I am going to just be candid with you. My head is swirling, my heart is aching, and I just don’t even know where to start. I want to say something that delivers such a punch, that you instantly care and read. I want to shake you and beg you to listen to my story. Frankly, I am too fatigued emotionally from the whirlwind of anti-refugee rhetoric and actions as of late to be as eloquent as I would like. So let me just cut to the chase. Ten years ago, I went to Kenya with my best friend on a humanitarian mission. During our field research, we were attacked and nearly killed. To date, we both suffer from the injuries. I have been diagnosed with occipital neuralgia— severe nerve damage in my head—and I rarely experience pain relief. That is the part a lot of my friends know. But I want you to know the rest. Years ago, after the incident, I documented what occurred. I will resist the urge to go through and edit it to make it sound more grammatically or academically impressive, because the rawness of the details that are related in the account below is what matters. So, with that, I ask that you read my story. I believe in the power of narratives, the transformative effect that stories have on understanding and empathy, and I hope that my story can offer some of that to the world.
After many days in the bush (rural region), we returned to the city for the weekend. We were desperate for a little western activity. Mombasa had a reputation for being safer than Nairobi, and we had been out shopping just the two of us countless other times. Our bus back to the city got in late in the evening, so we quickly prepared to catch a matatu (public transport) to the movies. It was a most unexpected theater; it looked like someone plucked it out of America and dropped it in Mombasa. Only tourists and Indians could afford it, so we were usually the only guests. We went to see The Da Vinci Code. It was so nice to kick back in a huge, air conditioned theater, though anytime we put our feet up on the seats an employee would appear out of thin air ready to smack us over the head. When the movie got out, matatu’s had stopped running for the night, so we called a cab.
We came to the corner that we lived on. The pavement ended and a dirt road full of pot holes stretched about 25 feet to a turn; our house was just around that bend. We were seconds away on foot. To avoid the pot holes, we told the driver to drop us off at the end of the pavement. We paid him and he drove away. We started up the dirt road when we were rushed by three men. They came from the dark corner near our apartment and quickly surrounded us. They spoke abruptly in Swahili, and hoping that they were innocently flirting with us, I sternly told them we didn’t speak Swahili and kept walking with an air of confidence. They followed. The leader of the group held a flashlight and he now spoke in English, but he was still hard to understand. He seemed to be asking where we were going and making demands. We kept a focused and fast pace to our front gate, which was always locked. There was no key; we had to be let in by someone on the inside. I informed the man that this was where we lived, in hopes that he and the others would realize we were very close to home and get scared off. As we approached the gate, the man with the flashlight looked us up and down with it; there was a suspicious look in his eyes. I saw hate; I saw intention. I knocked as hard and loud as I could, hoping the guard from the inside would immediately open the door. He didn’t. I turned just in time to see the silhouette of one of the men, standing in front of a streetlight. The light behind him perfectly outlined his form, I could not see his face, but I could see him raising his arm from behind his back, revealing a police stick. That is the last thing I remember clearly. I remember reacting, being angry, trying to protect Danielle. I remember she was on the ground, then blackness, then I felt myself fall, and I felt her underneath me.
After that, there was lightness. I just remember being in a sort of dream, floating; it was cloudy, I was calm, I felt no pain, and I could hear someone moaning and crying and calling out below me. I didn’t know who it was, but I felt sad for her. I found out later it was me.
When I woke I was in an ER at a hospital, surrounded by somber yet busy hospital workers. Mamma Rita was by my side, holding my hand. Danielle was on the bed next to me, continually asking if I was ok. I asked what happened and heard the words from Rita, “You were attacked.” My next question was, “Where is Sam.” Sam, one of our roommates, held the priesthood-a source of faith based healing. I was calm but very aware that I was in really bad shape and needed a priesthood blessing. He would receive word and be there as soon as he could, I was assured.
