Mall siege won’t keep Kawaja from returning to Africa

Gary Kean
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A view of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya before it became the scene of a vicious terrorist attack recently. 

CORNER BROOK  When she was in Kenya, Haley Kawaja was always aware of her surroundings to ensure her safety.

She never really worried about a situation like the recent terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, but said the unnerving news that came out of the African country last weekend won’t deter her from returning there some day.

The Corner Brook native is back working towards her degree in genetics and molecular biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., but earlier this year she was on a humanitarian mission in the village of Nakuru, Kenya.

She would make the roughly three-hour trek to Nairobi every couple of weeks and estimated she was at the Westgate Mall around 15 times.

When she first heard terrorists had taken over the mall and were killing people, it was 2 a.m. in Kenya. It would be a long time before she began hearing from her many friends who are either native to Kenya or are over there now working similar missions to hers.

At the time she spoke with The Western Star earlier this week, she had heard from all but one of those friends.

“I’m sure she’s fine and I hope she’s just busy and hasn’t checked her email because she is from that area (near the mall),” said Kawaja. “Now I finally know what my parents must have felt like when I was over there.”

Kawaja wasn’t a big fan of visiting Nairobi during the 12 months she was in Kenya. She is relieved to know her friends in Nakuru were a safe distance away from the attack and isn’t concerned about going back to see them.

“I help sponsor a girl there and I plan to go back for her graduation in a couple of years,” she said. “I’ll go back to Nakuru for sure but, in terms of being in Nairobi, it seems like it’s getting worse all the time.”

Another person who has a Kenya-Corner Brook connection, Martin Mburu, doesn’t have as good news to report. Mburu, a Kenyan who was stranded in western Newfoundland during the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, said he knew well some of the 67 people who were killed in the four-day siege at the mall by the Somali militant group al Shabaab.

Mburu, who recently founded a school for boys and named it the Corner Brook School in honour of his positive experience in Corner Brook during the 9/11 crisis, said his family has been traumatized by the attack.

“The previous Saturday, I had a meeting with a former colleague at the same place,” Mburu wrote in an email to The Western Star. “I am sure the perpetrators were there with us as they finalized their plans.”

Earlier this year, he had taken some of the boys from the school to the Westgate Mall for a movie as an incentive for winning a quiz competition.

“Anyone could have been caught there,” he said.

Mburu hopes life will get back to normal sooner rather than later.

“Healing will take a while,” he said.

Organizations: University in Kingston, Corner Brook School

Geographic location: Kenya, Nairobi, CORNER BROOK Nakuru Africa Western Star Queen Newfoundland United States

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Recent comments

  • Barrelman
    September 28, 2013 - 10:02

    A picture of the mall in Kenya, but none of Ms. Kawaja, whom I assume is a Corner Brook and has family there. Did Transcontinental Media lay off your photographer like it did recently at The Cape Breton Post?