“If you want to be on tomorrow’s flight, then I have to sleep with you tonight”
A new book exposes more than a decade of alleged sexual abuse at the hands of UN migration officials in Kenyan refugee camp.
Refugee women are among the most vulnerable people on the planet. Like all refugees, their lives and their futures are in the hands of so many others: the resettlement officials who evaluate their stories and decide whether and when to file their claims; the camp employees who dole out everything from food rations to menstrual pads; the politicians, most of them white and male, who sit in the relative safety of Europe, Canada, and the United States and count off how many people in desperate need of safe haven will be allowed to walk through their nations’ doors. Refugee women and girls, though, have additional burdens to bear. In refugee settlements, girls are much less likely than boys to go to school (for every 10 refugee boys enrolled in secondary school in Kenya, there are just four girls); they are often pressured to marry early; and they face the pervasive threat of sexual violence.
That threat doesn’t just come from strangers — it also comes from the very people who are entrusted to protect and care for them.
My husband, journalist Ty McCormick, has an incredible book out today, called Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home. It tells the story of a brother, a sister, and their decades-long fight to resettle their family in America. Yes, I am married to the guy who wrote it, but it is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and I’m thrilled that Ty has agreed to share an excerpt here (you can read other excerpts in The New York Times and Slate). The passage below is from the third and final section of the book, which seeks to answer the question that looms over the entire story: Why was this particular family ripped apart, leaving most of its members trapped in a refugee camp for so long?
Ty is a long-time investigative reporter, and he traveled to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya to figure out what happened — and to see if the family’s suspicions of a sexual bribe that went unpaid could really be the truth. What he discovered is appalling. It indicts not just a handful of bad actors and predatory men, but the very institutions and organizations entrusted to protect refugees from harm and, eventually, deliver them to safety.
Please do read this excerpt and share it widely. And if you find it compelling, I hope you’ll consider buying Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home.
Dadaab, Kenya, May 2019
Early morning light streaked across the parched scrublands of northeast Kenya as the stocky, snub-nosed DASH 8-100 began a labored descent toward the only sliver of asphalt for miles. From my seat at the window, I watched as the dry, inhospitable landscape slid by below, a patchwork of orange and dark green that gradually took shape as sand and desert acacias. Then, as if out of nowhere, the wilderness ended and row after row of miniature dwellings appeared. Tiny flecks of white and silver, arranged in precise rectangular grids, they stretched to the horizon like diodes on a dusty circuit board. As we descended farther and the scene shed some of its unreality, I had the feeling that I had just covered a vast distance, that I was entering a world separated from the hustle and bustle of Nairobi by more than the 300 miles I had just traveled.
Across the aisle from me in the opposite window, Maryan recorded our approach to Dadaab refugee camp on her iPhone. She wore a gray sweater and a silky purple dress, her hair swaddled tightly in a bright yellow hijab. The idea of a joint trip to Kenya had been hers. For the past several years, I had been working on a book about her family’s 30-year odyssey to reach the United States. They had fled the civil war in Somalia in 1991, settling with thousands of their compatriots in Dadaab. In 2004, they had all been promised resettlement in the United States, but only Maryan and her husband and young son had actually been cleared to go to America. Her parents and her younger siblings had been left behind.
The cause of their family’s cruel separation was still a subject of intense speculation fifteen years later, when I visited Maryan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she had finally settled with her children and her parents, Sharif and Kaltuma, whom she had ended up sponsoring for green cards—having given up on the UN resettlement process. Her brother Asad had also made it to the United States, but on a student visa to study at Princeton University. Maryan spent dozens of hours patiently recounting her story, and helping me make sense of old documents, emails, and medical records. I played video games with her youngest son as she rummaged through her closet for immigration forms I wanted to see, and picked up her older kids (and half a dozen neighbors) from Quranic school in her gray Honda Odyssey while she searched for still more records from her parents’ green card applications.
