“Before we come to the United States we think that maybe we get a problem, maybe nobody can go to the mosque, but when we came here we see there is freedom, full freedom and democracy. You can do whatever you like. Just don’t do the wrong.”
Hussein Abukar, 35, has lived in the United States for eight months with his wife and four young children. They are refugees from Somalia, a war ravaged country of East Africa.
Abukar, speaking English at a fast clip, recounted his life before coming to San Diego. “In Somalia, when I worked, the government was better than now. The family that was in power, that family, they were living like a king. They got all the good positions. I just get a little money from my daddy then. I start to make a business. We opened one small shop, and then I bought a minibus. That was our life.
“First we get that civilian war. We lost a lot of lives there. Then a lot of things happened. You know, my mother, they killed her. And also my father. He was a doctor and was working at the hospital.
“We cannot live there. We cannot stay there. We just have to move with the family. If the kids died on the way, if they died with out food or without water, I have to move anyhow. I say I have to take good care of them. Maybe if I go out from Somalia I will get a good life.
“So when we try to go out from there, a lot of things happen. My wife and my kids, they just get a ship that was moving in the sea. For me, they catch me and they put me in prison for a long time, two years and a half.”
One of several war ring clans had taken over in 1991, and the clan forced Abukar to do hard labor. During his imprisonment he made contact with the Red Cross, but they were unable to get him out.
“Another family came, and they would start fighting between the two. In that war, I escaped with a group. Then I just came to the border of Somalia and Kenya. I just ask the people because we were sleeping in the town, and we don’t know where we are. Then I start to con tact the Red Cross. You know, I ask them, ‘I am looking for my family.’ Anyhow, it takes almost nine months, then some people told me I need to write some letters to the BBC. We have the Somalian language also in the BBC. They have radio for Somalia.
“Then they told me at that time that they [my family] were in Egypt. I don’t have the money. I don’t know how to con tact them. I just get a job and come to Egypt and we meet there. At that time, they had a bad life, but, you know, they were not in a refugee camp. They were in an apartment in Egypt. The UN was helping them, but what they was giving them, it was just enough to eat and to pay the rent. You cannot pay the whole house rent. When you take the apartment you have to live in one room. The other room you have to rent to some other ones. You have to help, you know.
“They were living there almost two years. Then when I come there we go to the [U.N. High Com missioner for Refugees] office. We make an appointment, then we make an interview there. They told me I had to wait for one week and they would give me the results. Then they said that they believe me. They also have to look into your children. Are they your children or not? We was waiting more than one year when they make sure of everything and we finish our programs. Then they tell us, ‘You get a chance to go to the United States. How you like it?’ I said, ‘Really, if I go to the United States, that’s the place for my kids. They will become like kings.’ I am 35 years old. Still I am young, but I say, ‘I don’t want to lose the future for my kids. They are the new generation coming.’
“We came on 4 December 2002. When I came the government was helping me just to pay rent, so I say, ‘I’m not sick. I’m healthy.’ I know how to speak a little English so I say, ‘I will go up to the college or I will go up to the school just to learn more, but I need a job also. I need to work. I need to help myself, you know.’ So they said, ‘Okay. We’ll look at jobs for you.’”
Catholic Charities found Abukar a job as a security guard. “They give me the night shift because all the people, they don’t like the night shift. But at that time I want to work, so I say, ‘I have to work hard, even nights or mornings. I have to work very hard for my kids.’ I accepted with them, and I think I have been working almost five months all night. I worked first near the Mexican border. At that time my car break down so I cannot do it. They change me to Coca Cola Company. Now I’m at Cox Cable.
“I have a car, but I just buy for temporary because Catholic Charities have a program for people who like to buy a car, who like to buy a house. They help. You have to open an account, and you have to just put into your account every month $100 or $200 for ten months. Then they give you some more money. I think it is $1000 or $2000 more just to buy a car. I’m with that program now, and I think I have six months more. Then they will help me to buy a good car.”
