What It’s Like to Be a Somalian Refugee in America
Since the announcement of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, people left and right have been calling out the dangers of it.
Naima Abdi is from Somalia, which is one of the countries on Trump’s travel ban. She lives in Minnesota and is finishing up her undergrad degree at the University of Minnesota. She’s 23, but came here when she was just 9 years old as a refugee.
She wanted to tell her story because so many people have no idea how hard it already was to immigrate here even before the ban.
It’s not like before the ban, people from Muslim countries could just sign up for a visa and move to the U.S. with no screening or anything. It was hard back then, too.
The ban just made a bad situation worse. Not just for those who were waiting to come to the United States, but also for the families like Naima’s that are already here.
Thanks to Trump’s travel ban, Naima and her family can’t go back to Somalia in the near future.
“I think it was really hard [to deal with] because of my background and my family is from Somalia. To know that my mom wants to leave and if she did, she wouldn’t be allowed to come back is saddening. I’m basically a prisoner, and if I leave I’m not going to be able to come back,” Naima said.
These families just want a shot at a better life. Some families, like Naima’s, are fleeing dangerous situations. They aren’t the danger.
Her own family waited two and half years to come to the United States. They had originally fled Somalia after a war broke out and stayed in a refugee camp in Ethiopia where she and her little brother were born.
From the refugee camp, Naima and her family then moved to Kenya hoping that living in the capital of Nairobi would help them get to the U.S. During their time in Nairobi, Naima’s family waited patiently for their fate.
“When you go to the immigration area in Nairobi, you would sit somewhere with your family and then one by one, your family gets called. It takes the whole day,” she said.
The immigration agencies would post a list of names of the families who were finally chosen to begin the process of coming to the U.S.
“You have to go all the way to the office to see if your family name is on that list. If it was, they would tell you what’s next for you and your family. The waiting was awful, it lasted for years,” Naima said.
The routine journey to check the list was especially difficult for Naima’s huge family. Her mother and six siblings all packed into a cab often just with the hope that it was finally their turn.
“Even the process just to find out [if you were on the list] would take another two or three hours, and then you would get home at ten o’clock that night,” she said. “It was a really long process and would last all day long. We had to pack food, lunch and dinner. This would happen every couple of months.”
In total, Naima’s family spent nearly two years just hoping to get on the list. When it was finally their turn, it took another five to six months just for clearance. In total, the whole process took two and half years.
For those of us who have been afforded the privileges that the United States offer since birth, it’s probably really hard to understand why families like Naima’s go to these lengths for the chance to come here. Naima told Galore it all really came down to education.
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“Ultimately for my mom, it was for the chance at better education for her kids and better work conditions,” Naima continued. “She didn’t feel like we were getting the best education in Africa even though we had a regular tutor six days a week who came to our house. That was because even with the public schools in Nairobi, you had to pay a fee and she did whatever she could. She worked so hard to pay for it, and thankfully, because of the tutor, we knew a little English when we got to the U.S.”
Naima looks at her mom as a hero.
“She’s all about hard work,” Naima said of her mom. “She doesn’t believe in being given things. I think that’s because she didn’t want us to be considered freeloaders. When people hear ‘refugee,’ they assume that we are just here for the resources. She’s always been against that, and has always worked, even if it was minimum wage.”
Naima told us that despite the hard work she and her fam put in to get here, the ban and election of Trump have only made things worse.
Still, in 2017, it’s not irregular for her to catch a wary side-eye. This is especially the case in classes where she is the only Muslim or black person there.
“I took a political science course during the election, and the professor would just stir up these conversations and all of these pro-Trump kids would take it as a platform to say really awful and racist things with me in the room,” Naima said.
And that professor justified those racist remarks as “freedom of speech.” But Naima is really not concerned about herself. She doesn’t want to give people who harass her more energy.
“You’re letting them win and when I’ve been told to go back to my country, I believe that if I give it that attention, I’m doing exactly what they want. I remember when someone actually told me, ‘You’re going to be in a concentration camp,’ and I was like, ‘Well, make sure it’s going to have wifi and nice showers!'”
But regardless of how many comebacks Naima can fire back, it still hurts her.
“What frustrates me the most is that the seven countries that have been listed haven’t ever been a direct threat to our country,” Naima said. “Immigrants and refugees go through a really rigorous process already. Imagine waiting five to six years and then finding our that you can’t even come here. Just imagine.”
Most of us can’t imagine because we’re fortunate to have been born here, but learning about the struggles of others is really a duty Naima says we should all take up.
“I think it’s really up to the ignorant person to seek out education,” Naima said. “Visit your nearest mosque or Islamic community center. Learn for yourself. Just love one another. If you don’t know something about Islam, especially if you are a student, I know there are resources on whatever campus you attend that can introduce you to Islam. Just stay away from Fox News.”