Finding true safety and refuge to build a life in Buffalo

This story was produced as a larger project by Tim O'Shei for the 2020 National Fellowship, which focuses on explaining the myriad mental health challenges refugees face and taking readers up close to those realities through the experience of families.

His other stories include:

WNY could see increase in asylum-seekers crossing to Canada

Three ways to help refugees – and each other – create a healthy path

Changing the system: Leaders share ideas for improving refugee health care

Kuresha Noor’s life appeared to be in a good place.

She had a job working with refugees, and she could relate to their aspirations and fears, because she, too, had come to Buffalo to seek refuge. After a long journey here, fleeing her home country of Somalia and spending several years in a Ugandan refugee camp, Noor had a career, a home, a direction. She spoke with a sense of resolve and carried herself with a sturdy posture that rarely betrayed the trauma she had absorbed in nearly three decades of life.

One day at the office, Noor and a coworker were chatting about home and life, and her colleague remarked, “Oh, you’re here with your husband and son.” She meant it as a good thing, as if to say, "How nice it is that you have a support system in place."

But Noor didn’t simply nod politely at the reference to her husband and son on this particular day . Instead, she gave an offhand and honest answer: “I wouldn’t say I’m lucky.”

That remark resonated. A couple of days later, as Noor recalls, that same coworker came to her and said, “Kuresha, I don't want to budge into your personal life, but can I just speak with you for a minute, maybe?”

That simple ask was the start of Noor getting the help she needed to finally, truly make Buffalo not just a place of refuge, but something she actually wanted it to be: a happy home.

* * *

Noor, who is 33 and holds a green card, is one of about 66,000 foreign-born people living in Erie County. That includes immigrants who came here for economic purposes, and refugees like Noor, who were escaping danger and instability elsewhere in the world. The number of refugee admissions in Buffalo and across the United States has plummeted under President Trump: In 2019, according to State Department numbers, 474 people came to Buffalo through the federal refugee resettlement program. That’s down from 1,929 in 2016, the last full year of the Obama administration. Those numbers are likely to rise again under the Biden administration.

Successfully resettling refugees, which in Western New York is coordinated by a small group of local agencies, requires a complex set of community interactions. It involves securing housing, education – often including language skills and job training – employment and health care. Making blanket statements on refugees’ challenges is difficult, since they are individuals with specific needs and who come from distinct cultures. But all refugees need personal support, often in the form of mental health care. The trauma they face in leaving their own country, taking an often-arduous journey here, and the stress of resettling and often reinventing their lives imposes a mental and emotional toll. Add to that the long-term damage of the toxic stress they often experienced in their home country – wars, violence, famine, natural disaster, political instability – and many are in need of healing.

“Usually they have a long journey and eventually find a new home, places like Buffalo,” said Dr. Myron Glick, founder and CEO of Jericho Road Community Health Center, which serves refugees in Buffalo. “Then that new home is not that easy to adapt to, and it's incredibly challenging. They may think that they've suddenly arrived, but now there's a whole other set of challenges.”

Those challenges evoke steely strength and unearth deep inner battles, the latter of which can manifest itself in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence and child abuse.

“Some people seem incredibly strong to me,” said Glick, who oversees a staff of medical providers, including mental health professionals. “They've gone through all that, and yet they're faithful, friendly, courageous folks that are thriving here. And then you have other folks – it was too much. It was too much of a burden to bear, and they struggle.” 

* * *

That question from Noor’s coworker – “Can I just speak with you for a minute, maybe?” – led to a lunch and many deep conversations that followed. Noor shared her story, which begins in Baidoa, Somalia, about five-and-a-half hours inland from the capital city of Mogadishu.

Noor grew up with her parents, three older sisters and an older brother in a small, poor village. Their only connection to the outside world was from a radio that hung from a tree. People would gather around to listen to news broadcasts from a local station.

As a young girl, Noor remembers herself as a “happy child.” She was especially close to her father and loved to come home from school to tell him about her day. The Noor family’s existence was far from idyllic in war-torn Somalia, where clan clashes could lead to gunfire or detonating bombs with no notice. When Noor's mother would leave to go to the market, she would hug her children and say, “If I don't come back safe, remember I love you.”

Noor felt loved – until she turned 13. One evening, after a day of playing on the swings with friends, she came home and was told by her mom to dress up fancy with two of her sisters. They got into a car and started a five-hour journey to a mysterious place. Noor was suspicious: The family never traveled except when school was closed, which it wasn’t. They also never traveled without their father. He wasn’t here. Instead, a random man was accompanying them.

They reached a house. Her mother and two sisters were whisked away, leaving Noor on her own. I don’t think this is going to end well, she thought to herself – and she was right. Later, a man who appeared to be in his late 30s walked in. He started locking the doors. What the hell is going on? Noor recalls thinking. She was visibly “freaking out” in that room, and asked what was happening. The man looked at her – 13 years old, dressed up, only hours removed from playing on the swings with her friends – and said, “You’re married. I’m your husband.”

