Kafiya: painful roots, hard work, and the freedom of making choices

Kafiya: painful roots, hard work, and the freedom of making choices

Kafiya Said Mahdi was born in Somalia. When she was 15, her mother helped her escape an arranged marriage and set her out on a way to Europe. Kafiya´s journey took one year. In Greece, she spent 4 months in prison and in Hungary she was sent to an orphanage. She was confronted with a completely different language, culture, educational system and religion and she faced all these challenges with incredible integrity and endurance. Today, she is an independent young woman with a promising modelling career.

Documentary film Easy Lessons (released 2018) shows Kafiya turning 18 – studying for a leaving exam at a Hungarian secondary school, learning the language, spending time with her orphanage fellow-girls, but also finding new Christian faith, and becoming a model. The most touching parts of the film reveal Kafiya´s fear of her family´s response to her choices and the deep feeling of loss and homesickness.

In October 2021, Kafiya visited the Film Festival in Jilemnice and after the screening the audience had a chance to ask questions:


Can you tell us a little more about your journey from Somalia to Europe?

I will try to make it short becasue that year was very long. When mom found out that my father wants to marry me to an old man, she decided to send me away. In Somalia, people know how human trafficking operates. So it only took my mother one or two weeks to make a few contacts and find a trafficker to help me out.

I travelled with a group and our route was first to Iran, then to Turkey where we spent a month, and then to Greece. We travelled mainly at night and most of the time we walked. Close to a border there was always a car which took us through the city areas and dropped us close to the border, which we crossed on foot.

In Greece I spent several months in prison and after that I had to find a new group of Somali refugees with a new guide to take us to Serbia and then to Hungary.

What happened in Greece?

When we arrived in Greece, the police gave us a paper which allowed us to stay in the country for one month. After that we had two options – to stay and claim asylum, or leave the country. My group wanted to move on but nobody seemed to care about our papers so we just took our time and our papers expired.

Then, one night I went out to buy some food and I was stopped by the police. I did not have the document on me so they took me to the police station. I thought they would just check on me and give me a warning. But they sent me directly to prison.

It was a crazy looking place because the inmates hang their clothes and plastic bags on the bars of their cells. The conditions were harsh and the place was dirty. Again, I thought they were going to release me fast, but the first month passed and the second month passed and I knew I was in trouble.

I was under age so I was not supposed to be in a prison like that but the police did not speak any English and so nobody even asked me about my age, country of origin or why I was there.

Once there was an inspection from the UN so they made us clean the whole prison. Also it was the only time we could use washing machines – normally, we had to wash our clothes in a sink. And they drugged one crazy inmate so she would not cause trouble. When the UN officers came, one girl tried to tell them about the real conditions in the prison but after the visit she was punished. And I suppose the UN were happy with what they were shown and they did not care much about what is happening behind the closed door.

In prison, I spent four months. It was a terrible experience but that was even before the migration crisis started – the system was not under so much pressure. Today, I think, the treatment of refugees must be much worse.

How did you get stranded in Hungary?

I would not say I got stranded by accident. It was a choice. In Greece I had to find a new group of Somali people to travel with, we had a new trafficker and we travelled again to Serbia and then to Hungary. I was tired after the year of travelling. And I knew that moving on from Hungary was not going to be easy – I would need to find a new trafficker and walk again –  go to those scary roads all over again – and I did not want to do that any more.

When you were leaving Somalia what did you expect? Did you or your mother have a specific destination in mind or was it an open possibility?

I spoke English already so it would have been easier if I could use it. But no, at the beginning I had no specific country in mind, just a safer and better country – that was my goal.


Could you tell us more about your mother – she must have been a very strong woman to stand up against your father and send you to Europe…

My mother was born when Somalia was still a better country. When she was young, women could wear pants and walk around with uncovered hair. That made my mother different – she always wanted to be independent and have a free life. But because of the circumstances and the family around her, she did not have a chance. But still she wanted us to believe that we can be whatever we want to be and to have a better life than herself.

My father, her husband, left her when I was three. He wanted boys and she only gave him daughters. So he found a new wife.

Your father left you but then he wanted to sell you. How is it possible?

In Somalia, a clan is the most important thing. That is why every man wants to have sons because they carry on the clan name and make the clan stronger. Daughters mean nothing. The only use to make of them is to sell them for money or cattle. We did not have so much contact with my father. But he could still require that we get sold.

Was your mother punished for sending you away?

Of course she received threats from my father. After my escape, she also helped my younger sister escape the same marriage and to go to Europe. After that she had to leave the small city where our father lived because it was not safe to stay near him. She moved back to her family in another place. With her own clan she was much safer.

