Aisha faced a shattering decision: acquire a husband three times her age (and with three wives already) or forfeit her family and her country. Those were the options her own father presented her with in the remote Nuba Mountains of Sudan—one of the most isolated and war-torn regions in the world. She was a 16-year-old from Des Moines. Either choice meant losing her future, her life.
Aisha says her friends and family describe her as unpredictable, and her life has certainly been just that. She was born in Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War, and her parents fled the country as refugees in the year 2000, when she was two years old, eventually settling in Des Moines and becoming citizens.
But to look at her now as a 19-year-old American, you wouldn’t notice her unstable past, except for a certain steely look in her eyes—and a poise and self-possession rare in most teenagers. Aisha is tall and lean and likes to run; she is active outside most days when she can be. She writes poetry and plays classical music on the viola. She likes to experiment with makeup, offering friendly makeovers to new acquaintances. Most often, though, you’ll find her studying fervently: to make up for lost time.
Growing up, Aisha loved school, but she soon realized that she was different from her classmates. Her parents were Muslim, and her father was extra strict with his eldest daughter. But his rules went further than religious observances. She wasn’t allowed to participate in any extracurricular activities beyond her beloved orchestra. She couldn’t hang out with friends after school, which made it difficult to make any. Her father insisted that she return home by 3:30 p.m., even though school let out at that same time.
Worse still, her father was physically and emotionally abusive to Aisha, her mother, and her siblings. She watched him routinely beat her mother for serving dinner a few minutes behind her father’s set schedule. And she witnessed her two-year-old sister get physically abused.
Aisha’s mother tried to make things better for her kids, but she came from a culture where a woman is expected to submit to her husband’s wishes. Aisha understood this, and she didn’t blame her mother, but she did try to convince her to leave him. Yet divorce is nearly unthinkable for Sudanese Muslim women.
“She hated the way we were being treated, but she couldn’t do anything about it,” Aisha says.
As Aisha reached adolescence, she increasingly realized there was only one way to escape the loneliness, stress, and pain of her house: run away. But that rarely worked for long. She cared too much about her mother and siblings to leave for good.
At a certain point, Aisha had missed enough school that she fell significantly behind on credits. A teacher, worried that she might not graduate high school on time, referred her to a United Way funded after-school program to help her catch up.
In addition to speeding her through coursework she needed, the program put her in touch with adult mentors—invaluable for a young girl who had never seen her parents as role models or even as “honorable people.” Finally, she had someone to talk to about her problems, a place to go for extra food, even experience volunteering. The program found her a counselor, and she made progress dealing with the trauma from her abuse.
Finally, things were starting to turn around for the 15-year-old. She had people in her corner.
But all that changed in the summer of 2014 when her dad decided on a family vacation to Sudan.
After three months in Sudan, just as school was about to start back in Des Moines, Aisha’s father loaded her younger brother on a plane home. But the two of them stayed on.
Soon, they left for the Nuba Mountains. The region—in the midst of a multiyear civil war—is one of the most isolated in the world. Rebel groups are fighting for independence, and the government is waging a war against its own people—destroying homes, schools, hospitals, and farms. Bombings, door-to-door killings, looting, and destruction of property by government forces is common. Malnutrition is widespread. The government has banned journalists and humanitarian organizations from entering the area.
Filmmaker Kenneth Carlson, creator of “The Heart of Nuba,” calls the campaign against the Nuba people “one of the greatest travesties no one knows about, no one talks about.”
Into this chaos of rubble-strewn roads and ancient rocky trails journeyed Aisha and her father. They eventually reached the compound of her uncle, a wealthy sergeant. Once there, Aisha learned the truth, one she secretly suspected and always dreaded.
Her father had arranged a marriage for her.
The man was in his late 40s and had three wives. Aisha would be his fourth.
Sudanese law requires the consent of the woman for a marriage. Aisha told her father forcefully, with as much American teenage backtalk as she could: “No way!”
