Monday February 6, 2023
by Ashwani Kumar
In the late 1980s, Zeinab Ahmed Dolal fled her war-torn African country of Somalia to Italy, where she learnt the Italian language, received free education, became a nurse, and now gives back to the community.
She is one of the tens of thousands of refugees to have found a secure life in Italy thanks to the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio – the 2023 Zayed Award for Human Fraternity winner. The award honours those striving to build a more peaceful and compassionate world by advancing the values of human fraternity and setting an inspiring example of promoting peaceful coexistence.
Zeinab, who came to Abu Dhabi to witness the award ceremony, told Khaleej Times how Somalians risked everything to escape the war. More than 30 years of conflict have led to massive displacement of people in the world. Zeinab, too got separated from her family.
“During the war, everyone was forced to leave. The conflict began in 1987, but the world took notice when the trouble started in Mogadishu, the capital, in 1992. During the crisis, I got separated from my family. I think some of them are still in refugee camps.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, currently, there are more than 836,300 Somalian refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, more than 33,600 refugees and asylum seekers inside the country, and nearly 3 million people internally displaced across Somalia.
Fortunately, Zeinab met some Italian expats working in Somalia trying to head back home, and she tagged along with them.
"I trusted them. In 1998, I managed to escape to Italy with them. But I was just 19 years old then and alone. I was in Italy as a refugee. I didn't know anyone else apart from those Italians I came there with," she said while turning emotional as she recollected Somalia's days of chaos and belligerence.
Zeinab started working as a home maid for an Italian family. She wanted to integrate into the community by learning the Italian language. And the family introduced her to the Community of Sant'Egidio – a humanitarian association.
"Language is an important tool of integration into the community, and I was eager to learn the Italian language. Back then, the Community of Sant'Egidio was the only association giving free Italian language classes to refugees. They used to teach Italian on Sundays when the refugees and migrants didn't have to work. They did this for free."
Later, the Community of Sant’Egidio assisted Zeinab in getting admission to a public school. She completed her schooling and then studied nursing at a university through evening classes while working in the morning hours.
“I have spent 35 years in Italy. The Community of Sant’Egidio has been important to me. Thanks to them, I could learn Italian, study, become a nurse and serve others. They gave me a chance to start a life there. It’s not only for me, but many people like me who are refugees,” the 55-year-old said.
The Community of Sant’Egidio assists refugees and supports their integration into host societies through their ‘Humanitarian Corridors’ initiative, which extends support to the most impoverished communities around the world. The association has transformed the lives of thousands of refugees like Zeinab.
Asked why she chose to pursue nursing, Zeinab underlined that she always wanted to serve others.
“I work at a hospital now. And this is a universal job. I am also able to serve people in other countries.”
She joins the Community of Sant’Egidio’s programme to provide healthcare services in African countries and especially their initiatives in HIV/AIDS prevention.
“They (the Community of Sant’Egidio) helped me when I was in need. And now I help others. Instead of going on a holiday or a vacation, I use my leaves and free time to serve those with HIV/AIDS in African countries.”
She aims to continue engaging with the Community of Sant’Egidio and do humanitarian work.
“I am now an Italian citizen. I wish to continue this kind of life. It’s only by helping others that we can have a better world, there is no other way. I, as a Muslim, cannot find any other way to live, except helping the poor and those in need,” Zeinab added.