The more we delved into the past, the more driven she seemed to find an answer to the one question that had haunted her for all these years: Why had her family been left behind in Dadaab when seemingly every other family from their minority clan, the Ashraf, had been resettled? She had her suspicions, as did the rest of her family. Back in 2004, when the family was completing the medical checkup that refugees must pass before they are resettled, a nurse at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN agency that handles the medical examinations, had asked to marry her fourteen-year-old cousin, who was then a part of her parents’ and siblings’ resettlement case. (Maryan had her own separate case, because she was married.) When her cousin had refused, the nurse had said, “You’re not going anywhere.”
The entire family believed that the nurse had had something to do with derailing their chances of coming to America. They also knew his name was Alibashir, although nobody called him that. Somalis are famously unsparing when it comes to nicknames. Someone who is losing his hair will inevitably be called Bidaar, or “Baldy,” while an amputee can expect to be called Lugay, or “Legless.” As cruel as they can be, these nicknames are usually bestowed as a sign of endearment. But that wasn’t the case for Alibashir, who suffered from a degenerative spinal condition. He had acquired the nickname Goobe, “Humpy” in English, despite being universally reviled. He was notorious among the refugee population for his arrogance, and for mistreating those under his care. Even before the family had arrived at his office in 2004, Sharif and Kaltuma had heard stories of his cruelty.
After that first appointment at Goobe’s office, the family’s resettlement case stalled. Six months later, they were told to report for medical examinations again. They were told the same thing six months after that and again after another six months. By then almost all of the Ashraf families in their section of Dadaab had left for America, along with the Somali Bantus, who had also been given priority on humanitarian grounds. The fifth or sixth time they repeated the medical examination, Maryan’s brother Asad overheard two nurses talking about his family. They were speaking in Swahili, as Kenyan aid workers often did when they didn’t want the Somali-speaking refugees to understand them, and one of them asked why the same family kept coming back year after year. “Oh, it’s so sad what Goobe has done to them,” the other nurse replied.
There had been other hints of foul play: Not long after Maryan had arrived in the United States, in 2005, she had received a text message out of the blue. The sender didn’t reveal his identity, but he claimed to be able to remove the block on her family’s case—for a fee. She had called the number, but the man on the other end seemed to lose his nerve, perhaps worried she was recording the call. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought his voice sounded like Goobe’s.
Reliving these painful memories from her parents’ apartment in Milwaukee, Maryan seemed to want a definitive answer—hard proof that there had been foul play and that her family’s case wasn’t just a tragic accident. “What happened to us?” she asked over and over. “I just want to know the truth.”
I wasn’t at all sure we would be able to find the kind of conclusive answer she sought. There were so many reasons a resettlement case could be derailed, legitimately or illegitimately, and so many bottlenecks in which corrupt or malevolent officials could create artificial delays. Delays also tended to compound each other, as the individuals who shared cases fell out of sync, their refugee mandates and medical clearances expiring at different times and preventing everyone from moving forward. Getting sick or having a child could set you back, as could falling victim to various scams or extortion schemes. There were dozens if not hundreds of officials who had a hand in shepherding each individual case through a complicated interagency process that involved the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the IOM, and various U.S. agencies and contractors. Any one of them could have been the cause, or a cause, of her family’s misfortune.
Around the time we began discussing a trip to Dadaab to look for answers, the Irish journalist Sally Hayden published a damning exposé of corruption in the UN resettlement process, focusing on Kenya and four other countries with significant refugee populations. In Dadaab, Hayden had uncovered a bribery ring that included a UNHCR resettlement officer who had collected tens of thousands of dollars to advance certain cases and to swap new identities into others that were already cleared for visas. Cases that were in the final stages of vetting were being sold for thousands of dollars, leaving refugees who had been specially selected because of their vulnerability stranded for years. It was “the perfect petri dish of corruption,” one UNHCR staffer had told Hayden.