“I thought: What am I going to do in a Sudanese man’s house? Sudanese men expect their wives to do everything in the house and just have kids," Aisha explains. "That’s basically the role of the women: to just stay at home, cook, clean, and have children, that’s it. And I was not ready for that.”
Aisha was adamant: There would be no marriage. Her father was equally stubborn; she wouldn’t return home a single woman. And so he left her there alone, her passport in his pocket, hundreds of miles of dangerous travel from the U.S. Embassy in the capitol of Khartoum.
Her uncle’s compound in the Nuba Mountains was surrounded by thick 10-foot high walls, which were encircled by a hedge of thorns. Aisha and the other young people of the family slept outside, between the buildings housing each of her uncle’s three wives. Because of her remote location, Aisha had no way to communicate with anyone in the outside world, and she missed her mother terribly.
Her uncle, like her father, was abusive, and Aisha was soon made to do all the housework—the cooking, cleaning, and laundry that she feared would be her fate as a Sudanese wife.
For two years, Aisha was a Sudanese Cinderella in a war-torn, sweltering desert mountain range. Except there was no fairy godmother or handsome prince coming to save her. If she wanted out, if she wanted to come home and save the life she had once imagined for herself in Des Moines, then she needed to save herself.
During her time in the Nuba Mountains, Aisha was a prisoner but also a member of the family and the social fabric of the village, and she had a chance to interact with many of the young people around her. At a family wedding, she met a young woman from a neighboring village who soon became a good friend and pen pal. Without a functioning mail service, they would send letters back and forth whenever neighbors traveled between their villages.
Her friend knew about her predicament: her uncle was notorious in the area for his cruelty to his wives and family. Plus, what young woman wouldn’t understand the longing to return to a life and a mother in America? The friend agreed to help her escape.
In secret, Aisha planned. She packed. She perked up her courage. On the appointed night, in the darkest hours, she climbed over the wall, ducked through the thorns, and began her slow, steady journey through the rocky desert.
She clambered through caves, crossed rivers, avoided villages, and came to a busy road. That road wasn’t supposed to be there. She had made a wrong turn. And there were rebels ahead. They spotted her.
As soon as she spoke, she knew she was caught. Her Arabic, although much better after two years in Sudan, still had a distinct accent that screamed “I am not from here!” And her face wasn’t much help either. She looked regrettably like her uncle, who was recognizable throughout the region.
“They were saying they were supposedly going to help me get where I was going,” Aisha recalls. “But I knew they weren’t.”
Instead they kidnapped her. They held her for ransom until her uncle arrived—fuming mad. Aisha didn’t know what he would do when they got back to the compound—but she knew it would be harsh.
Fortunately, relatives on her mother’s side of the family intervened before he could punish her. They knew the uncle’s reputation—and surmised that her escape was due to his severe treatment. Since one of his three wives had run away recently, the whole village was talking about his poor behavior and the need for reform. The uncle decided to show some leniency to Aisha—once.
But he gave her a dire warning.
Two weeks later, Aisha was ready to try again, and she had learned some lessons from the previous attempt. She packed just one small bag, cutting down her load from last time and bringing along food and water for the long walk. She also studied the route for the hours-long hike, making sure her memory was faultless this time around.
Again, she left at 3 a.m., while everyone else slept in silence.
The journey to the capital took days—on a motorbike, covered from head to toe in a burqa; on a bus; even on foot for stretches. During one section, Aisha got a thorn stuck in the bottom of her foot near the end of the day, impairing her ability to make it any farther. A kindly elderly woman offered Aisha her home for the night and asked her son to take her to the hospital for treatment.
Eventually, Aisha made it to the capital city of Khartoum, the home of the U.S. Embassy. She thought she was home-free. After all, she had just turned 18, making her a legal adult in the eyes of the United States and allowing the Embassy to provide her a passport without the permission of her parents. However, her passport application was denied.
Because Aisha was born in Sudan, she was also considered Sudanese, and Sudanese law said that an unmarried woman couldn’t leave the country without her father’s permission. Aisha was devastated. Had she come this far only to be rejected at the last mile?