Although Abukar is grateful for the freedom, he is not without worry. Staying financially solvent is a constant concern. “I’m living in an apartment, and it is so expensive,” he said. “But they tell me that California is all very expensive. The money which I am getting from my work — you know, five days — almost $750 goes for rent, and I am earning $1100. I have to pay rent, and the kids, my kids are growing up, so each month they need to buy some new things. Now they get friends at school. When they see something their friends have they say, ‘Now we need this.’ You have to buy, you have to pay insurance, you have to pay bills. That’s very hard. I need a good job. Maybe some jobs will pay me more, or maybe I get a cheaper than this house.”
Abukar worries about his family’s safety when he is at work. Their apartment in City Heights, at the intersection of Swift Avenue and University, offers acceptable housing, but the surrounding area is questionable. Graffiti adorns adjacent walls and mailboxes. Pounding music spews from low riding cars and ricochets through the streets. Yellowed phone books and flyers litter the ground. Crushed windshield glass glitters on the crumbling sidewalks.
“My kids fear when they sleep alone,” Abukar said. “I’m not here the whole night. They cannot sleep. They fear. They need me. I just buy two more locks. Sometimes I call them. That’s why I buy the cell phone. Sometimes when I call them and nobody responds to the phone then I say, ‘Oh, they are sleeping good tonight.’ I just spoke to the company, and they promise to me to give me a swing shift. I like that to be from two till ten.”
Abukar’s wife does not work. “She doesn’t have the good English,” he explains, “so now she’s going to school. I tell her just to go to school, to finish, to study good. She was working with the Red Cross when she finished the high school, and she liked that. She worked with the Red Cross in Somalia. I say now I am the one who works for her.
“Right now I have to help my family,” Abukar says. “I have to give them a good life and help them to forget what happened before. That’s why I say I will work and you will go to school and just only feel free and do whatever you like.” Once Abukar’s wife is finished with her schooling he has a dream for him self. “I would even like to go to college, but it takes a year, it takes three years. I don’t know. When my wife finishes school she will go to work, and I will go to college. I want to study to be a mechanic, an electric mechanic. Every body has a car. You see the house, maybe they have four to six cars. It’s a lot of money that people are getting now in the car repair shops. They get good money. But who knows what’s next?”
As for his homeland Abukar is ambivalent. “Sometimes I remember what the people were doing [in Somalia]. I don’t want to tell my kids to remember them, but sometimes you just say, it was like a dream, you cannot believe. But I don’t think even if they make a good government, I don’t think I will go back to Somalia or that I will take my kids there. No. Maybe for my brothers and sisters that I have there, if I can sponsor them, maybe I will bring them here.
“Even when we were living in Egypt, it was a good life there, but we could not survive, and we don’t have enough money. Even the kids did not have school back then. But now they are going to school. They are feeling a good, good life. They can eat what they like. They can be what they like. It has to be a little hard for the first year or first two years. We have to work at the beginning. I get a job. My wife, she is going to school. It’s for free. Really, I am very happy for this life.”
Abukar is one of the estimated 10,000 Somali refugees already living in San Diego, with more Somali Bantu scheduled to arrive within the year. (Somali Bantus, mainly farmers, lived much of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century as slaves in Somalia. Although freed from slave status, they have remained a marginalized, outcast group within Somalia.) Abukar’s story represents thousands of other Somali refugees who resettle in the United States every year.
Since 1991 warring clans in Somalia have caused widespread upheaval. The United States Committee for Refugees (USCR) reports that between 1991 and 1992 the civil war and its ensuing chaos resulted in over a half million deaths and left two million Somalis displaced within the country and another 800,000 dispersed as refugees.
Abdisalam Farah, 31, wiry and light skinned, has been in San Diego since 1992. “Life was like a normal African country,” he said. “I was a young man. Go to school. There were ten kids, so it was a large family. My dad was a businessman. My mom worked for a business. You have your own business. Do a little market thing, a little business shop. They are what you call self-employed.
“Civil war started by the end of 1990 — December, I think that’s what I remember. Everybody thought it was gonna be like a quick thing. It started as an antigovernment movement, but it ended up as a civil war. They kill you because of the civil war. Civil war is ugly, ugly thing. You be killed by the name of your tribe. They know by the way you speak, your dialect. Those who are killing you don’t know you. Just seize you. Haters of your gut people. Random killing. Random shooting. Everybody starts to leave. Nobody wants to be involved. We left about 1991. Came to Kenya. Stayed there until 1992 and then get processed to come here.”
