When Nasra Hussain Ibrahim was 11, she realized she’d have to do something drastic if her family was to survive.
They lived in Hiran, a rough-and-tumble region in south-central Somalia amidst the rule of al Shabaab, a hard-line al-Qaeda-linked group, and chaotic fighting between local clans. There, militants forcibly recruit children to fight, take over and shutter schools, rape and marry off girls to fighters, and impose a warped, violent version of Islam. Those who don’t obey can face execution by stoning.
Growing up, there often wasn’t enough to eat for Nasra and her family. Her father is elderly—she estimates he’s 90 years old. And like most women in Somalia, her mother—at least half her husband’s age—doesn’t work.
Nasra, the second eldest in a family of six kids, started selling snacks and farming when she was eight to help make ends meet. Every day was a struggle.
“When I saw the situation of my family, I saw I needed to leave,” she recalled.
Nasra’s sweet demeanor, sparkling eyes and broad smile mask a layer of toughness. It’s this toughness that helped her survive when, three years ago at age 15, she snuck out of her parents’ house and risked everything in search of opportunity. She found it in a place no other woman has in Somalia: a garage.
At age 18, Nasra is Somalia’s first and only female car mechanic.
It all began with a broken-down car. Nasra had hitched a ride east after leaving her family home with sights set on the capital, Mogadishu, some 200 miles away.
By road, the trip usually takes two days and two nights. But car trouble stalled her journey, stretching out an already dangerous trip to 10 days and leaving her waiting by the side of the road, hungry, for the car to be fixed.
Despite the very real threats of rape and robbery, Nasra said she was not afraid. “I felt guarded because my parents always pray for me,” she said.
Her mother cried tears of relief when Nasra called to tell her she was alive, in Mogadishu. They worried she had gone to risk the dangerous sea passage to Europe like thousands of others Somalis before her, some of whom drowned before ever making it to the other side.
In this nation in the Horn of Africa, youth unemployment is at almost 70 percent, and people are desperate for opportunity. “A lot of people from my village—men and women—leave to go to Yemen and Libya,” Nasra told Glamour.In 2012, Nasra’s cousin Rahma died in the water off the coast of Libya on a boat bound for Italy. She was 21.
Nasra might not have jumped on a dinghy to cross the Mediterranean, but she took a leap all the same.
Somalia is a country with one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation, maternal mortality, and sexual violence. Only a quarter of Somalia’s women can read.
Across the country, women’s work is relegated to service jobs, where they often occupy the back corners of shops, restaurants, and homes. Doing anything out of the ordinary—from wearing makeup to running for president—can set women up up for ridicule, abuse, or worse.
When she arrived in Mogadishu after that dangerous 10-day journey, Nasra surprised an uncle who lives in the city, crashing at his house and spending months looking for a job. “The things that were in my mind were: how to survive, where to work, where to go,” she said. After months of hustling, looking for any job she could find, Nasra discovered a garage in the center of Mogadishu. There, a group of kind mechanics taught her their trade. Nasra asked the manager if she could join the team after a several months-long apprenticeship.
Today, she’s on call six days a week. She says she’s always either “sleeping or working.” The vast majority of Nasra’s earnings get sent back to her family, and she’ll toss and turn at night if she doesn’t have much to send.
Drought has ravaged Somalia in recent months. In the past year, nearly 600,000 people have been displaced, forced to leave their homes to find food. Nasra’s family hasn’t had to leave, largely because of her own hard work.
But working as Somalia’s first and only female mechanic has its hurdles. When Nasra started out, customers stared at her and made comments, saying that she was a “bad girl.” They said she was too “free.” Customers thought she couldn’t be trusted.
But Nasra’s work speaks for itself. She’s become well-known in the community. “I have proved to them that I can make it,” she said. “So they have more respect for me than before.”
“I think lack of confidence is what keeps most women from doing jobs that are different,” Nasra said. “They believe they aren’t capable of doing this type of work.”
Word of Nasra’s extraordinary story spread, and the garage owner connected her to the organizer of Mogadishu’s fourth annual TedX event in April. There, in front of 150 people, with 20,000 more streaming online, Nasra found her voice.
“I want to tell all the girls in the whole world that they should believe in themselves and not limit themselves,” she said. “Anything a man can do, a woman can do.”
Amanda Sperber is a foreign correspondent based in East Africa, and a contributor to The Fuller Project for International Reporting. Follow her on Twitter @hysperbole