She applied again. She was an American citizen after all. Her country couldn’t deny her permission to come home. This time, her passport came through. She called her mom, who sent her a plane ticket to Des Moines.
Aisha says the first thought that came unbidden to her mind when her plane landed in Des Moines was Burger King. The second was her family.
“Once I saw my family, it was just relief. Because I thought I would never see them again. I’d say that was definitely the best feeling ever.”
Her siblings’ growth highlighted how much time had passed. Her youngest brother was only a year old when she left; now he was walking and talking—and he didn’t recognize her.
Although Aisha was home in Des Moines, she didn’t go back to the family house. After all, her dad was still there—and enraged that she had returned.
“My mom encouraged me to come home, but I said, 'I don’t want to see my dad. I have no intentions of ever speaking to him again.'”
So she stayed at the Buchanan House, a shelter with Iowa Homeless Youth Centers—a funded partner of United Way of Central Iowa. But her dad was still making trouble at home, partly because he thought his wife had helped Aisha escape. The Iowa Department of Human Services got involved and told him to vacate the premises. Finally, after everything the family had been through, Aisha’s mother filed divorce proceedings. And Aisha returned home.
This is hardly the end of the story, however. Aisha was 18 years old and suffering the effects of multiple traumas from her childhood and her stay in Sudan. Plus, she had to decide what she wanted to do with her future—the one she had fought so hard for during her escape.
At 18, Aisha didn’t have to return to school. She could have just earned her high school equivalency diploma by taking the HiSET exam. But Aisha was determined, a trait she had by now shown countless times. She wanted to finish high school for real. School had been a place of safety and comfort for her as a child. She was tired of the mindless boredom she had experienced in Sudan; she had always loved learning. Plus she wanted to go to college, and graduation would look better on applications.
But there was another, more personal reason driving her return to Lincoln High School in the fall of 2016.
This is where the community comes in, where the small actions of individuals can add up to change the life of one extraordinary individual. This is where everyone locks arms: teachers, counselors, Des Moines Public Schools, local nonprofits, United Way of Central Iowa, including the volunteers on the investment committees who make expert decisions about which strategies to invest in and the individual donors whose generosity makes programs on the ground possible.
Aisha needed all of them when she came back to school.
Aisha began seeing a DMPS counselor every day to help with her PTSD. But she still wasn’t ready to sit in a regular classroom with dozens of students. Plus, she was way behind on credits—and would take several years to graduate on a normal track. Flex Academy was the answer.
Flexible Academy—funded by United Way of Central Iowa—allows students to work one-on-one with teachers in the core areas and take classes at their own pace, catching up on credits and graduating faster than normal.
One of Aisha’s Flex Academy teachers at Lincoln was Julie Kramer, who helped her complete two years of English in just one. Julie says Aisha seemed angry and uncertain at first but soon realized that, working together, they could reach her goals and have a good time. The two bonded quickly and spent time talking through her experiences in Sudan and at home.
“I don’t think I’ve ever known a student who was more determined,” says Julie.
For the first time, Aisha was getting an entirely positive educational experience, unmarred by fear and tension at home. She was focused and fast.
“I think she knew she was smart, but I’m not sure if anyone had ever told her that before,” says Julie.
Flex Academy ensured that Aisha got the basics covered—but other programs helped her spread her wings. Another teacher noticed that she included poetry in a research paper and recommended that she try out Movement 515—funded by United Way of Central Iowa’s Education Leadership Initiative (ELI), a group of donors focused on youth success. Movement 515 is an urban arts community where students and mentors come together to write and perform spoken-word poetry.
Below is an excerpt from one of her poems written for Movement 515:
You wear a mask of kindness,
But you hold a mask of ignorance in the opposite hand.
You stand with hands to greet mine,
But your shadow shows you pushing me away.
You smile in the mirror,
Yet, your reflection stays still,
It's almost as if you're saying,
"I want you to be just like me,
But you're not a man,
So you can't."
But I grew up American.
Women are not toys to be played with.
