ABOVE PHOTO: Ubah Mohammed Abdule, 33, sheds tears as she talks about her son Yahya Abdi, outside her hut in the Shedder refugee camp near the town of Jigjiga, in far eastern Ethiopia. The Somali mother’s home is a small shelter with a frame of sticks covered by ragged blankets on the dusty grounds of a refugee camp but it was to her that her 15-year-old son Yahya Abdi wanted to travel to on an impossible journey as a stowaway on a plane from California. (AP Photo/Elias Asmare)
By Elias Meseret
SHEDDER REFUGEE CAMP, Ethiopia — The Somali mother’s home is a frame of sticks covered by ragged blankets on the dusty grounds of this refugee camp. It was here that her 15-year-old son wanted to travel on an impossible journey as a stowaway on a plane from California.
Ubah Mohammed Abdule hasn’t seen her boy — who was hospitalized in Hawaii after landing there in the wheel well of a jetliner — for eight long years.
Wearing a black and white head covering, Abdule wept as she stood before the flimsy shelter holding her meager possessions and spoke about her son. She told journalists from The Associated Press, who traveled to see her in remote eastern Ethiopia, that she was alarmed by the dangerous method of travel her son undertook. Those who stow away in wheel wells of airplanes have little chance of surviving, and many who attempt it are Africans desperate for a better life in Europe or America.
But Yahya Abdi had been unhappy in California and desperately missed his mother, according to those who know his family. So on April 20, Abdi hopped a fence at San Jose International Airport and climbed into the wheel well of a jetliner. It was bound for Hawaii, the opposite direction of Ethiopia. Somehow he survived the sub-zero temperatures and lack of oxygen. He has not spoken publicly about the ordeal.
“I knew he was an intelligent boy who has strong affections for me. I also knew he always wanted to see me, but I know his father won’t let them contact me at all,” Abdule said.
Abdule has not even spoken to her son by phone. The boy’s father has lied to their three children, the mother said, telling them that she’s dead.
“The father of Yahya first took the children away from me to Sudan. Then he came back to Somalia and demanded my consent for him to take the children to the U.S. if I want a formal divorce. I was not OK with that and said no,” Abdule said through tears. “Finally, he took all three of my children to the U.S. without my knowledge.”
PHOTO: A 16-year-old boy, now identified as Yahya Abdi, seen sitting on a stretcher center, who stowed away in the wheel well of a flight from San Jose, Calif., to Maui is loaded into an ambulance at Kahului Airport in Kahului, Maui, Hawaii Sunday afternoon, April 20, 2014. The boy survived the trip halfway across the Pacific Ocean unharmed despite frigid temperatures at 38,000 feet and a lack of oxygen, FBI and airline officials said. (AP Photo/The Maui News, Chris Sugidono)
The father, Abdulahi Yusuf, said in a statement Sunday issued through a family spokesman in California that his son was “struggling adjusting to life” in America.
“Our situation was aggravated by our displacement in Africa for many years after fleeing our home country of Somalia because of war conditions. As a result, my son was not able to receive any formal education before we immigrated to the United States,” the statement said.
Shedder Refugee Camp, in far eastern Ethiopia near the border with Somalia, is home to some 10,300 Somalis who fled their country because of Islamic militant violence. Most Somalis here are from minority groups who face persecution.
Abdule, 33, moved into the camp in early 2010, leaving behind the Somali capital of Mogadishu where heavy fighting was occurring. She earns a small income selling vegetables in the camp market.
The Ethiopian government’s refugee office provided Abdule with psychological support after she heard about her son’s story from a friend who lives in the U.S., said Kibebew Abera, a camp official.
“She was panicked at the time. With the support of our partners we provided her with advice and consultation,” he said.
Whenever she talked about her son in the AP interview, tears rolled down her cheeks.
Abdule said she has not spoken with her son since he moved to the U.S. in 2006 because, she believes, his father won’t let him. She said she wants to leave the camp and reunite with her children and has asked the Ethiopian government and the U.N. refugee agency to help her do so.
“My son was silent but intelligent when he was with me. I know he concealed himself in a plane to see me,” said Abdule, whose name has also been spelled as Abdullahi in other news reports but is spelled Abdule on U.N. documents. The two names are often interchangeable in Somali culture.
The father said he plans to fly to Hawaii soon to reunite with his son and is “excited to bring him back home to his family in California.” He said the family was “deeply concerned” when the boy went missing and was relieved to hear he was safe.
Abdule says she hasn’t been eating since learning of the news of her son’s misadventure. She said she has visions of her now ex-husband not properly caring for their children.
“I prefer they rather be here with me than live with a stepmother in the U.S.,” said Abdule, who has two children living with her in the camp, ages 8 and 5, fathered by a different man.
But the mother may still be reunited with her children in the United States.
Abdule has passed her first interview with the United Nations refugee agency’s list of those who might qualify to immigrate to America, said a legal protection officer at the refugee camp, Abdlrasak Abas Omar. If she passes the next phase, he said, she could move to the U.S. in less than a year.