Without the family’s medical records from IOM, it would be difficult to prove that Goobe had deliberately sabotaged their case, either because their cousin had rebuffed his advances or because he had been angling for a bribe. When Maryan’s brother Asad had taken their father Sharif for a medical checkup at IOM’s Nairobi office in late 2016—the only time he had been examined outside of Dadaab—the nurse had only been able to find records dating back a few years. Close to a decade’s worth of medical records appeared to have vanished—a fact that would be highly suspicious if we could establish conclusively that it was true. But when Sharif made an official request for the records through a doctor in the United States, IOM officials in Nairobi refused to turn them over, citing a blanket policy against sharing them with former patients. Even if we had managed to get them, I wondered if they could be trusted. According to Hayden’s reporting, UNHCR officials had tampered with case records in order to cover their tracks.
But there was another way to approach a question like this. If an IOM medical official had attempted to prey on at least one refugee under his care, perhaps there were other victims or witnesses who would be willing to talk. They could help us understand how Goobe had abused his office, if indeed he had, and whether he would have been in a position to derail a resettlement case without raising any red flags from within the organization. It wasn’t the exact question Maryan had in mind, but it was close enough that we both wanted to see if we could find an answer. From a journalistic perspective, there were plenty of commonsense reasons not to bring an aggrieved party like Maryan into what was meant to be an objective inquiry. But she had worked as a professional translator, including on sensitive legal matters, and I knew she wanted the truth as much as I did. She had spent a third of her life wondering whether this man had ripped apart her family. This was her investigation.
The plane landed with a thud and taxied to the end of the runway. In the black pleather seats around us were aid workers of various stripes, many of them wearing vests emblazoned with the logos of their organizations: UNHCR, Mercy Corps, Kenya Red Cross, among others. They were Kenyans mostly, along with a few white faces. Aside from Maryan, I don’t think there was another Somali on the plane. We filed out into the clear morning light, squinting as we made our way toward a herd of idling 4x4s with massive tusklike antennas. Maryan and I climbed into a gray Toyota Hilux I had rented, and after picking up a pair of armed escorts from the police station, we sped off towards the camp.
* * *
It was winter in Kenya, and Dadaab was greener than the last time I had been there. Short trees had sprouted up between the colossal termite mounds that residents jokingly refer to as mountains, fighting admirably against the shifting desert sands. From the airstrip, it was almost five miles to our destination, along rough unpaved roads that constantly merge and subdivide. The Land Cruisers and pickup trucks that speed back and forth along them churn up huge clouds of dust that follow them like contrails. Troops of kids occasionally wave and call out to them, then turn to shield their eyes.
We had decided to begin our search in a section of the camp called Ifo because that’s where Maryan’s family had lived. There were still a few Ashraf families living there, some who had arrived after the initial resettlement wave in 2004 and some, it turned out, who had been left behind as well. Our plan was to find out whether there were other families who had been through the medical checkups year after year, and to ask them if they had experienced anything unusual. Having to repeat the exams multiple times wasn’t necessarily proof of anything, since IOM physicals expire after a year and must be renewed if other aspects of a refugee’s case are still pending. But those who had been to the medical center again and again would have had the greatest chance of coming into contact with Goobe, we reasoned. Perhaps they had seen something.
It turned out to be harder than we had imagined. People welcomed us into their homes, and though it was Ramadan and most of them were fasting, offered us water and a place to sit in the shade. Almost everyone knew someone who had been through the medical exams more than once. Friends led us to friends, neighbors to neighbors. There were far more people stranded in a similar situation than I had expected to find, people who had received “conditional approval” letters from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as far back as 2009, but whose cases had stalled out in the final stages. But most people grew sullen or nervous when we asked about IOM and the medical exams. Women tsked impatiently, and men shook their heads and looked at the ground. “You will never get the truth,” said one woman who had endured eight physicals. “Sometimes we are scared to say anything, because it can come back and haunt us,” said another, a young mother who had been waiting to be resettled since 2009. “If you say anything, they can just cancel your case and you will stay here forever.”
Ifo is like a maze, a dense warren of family compounds, each ringed by identical thorn scrub hedges that knit together into continuous barriers. The effect is to make the roads feel like tunnels, twisting passageways that confound the uninitiated while at the same time failing to shield people’s personal lives from public view. Nothing is private when you live five or eight to a room and your wall backs up against your neighbor’s, when you can peer through a tangle of brambles into his or her living room. In lieu of individual secrets, there seemed to be communal secrets, and after a while, the communal secrets started tumbling out.
