Just six months ago, Murayo Nur Ali was told that she had no hope of being treated for a severe injury she suffered during a gang-rape at age 7.
That was in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. But on Monday, she was full of hope as she stepped out of a private jet that flew her to Rochester for treatment at the Mayo Clinic.
Though Ali is 11 now, she looks like she hasn’t grown much since the attack. She’s gaunt and her wide eyes look languid. Still, she managed to smile and seem playful as she strode through dozens of people who waved encouraging signs and flowers at the Rochester International Airport.
One sign read, “The bad part is over.”
It’s exactly the message that the couple who sponsored Ali wanted to send her. The Rochester pair, Abdi and Zahra, who wouldn’t give their last names because they didn’t want to be overwhelmed with all those in need, didn’t know Ali until they read her story on a Somali website.
“We couldn’t sleep the night we saw [Ali] on the Internet,” said Abdi, who began to mobilize a network of people and organizations to help Ali. “She’s just like my 3-year-old daughter.”
Ali was 7 when thugs kidnapped her near her family’s home in Mogadishu. She was going to a nearby grocery shop to buy cooking oil.
“Before you reach the shop, you will have to pass some old buildings which were ruined in the civil war,” according to a statement on the website Somalitalk.com from her father, recounting the events of that fateful March morning in 2002. “After [she was] away for 30 minutes…., I heard screaming…I stood up and went outside to see the situation. Immediately, I found some people carrying up my daughter bleeding…”
The Somali doctor who examined Ali said in a statement that “her genital organ and rectum was extraordinarily opened up beyond recognition.” She used diapers until now.
With meager resources and lack of equipment, the doctor could only offer limited treatment, but made it clear to her family that Ali must be treated outside Somalia.
Ali’s 64-year-old unemployed father was devastated. He’s so poor that he couldn’t even afford a taxi ride to the hospital.
Then, a Mogadishu-based nonprofit organization, known as COGWO, published Ali’s ordeal on Somali websites. It was the right step at the right time for the right person. Thousands of miles away in Rochester, Minn., a young Somali couple was moved, so much so that the two cried for days after they saw Ali’s tormented face. They sent more than 600 frantic e-mails to their friends. The response was massive, but disorganized. Then they began narrowing down their options.
The arrangement to bring Ali to the United States was laborious and elaborate. From last August until now, Abdi and Zahra spent at least 20 hours a week calling hospitals, foundations, attorneys, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Their cell phone bill was skyrocketing to about $400 a month for making so many international calls.
“I just wanted to show [Ali] that there is a hope somewhere,” said Abdi.
At times, the couple, who have three of their own children, hit snags. Some friends told them that they were attempting the impossible. But they were determined to bring Ali to Mayo Clinic at any cost.
“I never hesitated to help her,” said Abdi, who refers to Ali as “my daughter.”
A collective effort
Though he and his wife took the initiative, Abdi has gotten a lot of help. A staffer at COGWO accompanied Ali and her father to Ethiopia to help them obtain the visa. U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., pushed the Homeland Security Department to issue the visa quickly. The city of Rochester offered a house for Ali and her father, who’s traveling with her. And a Somali charter school has already admitted her, even though her education is “probably below the level,” according to Abdi.
By November, the humanitarian visa was approved, the Mayo Clinic agreed to treat Ali for free, and the nonprofit Wings of Hope, paid the airfare from Somalia to Washington D.C., and then flew Ali and her father on a private jet to Rochester.
The corrective procedure on Ali is expected to last for at least a year. She will also receive psychological treatment for what the Somali doctor described as “acute mental scars.”
Meanwhile, Abdi and Zahra are already planning to help another child in Somalia.