We’re not soccer balls to be kicked around,
You can cook too,
And I will play sports.
It's 2018, so drop your sexist ways.
I refuse to be with a man,
That would ever treat me this way.
Before graduation, Aisha needed some guidance for college and career. She was enrolled in an iJAG class—also funded by United Way of Central Iowa’s ELI—but planned to transfer out. After the first day, though, she realized it was the perfect class for her.
“In iJAG, I learned about a lot of things I didn’t really know much about. I learned about why a credit score is important. I also learned about how to pay off college, how scholarships work, how grants work. Overall it just taught me more about adulting.”
The program also helped Aisha get an internship at Broadlawns Medical Center, where she earned her CNA (certified nursing assistant). The program even paid for her classes and her scrubs. She got the chance to shadow doctors and other medical professionals, as well. Aisha had always wanted to become a CNA but admits she may not have had the knowledge or motivation without iJAG’s help.
Aisha ended up loving her work as a CNA so much that she worked significant overtime hours during the summer to learn more and save money for college.
Looking back on her journey over the past four years, Aisha is not most proud of graduating high school—or even her dramatic and dangerous escape from Sudan. Instead, she’s most proud of staying herself through all her trials.
In Sudan, she was mocked for wearing pants and playing soccer. Back in the U.S., she was talked about in whispers as “that girl who was kidnapped.” But she didn’t let other people’s narratives define her. Through it all, she stayed Aisha. Stubborn, strong, creative Aisha who wouldn’t give up her dreams in the face of anybody’s preconceptions.
It’s that tenacity that serves as an inspiration to everyone who meets her, that astonishing strength that brings tears to the eyes of people who were strangers a few minutes before. Those who know her well find Aisha a guiding light.
Tom Ahart, superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools, was Aisha’s principal at Harding Middle School and involved himself in her treatment and education when she returned to Lincoln. He ended up writing her a letter of recommendation for college.
“Aisha is an inspiration to me," Tom says. "When I feel tested, when my patience is running thin and my tenacity is waning, I think of Aisha and regroup. Our young people, especially those for whom the system is not designed to support, have so much potential and so much to offer to the broader community if given the opportunity. Aisha is a testament to that potential.”
Aisha herself seems oblivious to the effect she has on people—or to how phenomenal her courage and fortitude is, especially in a world where teenagers like her are thrown into despair by the loss of a smartphone. She tells her story as if recounting a mildly dramatic thunderstorm at a picnic.
Aisha’s grace is doubled by her recognition of the help she has been given along the way—by both DMPS and United Way of Central Iowa, programs made possible by donors who care about making sure all students have a chance to graduate, no matter where they come from or what has happened to them.
Aisha plans to become a pediatrician. She has always wanted to work in health care—and her time as a CNA has only cemented that goal. Her years in Sudan also inspired her medical dreams. Someday, she wants to return to the country to create a children’s hospital there.
Health care in Sudan is spotty at best, and many people die because they can’t afford to pay for treatment, a lot of them children. In southern Sudan, where Aisha lived, the situation is even worse.
Despite what happened to her there, she doesn’t blame the country or the people for the situation her father put her in.
In August of 2018, Aisha started college as a biochemistry major at the University of Northern Iowa.
Whatever challenges she may face there or in her future, they can hardly be more intimidating than what she has dealt with before. But they will likely be unpredictable. That is Aisha’s way. And it is life’s way, as well.
Aisha, more than most of us, knows the secret to dealing with it that we tend to forget. You have to do something. Change doesn’t happen otherwise.
At UNI, Aisha has joined the Chemistry Club, the Fishing Club, and the African Union. Her favorite class is biology.
She says: “UNI has really helped me get out of my comfort zone and explore the world in an optimistic way. I love the atmosphere of what I like to call ‘freedom of expression and exploration.’ I've met people from all over the world, experienced new things, (rock climbing), and I can't wait to figure out what the future holds in store for me.”
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To share a comment about this story or send an encouraging note to Aisha, contact Rachel Vogel Quinn at Rachel.firstname.lastname@example.org