Prior to 1991 the country had been run under socialist president Muhammad Siad Barre, beginning in 1970. He was overthrown by opposing clans in 1991, and the country remained in chaos until 2000, when an interim transitional national government was formed in the capital city of Mogadishu. That government provided a president, Abdulkassim Salat Hassan, a prime minister, and a 245 member national assembly, but its control was limited to a small geo graphic portion of the country. Because of continued fighting between clans, the
World Refugee Survey 2003 Country Report stated that 350,000 Somalis were internally displaced at the end of 2002, with 300,000 refugees living in two dozen host countries.
In January 2004 peace talks among the warlords got underway in Kenya resulting in a plan to inaugurate a new parliament in August 2004. Outbreaks of fighting continue, but the hopes of a new parliament and ensuing order has brought an increase in the numbers of Somalis repatriating. With the peace talks and the promise of a new stability in Somalia, the U.N. predicts major refugee returns in the next five years. Closure of the refugee commission’s Hartisheik Camp in Ethiopia speaks to that trend. Over the years the camp offered relief to a quarter million Somali refugees. But even with hope for a united Somalia, refugees remain scattered throughout the world, relocating in host countries or refugee camps.
The refugee commission’s 2003 statistics reported more than 17 million refugees worldwide. Sixty thousand applied to resettle in the United States; 28,420 were accepted. According to Abdi Mohamoud, executive director of San Diego’s Horn of Africa center, “These people are approved in combination with the State and Department and Immigration and Naturalization Services. Every body goes through a rigorous interview with the INS.”
The process may be relatively short, as in Abukar’s case, or it may take years. For East African countries like Somalia, the processing has become more tedious since September 11. “Since 9/11 there have been new challenges for the admission of refugees from all over the world,” said Bob Montgomery, regional resettlement director for the Inter national Rescue Commit tee in San Diego. Those refugees from East Africa have been drastically cut. The numbers are still there, but because of increased security procedures the process takes a lot longer. Families are being separated for longer periods of time than was normal in the past. This creates new stresses on the families. It makes the resettlement process, which is already difficult, that much more difficult.
“That’s especially true of the Somalis. The new procedures require what we call a Security Advisory opinion. All men from certain countries — and Somalia is one of them — between the ages of 15 and 60 have to go through this, and it’s a lengthy process. It’s done by the FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the United States. Quite frankly, they don’t have the man power to do it in a timely fashion, which creates these kinds of protracted experiences in the camp for the refugees.”
Walter Lam, president and CEO of Alliance for African Assistance, said the East African refugees are mystified by the treatment. “The question they ask themselves is, ‘Look at the terrorists that did all this damage. None of them was from Africa.’ When you look at the refugee situation, it’s the African pro gram that has been affected most. It does not make sense at all.”
One part of the problem: 99 percent of Somalis are Muslim, and many have Arab-sounding names. More significant were the accusations made by the United States in late September 2001 that Somalia was harboring terrorists and was connected to Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda. UN officials have found no tangible evidence of terrorists or their camps existing in Somalia, but the fear persists.
Yet despite the heightened security surrounding East African refugees, the process of resettlement continues. Dr. Bill McKay, department director for Refugee and Immigrant Services of Catholic Charities, explained the refugee process. “Catholic Chari ties has been welcoming immigrants and refugees specifically since 1975 and helping to resettle families. The President of the United States determines how many refugees will be allowed into the United States in a given year. Then the Congress allots so much money for that resettlement. The cases are reviewed by the refugee committee overseas. People are screened and allowed in on a priority system. When they are approved for resettlement in the United States, they’re entrusted to one of about a dozen voluntary agencies that do resettlement work.” The refugees gain entrance to the United States by appealing for political asylum, as in Abukar’s case, whether they are in a refugee camp or not, or by being sponsored.
“Sometimes it might be that there’s a local relative or friend that is a sponsor of a particular family,” McKay continued, “and there’s a connection made between here and the family that’s coming from overseas. They might then be located in that city where they know some one, where they might get extra help or connections. There are a number of factors that go into deter mining where a particular person or where a family is ultimately sent for resettlement.”