I lay on the table and waited as tests and assessments were run on Danielle. They were trying to find the source of the blood covering her. I didn’t say much; I felt so calm, yet confused. The back of my head throbbed; I touched it and felt something cold and wet. I pulled my arm forward, and saw that my hand was covered in blood. The doctors saw and realized that the blood was actually coming from me; it was my blood all over her. I was thrown onto my stomach as the doctors and nurses started shaving my head. Mamma Rita, aware that a bald head would only add to my trauma, quickly demanded that my entire head not be shaved and that the stitches be made small as I had yet to give my dowry. Or in other words, I was single. They reacted very seriously to this bit of information and shaved only what was necessary. They stitched the back of my head closed rather quickly. As they flipped me over and started stitching my upper lip closed, mamma Rita repeated her same warning. They immediately heeded her advice again, stitching my face very carefully. I cannot tell you how grateful I am that she was there!
In-and-out of consciousness, I was led in a wheelchair to various areas for x-rays. A few times I saw nurses grabbing me through the haze and demanding I sit up straight. As if I thought it entertaining to fall over and nearly out of my chair.
After we were stitched and examined, we were sent to our room for the night. Danielle and I had side by-side-beds, mine directly in front of a huge mirror. Why would you put a mangled young girl directly in front of a mirror?! What I saw was nothing short of terrifying. It wasn’t me. It couldn’t be.
The left side of my entire face was three times its usual size, as if stuffed with tennis balls. It was completely skidded up and it looked like my face had been dragged across asphalt. Like road kill. My mouth was literally lopsided, as vertical as it was horizontal. A bandage covered the stitches holding my upper lip together, and my tongue was nearly severed in half and too swollen to fit into my mouth entirely. It hung out of my crooked mouth, a mangled piece of flesh. My left eye was huge, black, and completely swollen shut. I was the epitome of a female Quasi-Motto.
The next thing I remember was waking up the next morning. Evidently, I didn’t fall asleep after the freak encounter with myself. Instead, I cried for hours while Danielle held me and told me it would be ok. Though she endured painful injuries, she was fortunate to have retained less injuries and a face still intact. She consoled me through the night.
That next morning, I learned what had happened while I was floating around in clouds. Danielle had been hit in the back of the neck; she fell to the ground face down. She could hear and feel, but she could not see or move. She felt my body fall on top of hers. She felt convulsions, limbs flapping about; she realized it was the convulsions of our bodies, tangled together. She felt my blood pouring onto her, but again, she couldn’t move. She heard the footsteps of our attackers running away, having successfully grabbed her purse during the beating. She was left alone in the darkness, me unconscious on top of her. She called for help; it came out as a whisper. She called louder, still quiet. She prayed for strength and shouted as loud as she could, “Help!” Our neighbor heard, and she jumped out of bed and shouted out the window as loud as she could, “Help! Help!” She was Danielle’s voice, calling the door guard below to attention. They ran out into the street and found us lying on the ground. Thankfully, Danielle’s movement returned and the neighbors helped her to her feet. They flagged down a passing car. A Muslim couple pulled over and helped Danielle’s weak and my limp body into their car. I no doubt spilt blood all over their seats. The couple prayed to Allah for us as we drove to the hospital. I was in-and-out of consciousness, and Danielle kept asking me questions, trying to keep me from losing consciousness again, “Where are we?” “Africa!” I retorted, though I have no memory of any of this. Ironically, Danielle dropped her cash and cell phone when the thieves attacked us, but they never noticed. Acting quickly in moments of distress, she made sure to find them in the darkness before we left; she was thus able to call Mamma Rita so she could meet us at the hospital.
Later that day, Sam returned from the Bush. He brought with him Brett Vanleeuwen, a man who was working in Kenya for his own NGO. He was a big guy, football player-type, bald, big happy eyes and a calm smile. I had heard of him and planned on possibly meeting up with him while there, but I certainly didn’t expect this to be the circumstances of our first introduction. Sam looked so concerned, so worried. They gave us a blessing, and what was said surprised me and gave me insight that I will hold onto forever. Along with being told that I would recover and heal from my wounds, I was told to forgive. I was told that God wanted me to forgive. “Of all things to say God, why that?” I thought, “I’m not mad at them, I’ve been too busy thinking about my situation or too drugged up to think about anything, and clearly they are bad guys, so why worry about them? I’m the one with the problems here!” Then I realized how much God must really love his children. All his children. How important forgiveness truly is for all involved. What an incredible thing to say, what a deep lesson to be learned. Christ forgives, he loved those who killed him, and he loved those who attacked me, so how could he not ask me to forgive? It wasn’t just a gift for them, but a gift for me. God didn’t want me to be plagued with resentment or anger. I’m not. I do forgive them and I did from that moment on.