Noor struggled to get away, and the man grabbed her, tied her hands and legs, and taped her mouth so she couldn’t make noise.

“This is when I knew something terrible was happening to me,” Noor recalled. 

* * *

This man had selected Kuresha from among the Noor sisters to be his wife, and the so-called wedding happened without her in the room. The next morning, Noor begged her mother to take her home, but her mother told her that she had to stay. To do otherwise, she said, would bring a curse.

So Noor stayed, spending most of her days tied to a bed, where, she said, the man repeatedly raped her as she screamed, “I don’t want to do this!” She was untied only to eat or change her clothes. If she wanted to use the bathroom during the day while the man was gone, she had to scream loudly enough to beckon a neighbor, who would come in, untie her, watch while she relieved herself, and then tie her again. After a month and a half, she was pregnant. But Noor was losing weight, refusing to eat, hoping to die.

A man who was a family friend and also a law enforcement officer came to visit. When he saw Kuresha depleted and ailing, he fought with her husband and said, “She has to go back to her father.” He brought her home, where Noor said to her parents, “Just let me kill myself and die.”

“We all go through what you’re going through,” her mother said.

“This guy is raping me,” Kuresha insisted, but she realized her message was slamming against a wall. In the cultural worldview of her mother, it was Kuresha’s place to be a wife for this husband. “They say that if your husband beats you, he loves you, which is obviously not true,” Noor told The News in a series of interviews for this story. “But that is what your mother will tell you. That is what your aunt will tell you…

"Your dad will not tell you that.”

Her dad did not tell her that. Ultimately, after the baby – a boy – was born and after Noor spent a short time back with her husband but then slipped out and made her way home, her father said, “It’s done. You’re not going back.”

That respite didn’t last long. She divorced the husband, who took their son, but only months later was forced to wed another man. A few years later, when Kuresha was about 17, her father was ambushed and killed for refusing to hand over his farm to the assailants. That meant Noor and her family needed to escape the country fast. She used some gold jewelry to pay for a ticket to Kenya, which borders Somalia, and made her way to a refugee camp in Uganda. She lived there with her family until 2013, when she resettled in Buffalo.

But that didn’t conclude the journey to safety and happiness. Noor had a few more steps to take – big ones.

* * *

During those coworker conversations, Noor confided that the trauma she grew up with in Somalia hadn’t completely vanished from her life in Buffalo. With her then-husband, she felt unsafe at home and controlled outside of it. Her husband would accompany her to doctor appointments, and insisted on speaking for her – even though he didn’t know English, and she did. If Noor did try to speak for herself, he would get angry. “What are you telling the doctor that for?” Noor recalls him saying. “It’s none of his business. He doesn’t need to know you’re going through that.”

This is a common dynamic in abusive situations – and not just for refugees. “What we’re always working against are the lies and manipulations that their abuser is telling them,” said Amy Fleischauer, a licensed master social worker who is director of survivor support services at the International Institute of Buffalo. Fleischauer was speaking about abuse in general, which she said involves isolation that is not always physical. It’s also “psychological isolation,” Fleischauer said. “The abuser’s voice is the only voice they’re hearing.”

The challenge is breaking that isolation to seek help. For Noor, that assistance would empower her to take control of her domestic situation in Buffalo while also addressing the trauma rooted in her past. Accomplishing that was urgent; Noor was in a dark place. She remembers considering ending her life one day after she came to the United States, even finding a spot along the Niagara River where she could make it happen. But she called a friend, who told her, “Whatever you’re trying to do is a bad decision … Wait for me.” The friend showed up and talked to her, and possibly helped save and empower her.

“I think if I didn't talk to that friend, and I didn't open up to my doctors, I wouldn't have gotten help,” said Noor, who found an opportunity to enlist medical help one day at a gynecologist appointment. Her then-husband was present and ready to speak for her, but the doctor’s office couldn’t find an interpreter. So Noor herself became the interpreter for her husband. That day, instead of translating her husband’s words, she voiced her own.

“I don’t want my husband to know, but I want to make an appointment to see a counselor, maybe even come to you about my other needs,” she told the doctor, while her husband looked on, oblivious to what was actually being said. “Can I make that appointment without my husband knowing?” She did, and timed those appointments to happen during her workday, with her boss’ permission, to avoid coming home late and provoking suspicion. 

Meanwhile, Noor’s coworker who offered an ear and some assistance was able to guide her on the rights available to her: filing for divorce and pursuing custody of their son. “I realized I can stand up for my happiness,” she said. “I can choose my own happiness.”

Today, Noor is married to a man she met at the refugee camp in Uganda. They are raising the 14-year-old son that Noor has with her now ex-husband, as well as a 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. “I was praying for God to give me a daughter so I can make sure her future is not the same as" my past, said Noor. But with her husband today, she said, “I’m so open… I can share anything that I want to share.”

Noor is finally in a place that doesn’t simply seem safe. It is that way.

This article was produced as a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 National Fellowship.

Note: The New York State Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline (1-800-942-6906​) is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with multi-language access.

[This story was originally published by The Buffalo News.]