Hani Mohamed, a 21 year old Somali woman, came to the U.S. through the sponsorship process. “Our lives were perfect because we had everything we wanted. We lived in some nice houses, just like La Jolla, you know; only rich people lived there. I was young. We were having our lives. After that there was the civil war that dam aged everything. People became refugees because of the fight and all that. We went to Kenya. We lived in Nairobi. We never lived in the refugee camps. We had a relative who lived in the United States, and they sponsored us. That’s how we came here. Once we became refugees we came here to get a better education, to go to school since our country was — every thing was messed up. I came in June 1994.
“We first went to Denver, Colorado, and lived there about eight months. Then, because of the weather, we moved to San Diego. It was too cold for my mom. It was okay for us kids because we were excited to go and see the snow and everything. People were calling her saying, ‘Oh, why don’t you come to San Diego? The weather is like Somalia. It’s hot. It’s nice. You can walk as long as you want.’ That was the reason we moved here.”
Munir Abdullh, 22, of La Mesa, spent years in a refugee camp in Kenya. “Before it was easy life. It was happy. Our life was very peaceful. You could ask anybody in your family if you need money, and they help each other. But when the war started every thing get destroyed, so we moved to Kenya in Nairobi. We stay in the camp for almost seven to eight years, and it was very bad because Kenyans don’t like Somalis. When we go outside, they stop us. They take money. I mean, it was very difficult life after our life in Somalia. Very, very hard times. We got beat up by the Kenyan bullies. Some times we make mistake. We go outside and try to make phone call to any of our family outside of Kenya to get some money. They found us. We got beat up many, many, many times. I could not go back to Somalia. I could not go outside the camp. It was very bad.”
Out of desperation, refugees often resort to ingenious ways to enter the United States. “I come with fake passport,” says Abdullh. “We bought pass port from Somalian people in Kenya. If you’ve got money, they bring you over some other passport. They bring clothes, passport to your place. And visa, American visa. But to Mexico. It’s easy to come in through Mexico. I already knew a guy here. They worked with us. I crossed the border with a green card. I just showed them my green card.”
Refugees have little choice regarding where they will be resettled. “I believe they can make a request in terms of where they would like to go,” Catholic Charities’ McKay said, “but oftentimes individuals and families may not even know where they want to go. They may not know enough about the United States.”
“Most of the times when these refugees are interviewed they wouldn’t know the difference between a Canadian and an American,” Mohamoud of the African center explained. “They simply would not know. It could be Norwegian. Many did not know what the United States was till they arrived. Just to give you an example, when we were coming we were given small books about the life of the refugee. There was a picture of a man going to a Laundromat, of him going to a grocery store, him waiting for a bus. They were Vietnamese pictures, and I thought I was coming to a Vietnamese country. I was very shocked when I saw that it was pre dominantly a white country. Before that I had probably seen two white people in my entire life. That was about 1982. I’m probably the earliest Somali that is living in San Diego.
“All the refugees know is that they’ll be resettled somewhere, and the life is going to be even as tough. It’s really not a choice for them, you know. It’s just that they have absolutely no means. They have no choices at all. The primary thing is just basic survival.”
McKay said key ingredients in the relocation process are “where there is capacity, where there are resources, and where there is an ability in a local com munity to accept these numbers of people. For example, the Somalis. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops, through its network of agencies called Catholic Charities, would do an assessment. It would ask each of the local agencies, like here in San Diego, ‘What do you think you can accept in terms of free cases?’ meaning individuals who are not attached or sponsored by a local relative. ‘What capacities do you have to provide for these families and help them get started and ultimately become financially self sufficient?’ We would respond, ‘Well, we can do this or that. We can do x number of families,’ and we would send that back in. There’s a certain umbrella consultation that’s done between the local agencies and the national office. Then they would put together a proposal for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, who in turn would take a look nationally at all the voluntary agencies and then determine how many refugees they might be able to provide assistance for. So there is consultation in preparation for groups of people coming over.”
Mohamed Abdi Ashur, 31, arrived in San Diego six months ago. “I was a student, and I used to work for a fish company,” He said. “When the civil war erupted I left Mogadishu in 1991. I relocated to another city, Kismayo, which is on the Somalia border with Kenya.”