Are your sisters still in Somalia? Are they happy there?

We are 7 siblings and I am the oldest. My second sister now lives in Sweden because she also had to escape. But two other sisters are still with my mom and they are actually happy because my mom is now in a better situation. Me and my other sister in Sweden can provide her with everything and she only has two other daughetrs to look after. So she does not need a husband to provide for her and to decide who does what. My sister in Somalia is actually going to university, and she works. They are definitely happier and safer.


The documentary shows your conversion to Christianity – was it a choice made out of rationality? And what happened to your former God? Is he dead now?

In my early life, religion was very important. When I was in Somalia, I learnt Koran by heart and God was a very important part of my life. But I also had questions about things that did not make sense to me. When I asked them, nobody wanted to answer. So I had my doubts. I think if God would exist, which I believe he does, he would not stop you from asking questions and being curious. He would not hate you for that or tell you that you will go to hell for it.

When I came to Hungary I had the chance of doing things not because somebody told me to but because I wanted to. So I read many books. And I also had a boyfriend who was very religious and knowledgeable. He knew very much about the Bible – just as I did about Koran. We had many debates and in the end I became a follower of Christianity.

I do not think that Allah his dead. Maybe he and Jesus Christ are one and we just have different names for it. For some people the name is Christ, for others it is Allah, and for others it is somethng else.

Your mother wanted you to be independent so why do you think she would not be happy about what you are doing now? And why cannot you go back to Somalia to visit her?

My mom wanted me to be independents but there are levels of being independent – and going from being a Moslim to Christianity – that is a huge step.

She is now actually ok with the fact that I´m modelling, that I do not wear hidjab any more and that I cut my hair. When the covid started I told them and she accepted that. She said she always knew I was keeping secrets from her.

But when I told her the religious part, she could not understand – not because she hates Christians but because she really believes in Islam so much that she thinks that I am making the wrong choice if I am not a Moslim. She also believes in afterlife, of course, and she says she wants us to be together in afterlife. If I believe a different religion, we cannot be together. So I understand that she can accept everything except for the conversion.

Why I am scared to go back to Somalia? It is mainly because of the religion thing. I know that mom has not told anyone that I am Christian. She kept it in the family. But she herself might make me stay and stop me from going back to Europe. She might think that Somalia is now safe for me and that it is for my own good. But I have grown out of being a Somali person – my life is here now. I cannot imagine going back there.


How do you perceive yourself? Do you have any identity crisis?

The identity crisis happens. Because I cannot relate to the Somalis any more and I cannot relate myself to Hungarians because I am not a Hungarian. It is a problem – sometimes you do not know who you are. So I think I am mainly Kafiya and maybe that helps me keep sane – not to go crazy over choosing groups to belong to.

It is very hard to be homesick when living abroad. Did you try to contact a Somali community in Hungary? Because that is usually the way to connect with your homeland and culture – to tackle homesickness and to counterbalance the hostile environment?

I do get homesick. But in Hungary we have no Somali community at all. The rest of the group I arrived with all left. Maybe that is why I changed so much that I do not really have anything to relate with the Somali people any more. For the Somalis it is typical to hang out only with one group of people. But I am the complete opposite – I want to meet all kinds of people and I am open minded to everybody.

Whenever I feel homesick I call my mother or my sisters. And that is how I can get over it. But honestly, I always feel it. That missing of my family will always be there. And there is nothing you can do to fulfill it.


Did you encounter racism in school in Hungary?

I do not remember racism at school. The school of course always treated me differently because I did not speak Hungarian. The teacher worried about me – what will happen if I do not pass the leaving exam. But I always knew I would just keep trying and that I would succeeed eventually. But there was no racism in their behavior. Outside the school, yes.

Mr Orbán is not a very welcoming leader. What is it like for you to see the country which has become your second home closing down and, perhaps, changing for the worse?

I think I am well prepared for such a situation because of my Somali background. I had my experience with clan conflicts and it is not my first time seeing corrupt politicians or politicians who do not like a specific group. Actually, I think it is very natural – if you go back in time, there were always similar issues. So I am not suprised and you should not be either.

Mr Orban is not only against refugees, he also promotes homophobia. Gay people are not allowed to get married or adopt children, TV must not depict gays. But I think it is a political strategy, which he uses to win votes from certain people. As long as he has audience, he will stick to it. If he did not have the audience, he would stop. And I believe that people will grow tired of this hate and the aggressive rhetorics will gradually fade off.

Also, I have hopes for the other people who might replace Mr. Orban and make better politics. Until then we need to keep our hopes high and show people that there are better and more important topics to attend to!