The next few days in the hospital ran together like a bad dream. I couldn’t eat because my mouth was a mangled excuse for an eating tool, the pain in my head and face were excruciating, and I nearly went into hysterics every time I saw my reflection. Fortunately, I was a bit too out of it to really care, which is strange considering I had stopped taking the mysterious red pills that were sent to me every few hours. I remember waking up once to Sam cleaning my wounds. My hands were cut up, bloody, and stained with dirt. Danielle found herself sick at times from her injuries and pain; Sam didn’t skip a beat and was on his hands and knees cleaning her throw up. We love Sam.
At some point, I called my mother; it was the middle of the night for her. As calmly as I could I asked for insurance information. She panicked when she discovered I had been attacked and was in a hospital. I did my best to convey what had happened as mildly possible. I was unsuccessful. You can image the tears, prayers, and fear felt by my mother and family during this time. Due to my lack of ability to fully relay the situation, what with the broken head and all, I managed to say something like, “Don’t worry mom, they stitched my head and face closed.” She asked how many stitches I had and not knowing I think I just said, “A lot.” The message was bleak: Monique was beat up, nearly killed, is in a hospital and her face is stitched back together. They thought I’d return as Brida Stein, if at all.
During one of the following days in the hospital (I had no way of gauging which day it was) our neighbor and her friends and family came by for a visit. I awoke to a woman holding my hand and crying, the same lady who had called for help. She was a full, middle aged, beautiful woman with a strong grip. She was sort of rocking back and forth and she relayed her version of the story. She told me how she prayed to God for our safety. She cried as she told me how horrified she was when she first came to my motionless body on the dirt road. She thought I was dead. She squeezed my hand as she told me how she searched for my pulse that night, and she demonstrated the act to me. I realized then just how close I had come to death.
She and her friends continued to pray over us for some time. I was in and out of awareness, but remember her saying to me, with tears in her eyes, “Your mother cannot be here, so I will be here for her.”
Later, our friend Abdi came for a visit. Abdi was a young Muslim soccer player we met while staying at the Mosque grounds in the bush. Danielle and I had wanted to go jogging, and Abdi was our guide. He has lost family members to tragic deaths and continued to work hard in order to eat and just live. Despite his heart-breaking trials, he never gave up in life nor lost his kind, giving demeanor. He was very sweet and so soft spoken. The beauty of his presence in our hospital room was this: Mombasa was a three hour bus trip from his home and cost one week’s worth of food money. He silently stayed with us at our bedside for an entire day. I don’t know how many people back home would have sacrificed so much in order to be at our sides. Such deep love and concern from someone we only met weeks before, was a rare and inspiring thing.
After a couple weeks of recovery, both in the hospital and then in Momma Rita’s home, I made the long journey home to the United States.
I have no way to find the Muslim couple that scooped me off the gravel road and helped me into their car, or the Christian neighbors who flagged them down. I know only that they were my angels. There was a unity of love among them, love for two white girls from America that they did not know.
The hateful beliefs and irrational fears I hear from so many, directed towards an entire group of people, are truly unbearable for me to hear. It is my deepest hope and prayer that I can, in some small way, say thank you to those heroes in my life, that I will never see again, by doing all I can to show others the incredible love that was shown to me. I ate with Muslims, lived among them, prayed with them, laughed with them, and in the end, was rescued by them. This is the story I want you to think of when you think of Muslim refugees, who just as I was, are in need of saving. Love is the answer; it is as simple as that.