From 1992 to 1996 he lived in the UN refugee camp, Kakuma, known for being one of the worst. “It is a refugee camp which is very, very bad. Very big and a lot of different populations live there, including Sudanese, Ethiopians, Somalis, and other African refugees. There are no avail able houses, so we built our own hut. We used to get the food from the international organizations such as International Red Cross. We tried to survive the best we could in the camp by building our own schools or Islamic schools, which we needed to give to the youngsters and to keep the customs in the camp. Not to be idle, we always tried to make ourselves busy in a very constructive way by building schools for the youngsters and schools for the adults to learn English. In 1996 we moved to Nairobi, Kenya, till we departed to the United States.”
Farah recounted his family’s story. “I was in a refugee camp called Thika Camp. It was for all African countries who had civil war. They come to Kenya. Kenya was kind of stable. Mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan. All of them lived in that mad house. You built your own house out of mud.
“You go in line for food. A long line. All the single men would go first. Then mothers with children. They get extra for their kids. You go every morning. Go to line, get your food. Come up in afternoon and get your second food. At 5:00 you go back to line and get the dinner. You stand in line at 5:00, but you get your food by 7:00 or 8:00. It’s cooked food. You have your little bucket and somebody’s gonna serve you.
“Bathrooms, that’s an American thing. If you need for nature, you walk into an undeveloped area and you use your nature call. The bath is this way. The faucet was running every night because it was broken. So that water was running, but it’s very cold. If you want to take a shower, you need to get the cold water and splash yourself. It was always a long line. All men go one place. All women go another place. You want to take a shower, you take your little towel and a little soap in your hand and you go get in line. Some times it takes you one hour.
It was a crazy life. We were the whole family together. We are ten of us and Daddy and Mommy.
“It was a challenging life. Better than civil war place. Secure. No fighting. Whenever there is fighting between the people it is solved by the community or sometimes by the police department.”
Fozia Ahmed, 22, married to Munir Abdullh, has been living in the United States for almost five years. She was in a refugee camp as a young girl. She said the girls had to stay hidden inside because terrible things could happen to women and girls. Her husband, Abdullh, said, “They do rape and those things because it was easy.” Fozia said she was kept safe from others because her parents protected her.
“It was very scary inside the camp,” she said. “Even the animals and snakes. Very scary.”
“Yeah,” Abdullh agreed, “even nature was scary.”
He remembered that his house in the refugee camp was not a house; it was a primitive camp situation. “Even the ghetto is better than that,” he said. “It was very bad.”
After surviving such extreme hardship, it would seem living in the U.S. would be pure joy. But fit ting into a new culture remains challenging. “They have to find their way,” said Montgomery of the International Rescue Committee. “And it’s not always easy.”
“We miss a lot of things,” Nur Rabi, a tall, striking young man said with tears in his eyes. “The weather. You miss food. You miss culture. You miss your own people. You miss communicating love to your country, love to your people. To everything. You know what I am saying? And the life, really. It’s sweet when you live in your country. Much more than in another country.”
“I miss my homeland,” Ashur said. “I always think about it. The thing that I miss the most is my immediate family. I am alone here. My father, mother, brothers, sisters, they are all either in Somalia or other neighboring countries, and I miss them.”
“Everybody misses homeland,” Farah said. “Home is home. But circumstances are getting uglier and uglier. It is better to be here than to be dead. One day maybe in older age we’ll go back.”
The local agencies try to help the transplanted refugees through the transition. “We have a monthly meeting at Catholic Charities that’s a newcomers’ orientation workshop,” McKay said. “We’ll have Somali, we’ll have Sudanese, we’ll have, maybe, Bosnians, we might have some Afghani, Iraqi — all sit ting together in the same room. We see that they come here with the American dream in their hearts, yet we know they will have the same frustrations that come with high expectations. It’s almost like watching children, knowing that they’re going to make it in the long run, but they need the help and guidance in the beginning. That’s where we’re in the trenches with these individuals and families, at this first stage.”
Learning English is one of the biggest hurdles, and all of the agencies pro vide ESL (English as a second language) courses or assist new arrivals in class enrollment. English is a key factor in the assimilation process.