There was a time when slavery was absolutely normal. But then people started fighting againts it and today i tis absolutely taboo – unthinkable. And I hope for the same with the political issues – that over time people who think certain things should not be happening, will prevail and the change will happen.

Have you noticed any difference in the Hungarian society in these last few years – more racism or xenophobia when you meet people in the streets?

I arrived before the migration crisis started. And at that time, there were only few racism comments that I got (at least as far as I could understand). But after the crisis – there were many people who were really against everybody with a different color – no matter where they came from or whether they were wearing hidjab. However, as for myself, after I became a model, I look more European so people treat me nicely and they are usually very surprised when they find out that I am a refugee.


The documentary shows you turning 18 and graduating from secondary school. How was your life after that? Did you continue seeing the people from the documentary?

After I was 18, I had to leave the children´s home and move to another home for adults in another small city.  But I had a job in Budapest so after a while I rented a flat with a partner of mine of that time. And I went out of the Hungarian social system. After that, things just started happening – I was always working, I did modelling, I tried to study at university, and I did films sometimes. When the documentary was released, I went to screenings. I just work and continue living.

I keep contact with some of the girls but their lives have not often been as happy as mine. That is a sad part for me – seeing those girls staying in the childrens home. Of course I knew why I was there – living thousands of kilometers far from my home, without my mother next to me – but for them who were in their home country I feel sad. They do not have good stories.

How did you start modelling?

At first I never thought about such a career but people kept telling me I might be good at that. So I decided I would give it a try. I friend who went to the same church was working for a modelling agency – she introduced me and I am working for them until today.

Have you received negative reactions to your modelling?

After I started modelling I received some threats from Somali men. The wrote to me that I should be ashamed and that they will send the pictures to my family. My family did not know at the time. So I told my agency and we came up with a stage name so now people will not find me so easily. I did not know the men – the only thing we had in common was the Somali origin – and they assumed it gave them the right to tell me what to do. That is very typical for Somali men – even if they live in Europe.

What was the most surprising thing for you in the world of modelling?

At the beginning I was the only black girl in Hungarian modelling but now we are much more diverse. And what I like about it is that you can be whoever you want. Nobody cares where you come from or what is your story. It is just the work you do that is important for them. And you meet different types of people with different creativities. Also, in Hungary with all the homophobia in the air, it is interesting to work with homosexuals – and there are many gays in the modelling business.

What will happen next?

Honestly, I have no idea where the world is going to take me. There is always something new happening and I liketo go with the flow. Today I do what is important for today, and tommorrow I do what is important for tommorow. There is no need to stress about tomorrow – it make more sense to focus on what needs to be accomplished today. I hope to have and international career as a model and maybe to get a university degree. But mainly I just keep living.


The documentary is not very explicit but it is clear that you have experienced extreme hardships. What does the documentary mean for you and what is it like to come with the film to small places like Jilemnice and talk about it with the Czech audience?

The journey itself was traumatising. Maybe the scars are not always visible but they are always there. Sometimes it is better and sometimes it is worse. And of course such an experience creates a gap between you and others. I noticed that when it comes to refugees, people would often like to know more and understand – but they do not ask. Or sometimes they do but there is nobody to answer them.

I did the film because I wanted to share the story and show that behind the different experiences we are all humans – we all have good days and bad days and we can relate. I am really glad that the film shows my story softer – although the reality was really harsh – but they managed to show it sometimes funny, sometimes very emotional.

I am honred to be here with the film – because it is great to have people who want to listen. The fact that so many of you are here to watch the film that means a lot. We are already building some level of trust between each other.

What can we do to help refugees?

I think that being kind really matters the most. For me it was really important how people communicated with me and how the teachers were nice. They helped me understand how the system works, how to fill out papers… Actually, you do not have to do big things, it is enough to be nice.

From the practical point of view, I believe that refugees just need to know how to provide for themselves – and they will. I was often asked why I stayed in Hungary, why I did not move on to Germany or Sweden which have a more generous social support. But I think that if I were in Germany, I would not get as far as I am now. When you get things for free, you never learn because you do not know where they come from. But when you have to work for it, you can easily find your way and build everything you need.

The language is very important – I find that Hungarians are really much kinder when you talk to them in their langugae – they immediately want to help you. But if you speak English, it tells them that you do not care where you are and they do not care about you.

So, again, from the practical point of view, it would be great to have a community or a program for migrants to learn the language, to understand paperwork, to learn about the culture, to find job opportunities, and to meet people. And maybe help them until they can stand on their own feet. But being nice really matters the most.


Kafiya with filmmakers Dorottya Zurbó (left) and Julianna Ugrin (right)