In 1991, there was a civil war in Somalia. We fled from Mogadishu to a refugee camp in Kenya called Utanga. We were the first people to settle there. The Kenyan government gave us an empty lot. There was nothing. No schools, no hospital, no water. We had to make our own houses from bushes and we had to use the great outdoors for a bathroom. I was very young, only 7.
Luckily, my brother was in America and could sponsor us, so in 1992 we came to Atlanta, Georgia. We were the first Somalis who came here. Going to school was very difficult for me because English was not my first language. I had never been in a school setting before. I didn’t understand anything. Every morning when I came to the classroom, I’d freeze. But somehow, some way, I adopted the system and learned some of the language, so I was able to at least not freeze at school.
Somalis are an oral people so we heard about Minnesota. We heard that you can find ways to get an education and make a beautiful life. There’s jobs, people are nice, all of that. So, when I graduated from high school, we came to Minneapolis. There were not that many Somalis here before us, but my family knew some people here who were successful. I got married young, had kids, and went to college. Then I went to graduate school and started a nonprofit organization called Ummah Project that’s helping Somali youth. I’ve accomplished a lot.
In my heart, I see myself as American, just like anyone else. This is what I know. But a lot of the time, like on social media, you see anti-Somali people saying, ‘Go back to where you’re from.’ What do they mean? My kids were born in Minneapolis; one at Abbott and one at Methodist hospital. It makes you think about who you are.
Like, a few weeks ago, I went to Somalia and I went out with some Somali friends. I wore my baati, a normal Somali dress. But the moment I got out of the car, people knew I wasn’t from there. My gestures, my actions, the way I talk, the way I make eye contact. Everyone was like, ‘You’re not fully Somali, you’re Americanized.’
So, when I’m in Somalia, people say, ‘Where are you from?’ And in America people ask, ‘Where are you from?’ So, who am I? It’s really weird. Sometimes it makes you special because you’re unique in some way. But at the same time, when people ask in a negative way, you feel something. It hits you.
I feel at home when I’m in Minneapolis. The Somali community here gets it. They understand how to live the American way of life. They are part of the bigger fabric. Everywhere you go in Minneapolis there’s a Somali person working there. We have people in almost every sector. They’re taxpayers, they’re buying houses, they have businesses. They brought a beautiful culture to this state.