Rhamo Abdi, 23, came to San Diego in 1995 as a teenage girl. “I went to Hoover High School when I first came here. When I came here I didn’t know any English. At Hoover they had English as a second language classes. The kids were, I guess because of the language, the kids were very mean to me ’cause I was wearing a scarf and everything. I couldn’t speak to them. But after two or three years, my junior year, things got bet ter. I guess I didn’t talk to them. That’s why they were mean to me. When I was a junior I got along with a lot of Americans.”
Ashur, who has only been here for six months, said through an interpreter, “The most difficult thing I have right now is the language. The key element is the language. It is a great barrier.” He is enrolled in ESL classes.
Mohamed also said her biggest challenge is language. “It still is because I’m still learning English. I would say the language is the most difficult.” She mentioned the cultural differences that pose problems for the Somalis as well. “Sometimes it is difficult between the two cultures. If you want to act in the Somalian way, there is the American way. You have to act the same. There’s a lot of difference. I just want the American people to understand the Somalian culture, not to misunderstand. Not just judge them without knowing their culture. I want them to learn about the culture.”
Rabi agrees; his biggest challenge is adjusting to the American lifestyle. “It’s busy over here. More busy. Everything is different. Even the food. We have our own culture back home, but when you come to the United States, the life is gonna be different. It must be hard.”
Mohamoud, of Horn of Africa, spoke of the problems Somali parents face with their children. “There is a cultural gap between the parents and their kids,” he said, because the refugees have little income and are forced to live in “poorer neighborhoods where there is a lot of gang activity, a lot of delinquency. School is not an issue for a lot of the kids there, and you see many of them involved in gang activities. Many of these kids, either their father was killed or their father is back home. Usually it’s just the mother that’s come with the kids. In African tradition the family is paramount. There is always a father and mother. You don’t have a lot of single parent families. Much of the mentoring, the discipline was handled by the father. Much of the nurturing was done by the mother. Now the mothers don’t know what to do because the father is not there. It’s tough for the mother looking at her role.”
Lam, of African assistance, elaborated on challenges, cultural and practical, for Somali women. “It’s tough. They’re coming from a cultural back ground where the women’s place is always at home. They do not drive. All they do is cook at home. The men go out and make the money. So the women come here and are expected to start work immediately. It doesn’t go that way. They have to adjust. Plus, a single woman with five, six, seven children — it’s not easy to get employment that would be enough to support the family.”
Mohamed summed it up by saying that in Somalia, “The man is the head of the family. He is the breadwinner of the family. But, you know, our women are happy. They want the man to be strong and in control in his family, but since we came here there’s a lot of difference, because you will see some men who will stay home babysitting and the women will go out and work. It’s different, you know. That’s the life in America. They get the attitude, ‘You gotta do some work, too.’
”Every spokesperson for the local resettlement organizations said that the Somalis are hardworking people. “You go along University, they’ve got a lot of stores that they’ve opened up,” Lam reports. “When I came here in 1986 it was a neighborhood that people would fear going around in at night. Now they have made it a safer neighborhood. They have transformed it. A lot of them are starting their own businesses. They’re doing very, very well. It’s not only supporting themselves, but they are employing their own people now.”
Rabi had a business background in Somalia as the owner of a wholesale grocery store; now he owns a 99-cent store on University Avenue. When his native country exploded in war, he applied for political asylum in the United States and was granted it in 1993.
“I came to Texas,” Rabi said, describing his entry into American life. “Dallas, yeah. I was really surprised. When you come to the United States you think you find the money on the ground. When you stay at home you think America is big. You can get every thing. Everything will be okay. And then the life is competition over here. It’s not easy to get everything. You have to work hard. You have to work more hours than you do in your country. Then you can make money.”
“I started working and created small money and opened my business. I didn’t get a loan from the bank or from the government or somewhere else. To generate the money you have to work at least 12 hours a day. We’re open every day except Friday. Friday at 12 o’clock we close and open again at 2:30 because we pray on Friday. Like Sunday, the Christians, they pray. The Muslims, they pray on Fridays.”
