Things had changed so drastically since I stepped off the ship and set foot in Hong Kong. I, Nadifa, had grown accustomed to the local ways in this city which reverberates with life and is full of surprises and contradictions. Like everybody else, I had become part of the mad rush to keep ahead.
But, while looking back is tough for me, I can still remember every detail of the events that took place that August night in Somalia.
The sparse branches of the trees swayed with the wind and, except for a sliver of moon, the sky was as dark as a bat's wing.
The melancholic hooting of an owl broke the quiet of the night; and then I heard the sounds that were to stay with me, forever, haunting my memories. The cracks of gunfire were immediately followed by the clatter of running feet. I remember grabbing my jacket, the only warmth and protection I had, and joining the fleeing crowds.
Although I didn't know where I was headed, I just kept running, my mother and brother alongside me. The running must have worn out my mother because her pace began to slow and her breathing became more laboured. No one dared to stop as she lagged behind us, for the sound of gunshots just kept getting closer and closer. I could hear children sobbing, afraid to let go of their mother's hands. I had to be brave; if I stopped to wait for my mother to catch up, we would both regret it.
Glancing back, I saw what seemed like thousands of soldiers, grabbing people and beginning to beat them.
"Hooyo," I yelled, this being the Somalian word for "mother".
"Keep on running, don't look back," she screamed as a soldier caught her arm. I watched my brother run in the opposite direction to me, trying to get away from the madness and violence all around. I knew if I followed him, I would get caught.
The prospect of leaving my mother behind was terrifying, but I knew that I had no choice. With tears dripping down my cheeks, I kept on running, never daring to stop. The huge crowd I had been running with was now much smaller as hundreds of people had been captured.
After what felt like hours, we finally reached a decrepit shelter big enough to accommodate the few people who had managed to escape the violence. In the distance, we could still hear the sound of people screaming, but the structure made of sticks and tattered cloth was far enough away from the soldiers for us to feel safe until the violence died down.
We ended up living in this shelter for several months before we all decided that it was time to move on. Many of us decided to find a safe country to migrate to, through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. After several days of discussing suitable destinations, Hong Kong was the unanimous choice. It was perceived to be a safe, multicultural and tolerant place. And in Hong Kong, the children could get a proper education and the adults could make a living.
The Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre (HKRAC) supported us through the whole process. Their vow was to provide high-quality legal advice to refugees, protect our rights, and generate awareness. It was incredible that one organisation could transform our lives so completely.
After days of preparing and organising, we set off. Although I still longed to see my mother, and feel the soft touch of her fingers against my cheek, it felt so liberating to be getting away from all the violence and terror around me.
Finding employment in Hong Kong proved more difficult than I had anticipated, but eventually, I did get a job. Desperate to earn enough money for the essentials, I worked hard every day in a factory which made clothes and other textiles. I had to support myself on a measly income, but I was a diligent worker, and I wasn't going to give up. Day after day, I did what I loved, designing and sewing clothes, and much, much more. My pricked fingers were covered in plasters as I rarely wore a thimble.
Although I was grateful to have work, I was horrified at the detrimental effects the factory had on the environment. The thick smoke it produced added to global warming and caused pollution, and there were more immediate problems, such as the unsustainable dumping of textile waste.
It was tough working every day of the week and never being sure what was to become of me. I ate well, as the long hours that I put in required a lot of extra calories.
One day in May, when I walked into the factory, I saw a letter lying on my table. At first, I was unsure whether it was meant for me, but then I opened it and began reading ...
We received this message from someone who didn't tell us their name. Here is what they say:
"I know what a hard life you've led and I want to help and support you. You have been brave and strong but I wish to give you some money so that you can live a better life."
If we work out who this letter is from, we will let you know.
A stream of letters followed. They encouraged me to continue with my assiduous and hard-working ways. The words were inspirational, and reading these letters became a ritual that I really looked forward to. They reassured me that every cloud had a silver lining and that I would find my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow - if I looked hard enough.
As time passed, I tried to convince myself not to get used to the letters, for fear they would stop. But I also wondered why someone would continue to write to me unless they had something to gain from it.
A couple of months later, I visited the bank and found someone had been putting money into my account.
So many questions raced through my mind. Was this money from the HKRAC? Or was it from the anonymous author of the letters?
"Some guardian angel seems to be looking after my welfare," I told my friends.
"But you don't know who they really are," they replied.
I must admit that I was baffled and I was keen to try to find out who had taken such a keen interest in my well-being.
My funds continued to grow, as did my attachment to my letter writer. By the time I was 21, two years later, I was eager to find out the mystery person's identity. At my suggestion, we arranged a meeting.
I had tried to picture what he or she would look like. But I was taken aback when a tall and rather handsome young man wearing a light blue jacket and with dreadlocks rounded the corner. When I realised he was from Africa, too, my emotions oscillated between incredulity and extreme happiness.
As I approached him, my heart stopped for a moment. It couldn't be possible, after all these years.
"Walaalo?" I asked.
"Nadifa?" he said, unable to believe we were together, either. Tears sprang to my eyes and, full of emotion, I embraced him tightly. We stood there, looking at each other for what seemed like an eternity. So much had changed since I had last seen my brother.
"Did you know that you were writing to me all this time?" I asked as I wiped away my tears and clung to his arm.
"No. When I started working, I wanted to make a difference in somebody's life as nothing could take away the pain of losing my mother and little sister all those years ago," he said.
"I knew that many of our friends and countrymen had fled to Hong Kong so I got in touch with the HKRAC. They informed me that I could send funds to a teenage refugee but I had to remain anonymous until they turned 21."
"We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures," I said, squeezing my brother's arm. "Today, I feel alive again, well and truly so, and I am staring at my greatest treasure - the gift of family.
"Do you remember when we used to read Erma Bombeck all those years ago?"
"Yes," replied my brother.
"Do you recall your favourite excerpt?"
"How can I forget? In fact, it's still fresh in my mind: 'The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another's desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together'."
With guardian angels, you don't usually know who they really are.
In this case, I did.
This is the third finalist in Young Post's 2011 Summer Story competition, sponsored by Dymocks, in which HK$3,000 worth of book vouchers are up for grabs. Each week, we will publish one of the finalists' stories, with the winning entry appearing in Young Post on September 3.