“He will ask, ‘Are you married? Are you dating? Are you talking to anyone?’” one woman said of Goobe. She had approached us nervously at the home of another family, after hearing that we were asking about IOM. She was slightly built, with delicate features and wide hazel eyes. She told us that Goobe had propositioned her during a physical exam in 2008. When she refused, her case suddenly stopped moving forward. “Some people will accept to be violated so they can leave. Some people won’t accept and they are stuck,” she said.
Maryan and I agreed to withhold the woman’s name, along with the names of other women who came forward after her to tell their stories. Most were terrified of retribution, either in the form of further delays to their resettlement cases or in the form of violence. Some said they had been threatened by IOM medical staff if they complained to anyone. From what these women told us, there were two ways to ensure you passed your physical exam: money or sex. “Everything is money, money, money or yourself,” said one woman who went through her first medical exam in 2016 and whose case has been pending since then. “If you want to be on tomorrow’s flight, then I have to sleep with you tonight,” was how another woman summed up the unspoken rule of IOM’s medical center in Dadaab.
Altogether, more than a dozen refugees told us separately that they had experienced either unwanted sexual advances or the solicitation of a bribe from a member of IOM’s medical staff. Maryan and I conducted the interviews in the presence of a second translator I had hired, lest there be any question about her objectivity. We were also careful not to prejudice any of our subjects by asking leading questions. We asked the women only if they had experienced anything unusual at IOM, and if so, with whom. In interview after interview, three names came up as the nexus of alleged corruption dating back to the mid-2000s, when the Ashraf resettlement began: Abdirahman Mohamed, who was the head nurse until around 2008; Goobe, whose real name is Alibashir Mohamed and who worked intermittently as an IOM nurse in Dadaab in the mid-2000s, eventually replacing Abdirahman as the head nurse; and an operations assistant named Abdulahi Musa, also known as Bisle, or “Straight Hair,” who was hired by IOM around 2007 and according to many of the women was the most brazen of the lot. Abdirahman and Bisle had since left IOM—Abdirahman married a refugee and went to the United States sometime around 2008, where he is now rumored to be living under another name, and Bisle was quietly let go in early 2018. But at the time we arrived in Dadaab, Goobe was still the head nurse at IOM.
Multiple women accused all three men of attempting to exploit them sexually. Bisle was often tasked with calling the refugees in from the waiting area, and three different women said that he propositioned them while they walked together to the examination room. When the women refused, he threatened to torpedo their resettlement prospects. “I can cancel your case. Don’t you know that?” he told one woman in 2008. She had been through six physicals prior to that, but gave up and stopped reporting for medical exams after her run-in with Bisle. Abdirahman and Goobe tended to be subtler, using suggestive come-ons to feel out the receptiveness of their quarry. “Why don’t you help me help you?” and “I hope we can understand each other” were the kinds of phrases a single mother who had recently undergone a C-section remembered Abdirahman saying. When she refused to disrobe in his office, he threw her out angrily, saying, “You will see if your case goes forward.” That was in 2007 or 2008, she thinks, and her case is still pending.
The accusations against Goobe followed a similar pattern. An interpreter who had worked as a contractor for the IOM medical staff in Dadaab beginning in 2004 said that in 2008 Goobe pushed her to sleep with him in exchange for more regular work. “If you accept, then you have a job. If not, then he’s not going to call you,” she said. She refused and the work dried up. In the time they worked together, she said she saw both Goobe and Abdirahman pressuring younger refugee women to have sex with them, particularly unmarried women. “If they see a pretty girl in a case, they will ask, ‘Can I marry you?’ And that’s not allowed,” the interpreter said.