Like other American shop owners, Rabi struggles with neighboring competition and the economy. “The challenge is to get your own customers to do more activity. I have to develop my own business. I try to make it grow, to make competition with other businesses. Too many 99-cent stores over here. But the thing is, we try to give our community more convenience, more fair price than other 99 cent stores, and they help us. We get a lot of customers.
“You know, a lot of Somalians, they are cab drivers. When they do good, I do good. When they do bad, I do bad. It’s depending on the community how they do. I want to do more businesses if I get more money,” Rabi said. “I’d try to help my community. I dream a lot of things — to develop myself first and then my community.”
“Honestly,” Lam adds, “you will find [Somalis] in all sorts of jobs. You find them in electronics. You find them driving large trucks. A million things you’ll find them doing. Tailors, sewing clothing — that one is special to them. Cooking food and serving. You’ll find them working in restaurants. Car dealerships, selling used cars. They’re very, very entrepreneurial. I think we have a lot in the nonprofit field as well.”
The rescue commit tee’s Montgomery discussed San Diego’s employment and its impact on the refugee community. “San Diego’s job market is kind of unique,” he said, “where you have service based industry, and I think that most refugees, including Somalis, find their way into those industries. We see a lot of cab drivers, people working in the hotel industry, entry-level jobs. I know Sony has hired a lot of our refugees in basic assembly type jobs. It’s also true of Qualcomm and other employers. Some may have entry level jobs but are given opportunities to be trained and educated for job upgrades.”
“I was 19 when I arrived here,” Farah said. “I went to San Diego Job Corps in National City. I finished my Job Corps electronics classes in 1994.” He then worked for a San Diego electronics company for four years. “In 1998 I went to a trucking company. I was a truck driver for a while. I worked hat before I got married. Mommy said, ‘That’s not a life for you.’ ” When he decided to get married he said, “I can’t go back no more for trucking. That became an old subject.
“I now work in com munity outreach at Africa Corps and the Supreme Council,” said Farah. (Both are nonprofit organizations that assist the Somali community.) He is a TB canvasser for Africa Corps. “I just work for the TB program for the eradication of TB in the com munity. I go house to house and ask who had this shot and who doesn’t. Who wants to start if they never took the medicine before?”
The rescue commit tee helped Ashur find an entry-level job. “I work for one of the hotels in Hotel Circle, Town and Country. I have a janitorial position. I work 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week. It is not the best, but I am willing to take it because it is the first job that I could get in the United States. This might be a stepping stone thing.”
Ahmed, who attends Grossmont College, was placed in her job through the school. She works at Aswan African Café in La Mesa. “One of the assistants from the school asked me if I wanted training.” She trained at the restaurant for six months before she was hired. “I work here just 20 hours. I go to school full time.”
Ahmed’s husband, Abdullh, tells his job his tory. “It started with a friend of mine. I asked him if he has a job. He told me I start with him at Kobey’s Swap Meet on Saturday/Sunday, and so I worked for him for almost three months. We used to sell sunglasses. After that I found a guy who came by for sunglasses. That guy, he owned a store. I talked to him and tell him I need a job. He saw me; I work very hard. He said, ‘You want to come work for me like two or three days?’ I start with him. Three days for almost six months.”
Farah’s wife, Rhamo Abdi, works for the Supreme Council. “I started working in January 2003 as an administrative assistant. They do a lot of work with elders. We find them medical help. We also work with First 5 Commission of San Diego [a state funded project that makes health, medical, and socialization resources avail able]. I work 40 hours a week, full time,” she adds.
Abdi also puts in many hours with a girls’ refugee organization. Before her work at the council, Rhamo attended leadership training in Atlanta, Georgia. “I started my own little organization; it’s called Inter national Refugee Girls Association. There is no activity for our young girls. Everything is boys, boys, boys. But we need a center, a place where they can come together and talk and share their experiences. Mostly we need a space where we can meet face to face. And also we need a mentor. Somebody to be involved with the girls. You don’t have to be Somalian. Anybody. We have a mentor from Somalia, and we need a men tor from someone in America. They can teach us how to prepare for the future.”
Abdi talks about her family’s situation. “I live in Bay View Heights, in the Market Street and Federal area. We don’t have a lot of money to save. All we have goes to rent and insurance. Actually, now we got an affordable house. We pay, like, $665. Two bed rooms, $665. The first time we used to pay more than 700 something. Now we moved, so we save almost $100, so that helps. We are surviving.”
