
FM: I didn’t marry a Nigerian. My husband is from Sierra Leone. Yes.
MF: Where did you meet?
FM: We met in Liberia. He works with UNHCR he is the head of field office in Nigeria. So it couldn’t get better for me.
MF: The title of his podcast is called ‘Awake at night’ and you know I speak to a lot of colleagues who like you take in the stories of the tragedies, countless tragedies, stories of refugees and the people who they’re caring for. And I always wonder you know, I want to ask you that question — what is it that keeps you awake at night?
FM: Well, it depends on the duty station the location. I can take you back to Maiduguri where when we go back to the guesthouse we don’t know whether there will be a Boko Haram attack or not. And I always imagine myself what if they attack and they discover I’m Nigerian, I’m educated and I work with the U.N? I would definitely be abducted. So these are the things that actually go through. You know that’s what keeps me awake until sleep takes over. But I can tell you that every morning that I wake up I thank God that I’m alive. That’s one place.
And the second place is before I went on a mission to Nigeria I was also on a mission in Somalia. First and foremost the flight because how you even land I can see it’s miraculous because you don’t know whether maybe it’s my imagination but you don’t know whether an Al-Shabaab sniper will target the flight you know you don’t know. So for me, first arrival was scary. And then when I arrived at the airport it was filled up with barricades and the first thing was they took me to the bunker and that was where I got my security briefing. And the shocking thing about this security briefing was he said on several occasions a rocket had landed in one of the compounds. So I asked him I said so there’s a possibility if we go to bed at night a rocket could hit – he said absolutely. You should be prepared. And then he said I should always have a bag that had everything a change of clothes, things that in case we had to run to the bunker we should we should just take. That first night I can tell you really Melissa, I changed into my nightgown, I went to bed. I don’t know how I went to bed, but then after that I slept always in a t-shirt shorts and my jeans was where I knew I can grab it and my sneakers. So that in case something happens I will just if I can I’ll pick it up but I was always prepared. So I can tell you those were sleepless nights – I think I slept more during lunch break peaceful sleep during lunch hour but at night because you didn’t know I thought I was tough, honestly I thought I could endure anything in terms of security, but then the day that I left I was relieved. I said Thank God I have come out of this alive and then I now begin to think that my colleagues that work there that are assigned there how do they how did they manage? That has kept me [awake]. So in terms of sleepless night, it’s all related to security. Personal security, safety etc. I learnt a long time ago never to take the stories that I hear from refugees home. Because then it would become too much to handle. So when I’m home, I’m really home. You have to because you have to find a way to separate yourself from all those emotions.
MF: What do you do to kind of shut down? Do you have any hobbies?
FM: I read a lot. I watch television a lot. And then I also write poems for each country that I work in. The moment I arrive in a country I begin to document whatever it is I see.
MF: Do you have a few lines memorized in your head?
FM: If you can maybe you remember how I framed it. For example I can give two examples. One is Ethiopia once again as I said I’m really attached to Ethiopia. I talked about the untapped culture. I talked about the source of the Nile. I talked about the rich culture and beautiful mountains that they have. And I made a few examples in the local language. Perhaps the line that I remember is the one from Sierra Leone, where I mentioned something like because in Sierra Leone they call it Salon. Salon with its rusty roofs tops, just like the black diamonds that something like that because you know there was a lot of bloodshed in Sierra Leone. So I wanted to give an example with the rusty rooftops and then you have an example with the black diamonds. And I think one sentence that I know for sure that I said in Sierra Leone was the country that was never colonized. What I have not been able to write about is Nigeria, Maiduguri and I don’t know if I really can do that. Maybe later on I would try but at this stage I have not even written anything on Maiduguri.
MF: Fatima thank you so much for sharing all of these insights and the stories of your life, of your fascinating career with UNHCR. I wish you all the best and a lot of safety as well, as I see you are determined to continue to work on the frontlines of humanitarian response.
FM: Thank you. It’s been an amazing journey and I hope to continue that.