Hafsa Haji’s mother tightly clutches her children in fear while standing in front of the United Nations office in Pakistan to accept a refugee case. Despite being a young girl at the time, Haji woke up many mornings to stand at the office all day because she knew her family needed help.
“I would see the military come to our house, looking for my dad and my dad would run away,” Haji said. “They never caught him ... My mom said it’s not safe and that anything could happen at any time.”
Haji, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln freshman undecided major, is a Somalian refugee who left her homeland due to political instability. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, Somalia has been in a civil war for the past 30 years, prompting thousands of people to seek asylum. Her family first applied for a visa to Pakistan and moved in 2007.
“It was my siblings, my mom and my aunts … We took a flight to Pakistan and my dad went to Qatar,” Haji said.
Haji stayed in Pakistan until 2013, waiting for the UN to approve her family’s status as refugees. After the seven-year process, the UN relocated Haji’s family to Florida.
Haji moved to several states but said she needed a community with her people, which she found in Nebraska.
“There wasn’t even a mosque in South Dakota, so we had to celebrate our festivals in parks or at home … I was happy that there’s one here,” Haji said.
Haji became intrigued by the idea of a military career in middle school when the National Guard came to her school and spoke about it.
“I was having a rough time getting along with my mom, and I told my family that I would leave after I turned 18 and join the military because I could make another family there,” Haji said.
Haji’s interest continued in high school, when the recruiters would come to her school every Tuesday. The first time she went to see them, she felt frightened by the sight of several tall men in uniform. Finally, Haji walked up to a man who ended up being the recruiter for the National Guard.
“He was very welcoming, so I was going every Tuesday,” Haji said. “I seriously considered it as a career.”
Haji was firm in her decision, even in the face of her family’s disapproval. Haji said that her mother, like many Muslims, was against the idea of joining the military. Eventually, her family came around, knowing they could not hold her back.
Hani Haji, Hafsa Haji’s sister, supported her decision. Although she knew being in the military could be dangerous, she knew that Hafsa Haji was set on this career path.
“We always knew she wanted to do something in that field,” Hani Haji said. “She always talked about being an FBI agent as a kid, so it wasn’t surprising to me.”
During basic training for the National Guard, Hafsa Haji said she dealt with disrespect toward her religion. Nonetheless, Hafsa Haji said her choice to the military would depend upon whether they accepted her wearing a hijab and long pants.
“People either laughed or yelled at me and constantly questioned my reason … I had to meet a chaplain and receive approval for a form of religious accommodation,” Hafsa Haji said.
Hafsa Haji said she was astonished by the lack of support and knowledge of her religion from people in the National Guard, even though Islam is the second-largest religion in the world.
“I was just mind-blown that these high ranking officers weren’t educated on the beliefs Muslims hold … They need to do their research,” Haji said.
Despite the environment, Hafsa Haji remained resilient. Over the course of training, she created a small family within her compound.
Hafsa Haji did not complete basic training due to an injury, and ultimately decided to come to UNL to join the Army ROTC program to pursue her dream of being in the military.
“Her personality is strong, and she’s very aware of what she wants. She’s like the life of the party,” Hani Haji said.
Hafsa Haji said she hopes to get her education and be in the military for a while, and potentially move back to Pakistan after a decade or so.
“I initially wanted to join the military to get away from my family and because I attended the meetings when the National Guard officers came, but now it’s beyond that and I just enjoy it,” Hafsa Haji said.