Finding Their Way in Kampala: The Voices of Three Somali Women

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As a Somali sailor captain in the 1990s, Sofia travelled the world – to Italy, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, and Kenya. But societal norms forced her to give it all up in 1999. Fatima graduated in Mathematics and Physics but she never worked. Mariam finished high school but could not afford to go to university and had to stop working when she got married. IOM’s project funded by the US Department of State is helping such women reconnect with their aspirations.


By Marion Dehier

Kampala – Mariam, 32, is married and has one son. Her husband is in the United Kingdom (UK); they have seen each other only four times during their ten-year marriage. She says with her husband away, she feels like a single mother.

Mariam arrived in Uganda from Mogadishu in Somalia in November 2018. She explains that she decided to settle in Uganda because she wanted to find peace.

“We all know the situation in Somalia, people are killing each other. You can’t even go to the market without being scared of not coming back, you can’t send your kids to school because you are always worried something will happen. So we decided to look for a safer place.”

Like Mariam, Sofia left behind a difficult life in Somalia. She came to Uganda 12 years ago to protect her family, after Al Shabaab tried to brainwash and radicalize her son. 

“I needed to take him out of the country. I took all my family because it became too dangerous for us. If we refused to do what they wanted, they could kill us,” narrates Sofia. 

Fatima is 55, and has three daughters back in Somalia. Her husband was killed when her younger daughter was four months old. She has been in Uganda for a year, and is taking care of her sister’s children while trying to reunite them with their mother in Sweden. 

Fatima, Mariam and Sofia are among the beneficiaries of IOM Uganda’s project titled Livelihood Assistance to Strengthen Resilience of Vulnerable Urban Female Somali Refugees in Kampala. The six-month initiative is funded by the United States Department of State through the US Embassy in Kampala. It aims at giving livelihood skills, business start-up kits and psychosocial support to Somali women refugees in Kisenyi, a Kampala slum where over 18,000 Somalis have settled. More than 80 women are enrolled in trainings in sewing, baking and hair and beauty. Nearly 30 of them are also receiving psychological support thanks to group counselling. 

For the three women, Uganda sounded like a fresh start.

Says Mariam: “I am really grateful to be here. I am very settled. I am not worried about anything. We can send our kids to school and get them to the hospital when they are sick.”

However, arriving, settling and integrating in a new country has not been easy. Sofia remembers: “When I arrived in Uganda, I did not know English well. I did not know anything about Kampala. We stayed in a hotel for 26 days and spent all our money.” 

She then realized she was not alone in her struggle. “I felt I had to speak to the other women, sensitize them, and show them the support they can get around. So I created a community-based organization to get Somali women together to empower ourselves.”

Today, Sofia is a women community leader for the Somali community in Kisenyi and the project’s mobilizer. 

Like many others Somali refugees, Fatima, Mariam and Sofia are living on remittances but it is usually not enough for the family. 
This partly explains Mariam’s motivation to join the project: “What my husband is sending is not enough for my family and myself. My father is old and he still has to work. I want to take my son to a regular school and to give him some tuition course to catch up with the classes he missed. I want to develop my skills further and already enrolled myself for English classes.”

Moreover, like most of the Somali women, they do not have much work experience which makes it even more complicated for them to find work opportunities in Uganda. Sofia was a sailor captain in the 1990s. She traveled the world and went to Italy, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, and Kenya. She had to stop in 1999 because women were not allowed to travel without a man anymore. She explains that in Somalia women have to stop working when they get married and have children, like Fatima and Mariam did. Fatima graduated in Mathematics and Physics but she never worked. Mariam finished high school but could not afford to go to university and had to stop working when she got married. 

Fatima, Sofia and Mariam are among the most motivated trainees. Fatima and Sofia are learning sewing and Mariam is taking hairdressing and make-up classes. 

“I have always been passionate about tailoring but I did not know where to learn. At the beginning, I did not even know how to use a sewing machine. I was doing so much pedaling that people had to massage my legs when I returned home. Now I can make clothes from the beginning to the end. Thanks to my mathematics background, I am good at measuring and I can support the other women who struggle with it,” shares Fatima. 

After the training, the project will support the formation of cooperatives and provide small business-startups. 

Now Fatima is dreaming of starting her own tailoring business.
“I want to be part of a business group with the other women. When I will be confident enough, I will start my own business. I am also starting to learn English so it would be easier to start a business here. If I need to go back to Somalia, I will start a business there also.”

The new businesses are great for the community. They are bringing new services at a cheaper price. The trainees are already getting cakes orders and make-up jobs.  

A key aspect of the impact of the project is the network that the women created. The training center became a safe place for them and the group became their new support community.

Sofia has seen the women open up and the group get stronger day by day. Women previously confined at home now have the confidence and a goal to achieve and are ready to start working. The evolution has been even stronger for those receiving group counselling. 

Mariam, who took part in the counselling sessions, says: “Now I know about self-care, how I can support my family when they have problems, how to get better psychologically... I am also trying to help others and teaching them how to take care of themselves. When I go back home, the neighbours joke and ask me why I keep coming here every day, but I tell them how much I learned. The project took me out, made me talk and open up.” 

Mariam was new in Kampala when she heard about the training. She did not know anyone and was scared of interacting with people. Now she has friends she can trust: “When you feel things are too much and you cannot handle it, you go to your safe space, where you know you can trust people. We even made a WhatsApp group. We discuss, we make fun, and if someone is not well we go and visit her. We support each other. It is really powerful.” 


  • Sofia is here introducing the project to the women from her community during the enrollment meeting. Sofia has done an amazing job mobilizing the women.

  • Fatima keeps other women motivated and committed to the training: “There are few girls who left the tailoring class, so I go to their houses and tell them what they are missing. I tell them ‘It is better for you to learn a skill than wait for someone to give you something.”

  • Mariam comes from a business family and is excited to start working. She is conscious that she needs to work hard on her communication skills to attract clients and establish her business in her new community.

  • Like Mariam, almost 30 women took part in counselling. Psychosocial support is an important step towards healing from traumatic experiences of loss, violence, fear and family separation to be able to start a new life in Uganda.