San Diego rental prices are an ongoing issue for the Somali community. Most of them reside between 54th Street and 59th Street in the University Avenue section of City Heights known as Little Mogadishu. “Typically they’re going to go where there is affordable housing, like the Mid City and City Heights,” McKay said. “You’ll have Somalis settling all through that area, but more and more, families are moving to the East County because of rents.”
According to Hayi Hussen, immigration specialist for the rescue committee, most Somalis live south of University Avenue between 38th and 54th Streets. The highest con centration is around 50th Street or Winona. The Winona Apartment Complex has 100 percent Somali tenancy.
Little Mogadishu re mains the hub, said Mohamoud, “but now they are a little bit more spread out because of the housing crisis, which is hitting much of San Diego. Many of the landlords are raising their rent prices by $100 here, $200 there. Many are not able to afford it. When given a choice, about 70 per cent of the Somalis would live in Little Mogadishu, but now you see some in La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Southeast San Diego, Linda Vista.”
Finances are not the only factor determining where Somalis choose to live. Abukar and his fam ily are not alone in their fear of the surrounding neighborhood.
“The area we just moved from is very, very bad,” Abdullh said. “There is noise from the music. We can’t sleep. My kids even get headaches from it. They wake up at nighttime. Now I’m moving by the end of the month to La Mesa. I’m not gonna save anything there. I don’t care. So my kids are gonna sleep good in a safe area, I don’t care. Even if I work and spend all my money on rent, I don’t care.”
If finances and fear were absent, these refugees would remain in Little Mogadishu. “Most Soma lis like to live together, like very close,” Mohamoud said. “If this family doesn’t have the salt, they’re just going to go next door and grab it. If there’s no milk, it’s the same thing. So we miss all that.”
Despite a refugee’s yearning for familiarity, Lam stressed the importance of mixing into the community and the new culture. “I see very little of that with the Somalis. They just stay together. This is a closed group. It makes it a lot more challenging to adjust. Most of the refugees, we can resettle them anywhere. They will not mind,” he continues. “The Somalis, you put one in El Cajon city, they will find out where all the other Somalis are and they pack and leave. They will let you know, ‘There are no Somalis here. I want to go where the Somalis are.’ I think they would do better if they mixed in.”
Mohamoud adds, “With so much sensationalism going on about Muslims in general, it’s having a huge effect. Because of that there have been at least three or four raids on Somali businesses by federal enforcement agencies in the past year or two within San Diego. Again, nobody has found anything, but it’s that there’s a group of Muslims and let’s see what they’re up to attitude. It’s a big concern now in the community.”
“I think some people are scared,” Dahir concluded. “When something happens like September 11, some people find that the foreigners are scape goats even though most of them are peace loving people. Some people want to find scapegoats, and the scapegoat is always the foreigner. That’s what every body knows all over the world.”
A Year Later
Over the months since our interview in May 2003, Abukar and his family adjusted to life in San Diego, and their fears diminished. Abukar recently relocated his family to Portland, Ore gon, where he works full time and takes classes to be an auto mechanic. His wife is continuing her education. Since moving to Portland, the family has procured a newer car. According to Abukar’s former caseworker, Hussein Nuur, his four children are also adjusting well.
Walter Lam of the Alliance for African Assistance says Somali refugees still come to the U.S.; 300 are now in the process of relocating to San Diego. “The state department has allowed Somali Bantu — who were spread throughout different countries in South Africa and forced to work as slaves — to immigrate to the United States. We had a family of 11 come through here the day before yesterday.” Those Somalis who have since acclimated to San Diego continue to advance in the job market; some are doing so well, Lam says, that they are buying homes in Temecula.
Nur Rabi reports that business has improved. He’s moved from National City to a nicer home in Paradise Valley. “I am still feeling very homesick. For everyone it is the home land. I want to visit, but not right now. It’s full of hope for peace, but it’s depending on how things work out.”
Rabi was frightened by the June City Heights fire that destroyed a Somalian restaurant, which also served as a meeting place for Somali immigrants. But he says that the restaurant, owned by a fellow Somali, is in the process of being rebuilt.