In addition to sex, all three men allegedly sought bribes. Male and female refugees we spoke to reported being asked to “give me something” in exchange for medical clearance. A common code word for bribe was “soda”—a word that had popped up in Hayden’s reporting on corruption at UNHCR. Often, the three IOM medical staffers appeared to have used intermediaries, incentive workers drawn from the refugee population who would show up at people’s homes offering to advance their cases in exchange for money. Multiple refugees also said they had paid bribes directly to all three men. One refugee who had been through eight medical exams as well as three additional tuberculosis screenings said both Bisle and Abdirahman had asked him for money in 2007: “They asked me a lot of money, but all I had was 1,000 shillings,” he said – about $10. According to the interpreter, the going rate was between $500 and $3,000—or 50,000 and 300,000 shillings—far above what most refugees could afford to pay.
Maryan and I had gathered a significant body of evidence from refugees, including the interpreter, who said they had been victimized by all three men. We had conducted the interviews independently and in different parts of the camp, so we could be sure that none of the women had coordinated their stories. We had also cross-referenced the dates of the alleged incidents with what we knew about the three men’s employment history. The only thing we didn’t know for certain was whether the medical staff had actually followed through on their threats to cause unnecessary delays to refugees’ resettlement cases. That changed when we tracked down a former IOM staffer who had worked in Dadaab during the initial Ashraf resettlement phase in the mid-2000s.
The staffer, who asked to remain anonymous because he still works with UN agencies in Kenya, described how Abdirahman and Goobe both called refugees in for unnecessary procedures in order to extract bribes or sexual favors. One ruse the former staffer had observed directly involved calling refugees back for second or third physicals long before their first one had expired. Another involved spurious tuberculosis screenings. Mandatory chest X-rays taken in Dadaab would be sent to Nairobi for evaluation, after which a list of patients with abnormalities would be sent back for additional diagnostic procedures, including sputum smears and cultures. Abdirahman and Goobe would add additional names to the list of patients being called in for follow-ups. These patients’ X-rays had come back clear, but the nurses would nonetheless ask them to come in for sputum collection, which often required a full day of waiting or more. According to the former IOM staffer, it was an open secret that these inconveniences would disappear for a fee. If the refugees didn’t know the jig before they arrived, they would quickly learn about it—either from other refugees or from the nurses themselves.
This description matched up perfectly with the testimony of one male refugee who had spoken to us earlier in the week. The man had been for seven physicals beginning in 2009, and each time he had been called back for sputum cultures, even though the results of the previous tests had always come back negative. Goobe never asked him for a bribe directly, he said, but someone he didn’t know visited his house and suggested that he pay “something” in order to resolve his medical issue. “They are messing us up because they want something,” he said. “People who can afford it will take one or two medical exams and then they will go to the U.S.A. If you can’t afford, you will just stay.”
After four days of interviews, my notebooks were overflowing with damning testimony, and the list of victims kept on growing. It seemed impossible that such brazen misconduct could have gone unchecked for so many years at an agency whose purpose was to protect the vulnerable. But in nearly a decade as a foreign correspondent and editor, I had never been a part of an investigation that was this clear-cut. None of the women had been willing to put their names on the record. But given the intense climate of fear, and the very real threat of retaliation, I hadn’t expected them to. Thousands of miles from Dadaab in mainly Western cities, the #MeToo movement was exposing not just a litany of misdeeds by powerful men but the hidden forces that had protected them for years. At the apex of newsrooms and production companies, among other venerable perches, these men had used money, influence, and sometimes teams of lawyers and shadowy operatives to cover their tracks. In Dadaab, the power differentials were even bigger, and there was no one to turn to for help. With the power to halt or advance resettlement cases, IOM officials quite literally held the refugees’ lives in their hands.
The independent Office of the Inspector General for IOM would eventually open an official investigation as a result of the testimony Maryan and I gathered. And Leonard Doyle, a spokesperson for IOM in Geneva, would confirm that one of the alleged predators, Bisle, had previously been investigated by the Inspector General’s office as a result of anonymous claims of fraudulent extortion. But the office had been unable to verify the claims against him, and it had eventually closed the investigation. Bisle’s contract with IOM expired in January 2018, and IOM elected not to renew it “due to a downsizing of IOM Kenya operations,” according to Doyle.
