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Where Your Life is Worth One Bullet


We’ll call him Muhammed. He lives in a Somali refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia. He is Bantu, a clan that is severely discriminated against by other Somali clans. Why? Racism is part of it. His features are more “African”-looking, and his skin is much darker than the typical “Somali.”

He told me that after a week of riding in cars and buses, costing somewhere around 50 or so U.S. dollars, he arrived to eastern Ethiopia from and finally was settled in the camp where I was working. He is there with his parents and siblings, in a rocky, desolate piece of land where the wind blows long and hard all day and where the sun burns into your bones.

I asked him about life in Moqadishu, where he is from:

I would be sitting in school and outside would be a gun battle. We’d do our work like nothing was going on outside. This was typical. You get used to it.

About daily life:

Going to the market was very difficult. If you had money, the militias would see you and ask you to turn it over. If you wore nice clothes, or clean clothes, they’d see you and come up and say ‘You have nice clothes, so you must have money. Give it to me.’ And if you refused they’d pull out a bullet and ask you if you knew what is was. They’d say, ‘This is your life. Your life is worth one bullet.’ Give me your money or your life is over.

About being a refugee:

It’s ok. But my mind is in the U.S. I want to get there. I see myself with a backpack on and being on a campus. Studying in peace. I want to do something with computers.

I ask about his chances for resettlement to the West. Most countries like single men and women, those without famlies. Muhammed is with his family. They all share the same ration card. It decreases his odds greatly.

I tell him that I’ve read that Sudanese refugees would lie and say they were orphans, that their parents would hide in the camp during interview times. He says he would never do that, that he is not an orphan, that his family is everything to him. I suggest that maybe he could do more for them by getting out of the camp and getting his education. He thinks about it.

He speaks Somali, Arabic and English fluently. He is obviously intelligent. I’ve met many refugees over the years, and Muhammed stands out to me. My colleagues agree; he is unique.

Immediately, I liked him. He is warm, sincere, has a look in his eyes which you know you can trust. And he laughs, a lot!

How is it that his life has become this?

Leaving his hometown where his worth could have been devalued to nothing by a bullet fired by a warlord’s gang in a country without a government since 1991. A country currently occupied by Ethiopia, a U.S. ally in the “war on terror.” A place where the U.S. has its hands puppetting the geo-political goings-on.

Now he may end up living in a hut for the next decade or more, like some of his countrymen and women who first fled in 1991 and are still living in the camps. His beautiful mind wasted. The world never getting to see Muhammed’s potential.

And we lose too. We who sit in our comfort and idle our days reading news of the world and getting angry about it but do nothing to resolve it. Instead we take out a beer and shake our heads, maybe look up at the stars and give up, thinking it’s too big for one person to deal with.

Or is it? What if we all dealt with it in our own way? What if we make more of an effort?

Muhammed said to me when I was leaving:

Please. Do what you can for me? It’s all I ask.

I tell him I will do my best. But will I? What is my best? How will I know I have done everything I can, that it will be my best?

What about you? How will you know? Do you want to know?

JAMES MURREN can be reached at, where you can read more about Somali life in eastern Ethiopia, in and out of refugee camps.






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