IOM claimed to have no information about Abdirahman, and I was never able to track him down under his new name. Both Goobe and Bisle denied the allegations against them, but Goobe acknowledged that he too had been previously investigated by IOM after a family of refugees accused him of corruption (although Doyle claimed to have no record of that investigation). “There was one allegation that came to the office. It was investigated and disqualified…They wanted to scapegoat using my name,” Goobe told me when I reached him by phone. He said he was “shocked” to hear of the new allegations and strongly denied having sought bribes or sex from anyone under his care or supervision. “That’s against my professional ethics, my faith, my everything,” he said.
At the time the manuscript for this book was finalized, Doyle said that IOM’s inspectors had “not yet uncovered sufficient evidence to substantiate the allegations” against the organization’s staff members but that the investigation was still ongoing. In the nearly six months since Maryan and I had first presented IOM with our findings, inspectors had visited Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota to interview refugees who had been resettled from Dadaab. For reasons IOM did not divulge, however, its inspectors had not yet visited the refugee camp itself—where all of the women Maryan and I interviewed still live. Meanwhile, Goobe remained on the job.
* * *
The main operations hub for IOM, UNHCR, and various other aid agencies in Dadaab is inside a massive rectangular compound near the airstrip. More than a mile and a half in circumference, the complex is ringed by multiple layers of fencing, the outermost built to withstand a bomb blast and topped by a triple coil of razor wire. On the day Maryan and I had arrived, several desperate refugee families had been camped in front of the entrance to protest food ration cuts. They were unable to get inside to speak with anyone, but unwilling to go home. With the families blocking the gate, we waited in the truck for a few minutes while our driver conferred with the guards, who were contracted through a private security company called G4S. When our driver returned, he said we had been directed to use a second entrance roughly a quarter of a mile on down the road. He added that he had overheard one of the guards speaking with someone from UNHCR on his shortwave radio: “Get the journalists out of there before they make a story about the protesters,” the UNHCR staffer had said. “And sort those refugees out so they are not there when the journalists leave.”
Because the camp is regarded as insecure—several kidnappings over the years had given rise to the government’s policy of providing journalists with armed escorts—we had arranged to stay inside UNHCR’s fortified compound. It was a delicate arrangement to say the least, investigating one UN agency as guests of another. But it was an awkward dance I had done many times before as a journalist working in places like Dadaab, where commercial airlines don’t fly or where there are few safe places to stay outside of a UN base. In order to maintain my independence, my rule of thumb had always been to pay my own way; never accept a free flight or lodging, even if UN officials offered them. We had followed my rule on this trip as well, covering the costs of our flight and hiring two rooms in UNHCR’s guesthouse at a rate of $40 per night.
Once inside the blast-proof walls, one understands at once why the refugees are kept at a safe distance. A lush oasis of neem trees and delicate bougainvillea, the world inhabited by UN employees exists in jarring contrast to the world they are there to serve. Staff members can play tennis in the evenings and sip cold Tusker lagers at a thatched gazebo bar, which turns into a club on weekend nights. While reduced food rations in the camp mean that most refugees survive on a little more than half of the UN’s own recommended daily caloric intake, those living on the compound can choose from at least two separate dining areas, or belong to a private dining club. “I knew there was a different world behind these walls, but I didn’t know it was like this,” Maryan said one evening over plates heaped with rice, cabbage and beef stew. We sat at a thick wooden table in a spacious tiled courtyard, a blue parasol flapping gently above our heads.
I asked if it felt strange to finally be inside this place after so many years of being shut out. It was a dumb question, and I immediately regretted asking it. What I really meant was did she feel angry knowing that this existed in such close proximity to so much suffering. “You know, this place is supposed to be for refugees,” she said, as if she understood what I had been trying to say. “They are supposed to hear our voices, but they can’t hear our voices over their walls.” After a long silence, she added, “This place is so powerful. It can destroy you, and there is nothing you can do.”