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Ahmed Abdalla, Somali refugee, learns reality of the American Dream

Sunday, July 8, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Ahmed Abdalla and his family fled Somalia to live in a refugee camp in Kenya. After seven years there, the family was allowed to relocate to St. Louis. It's been a journey of imagination and reality as the family has adjusted and learned the many cultural challenges and a new language. Now 20, Abdalla works as a doorman at a St. Louis hotel and attends college classes.

Editor's note: This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.

ST. LOUIS — As a boy, growing up and going to school in an African refugee camp, the only thing Ahmed Abdalla really knew about America was that he wanted to move there.

He was just a baby when his parents escaped genocide and famine in their native Somalia. They left family behind — some murdered, others simply refusing to budge. They fled on foot, finding their way to a series of temporary safe havens. Six years later and with as many more children, the Abdallas built the first home their children would know. They lived in Kakuma, a refugee camp in northwestern Kenya.

In Kakuma, America’s allure was as ubiquitous as heat. It came with no proof: Ahmed had never known a refugee to return to the camp; there were no newspapers or radios and little access to modern media. Still, this rumor of America saturated Ahmed’s childhood and the refugee culture. Dreaming of a new life in America wasn’t discussed. It was understood.

Ahmed was 13 and had spent seven years in Kakuma when his family was relocated to St. Louis. There, they began another winding journey through a series of apartments, jobs and the maze of laws, challenges, demands and possibilities that is the real America.

Seven more years after his dream of America came true, Ahmed — now 20 and a doorman at a posh downtown hotel — is still learning what it means to live here.

Ahmed’s story echoes both the enduring gratitude and steep learning curve that often follow refugee resettlement. All is new in this new world and not all as it seemed from afar. From what he knew to what he imagined to what he found, Ahmed discovered that dreams-made-real take some getting used to.

HOME

What Ahmed knew:

With their own hands, Ahmed’s parents stacked hundreds of sun-baked mud bricks into the shape of a one-room home. Under a bare metal roof, on blankets and carpets spread over an earthen floor, after extinguishing their single gas lantern, the family of eight slept. Rude as it was, this mud-brick hut was good fortune for the Abdallas, better than what many around them had.

Kakuma is home to about 90,000 refugees from the ravaged nations of Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea and Rwanda.

They came to Kakuma for shelter. What they got was insufficient by the camp authority’s own standards. Upon arrival at the vast camp, refugees are issued only plastic sheets to stake to the ground as shelter. Most spend their nights for years under these tarps, lucky to have them replaced when the plastic becomes threadbare. Temperatures inside the thousands upon thousands of makeshift plastic tents cook up to 110 degrees and higher on the hottest African days.

They came for food and water, but hunger, malnutrition and disease grow where nourishment doesn’t. Ahmed’s family lived in the second and most parched of three zones within Kakuma. In Kakuma 2, as it’s known, water use averages less than two gallons per person per day — not just for drinking but also for cooking and sanitation.

Again, Ahmed’s family was lucky. Cholera rates in Kakuma 2 were the highest among all three zones of the camp, at 15.9 cases per thousand refugees, but his family escaped the contagion.

Without more water, agriculture is not possible in the climate, and raising livestock is forbidden in the camp. Food rations, though robust for the region at 2,100 calories per person per day, were “grossly deficient” in nutrients, according to a 2000 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Selling and trading food rations carve away at the nutritional value of the refugees’ rations, yet people often must barter for kitchen goods and charcoal just to be able to cook what they can keep.

They came for safety, but refugee camps breed their own strains of violence. In Kakuma, exiles from at least eight nationalities, of various religions and competing for scarce essential resources, often clash with each other and the local Turkana people who inhabited the semi-arid desert before the refugee camp was created in 1992. Armed battles in 2003 displaced at least 14,000 residents of Kakuma 3 — nearly half its population — who abandoned their rows of plastic tents and mud huts for public shelters in the other zones. As of 2011, the U.N. Refugee Agency still forbade aid workers from staying at the camp past 6 p.m.

Ahmed’s family had come to Kakuma with one goal — to move again, to America. The chance for resettlement is a lottery only residents of the U.N.-operated camps can play.

What he imagined:

Growing up, Ahmed’s vision of America was one of beauty: tall buildings and streetlights. Fun: watching television in your house. The good life: wearing shoes and nice clothes, riding in cars, keeping food refrigerated.

These ideas came from the few movies, commercials and television programs Ahmed saw. They came from the vague notions that filtered through camp culture and took their own shapes according to each refugee’s dream.

Then one day, Ahmed heard: His family’s name was posted on the board on the camp’s main road. They would be interviewed and screened for resettlement.

"I wasn’t wearing no shoes, … but I was just running on the streets," Ahmed recalls. He wanted to see the board for himself. "I saw my whole family, you know, the head of the household, which is my dad, my mom and me, my little brother, then the little ones." 

Refugees at Kakuma are not allowed to come and go as they please — a restriction prompted by both security and political concerns within Kenya. Since arriving seven years earlier, Ahmed had never stepped foot outside the camp. And his feet never touched the ground when he left: The family boarded a small plane at Kakuma 1, bound for Mombasa on Kenya’s east coast, along the Indian Ocean.

"I was just holding the seat. I wasn’t even looking down!" Ahmed laughs when he remembers that flight. "I even remember shutting my eyes, when the plane was going up, you know. I thought, this plane is going down!" His eyes and his smile still brighten with the memory.

In Mombasa, the Abdallas joined international travelers on a plane whose liftoff seemed even more implausible to Ahmed. "It was big, big, big, I don’t even know how big — maybe a football stadium," he says, still smiling.  

Kenya to Switzerland. Switzerland to New York City. New York to St. Louis. It was nighttime when the Abdallas landed at their dream. Ahmed slept through the final descent.

A Somali cab driver drove them to their new home. Through the taxi’s windows, Ahmed saw the lights for the first time.

"I was just saying, ‘Oh, wow, wow. Thank God. Thank –." Laughter interrupts the reminiscence of relief.

What he found:

A bed. A pillow. Light switches. Everything about his first home in America was a wonder to Ahmed. All was luxury.

"The kitchen was working nice," he says. "I mean there was hot water, cold water."

The International Institute of St. Louis, one of three agencies in Missouri that contract with the state to provide refugee services, had secured a four-bedroom apartment for the Abdallas in the city.

In accordance with the "Minimum Required Client Goods and Services" that must be provided in the first 90 days of resettlement, one day’s worth of food stocked the kitchen. There was one plate, one bowl, one cup, one fork, one knife and one spoon per person. One towel per person. One set of sheets and blankets for each bed. Laundry detergent. An alarm clock.

At 13, Ahmed was the oldest of seven children. This left him with new responsibilities in St. Louis. He became an interpreter, facilitator and somewhat of a protector for his parents, who as adults hadn’t enjoyed the benefit of learning English in Kakuma’s schools. He would answer the phone at home, help them navigate the new city, translate utility bills.

"I was just excited that I was speaking English," he says. "My parents were happy that their son could speak English for them."

Ahmed liked helping. And his parents would need it as they applied for jobs, obtained social services, shepherded their children through school and moved four more times in the next several years.

Now 20, Ahmed is soft-spoken and often smiles when he talks. He is lean and tall. At the apartment he now calls home, on a warm, sunny day in early spring with thunderstorms brewing in the massive dark clouds drawing near, he is barefooted, wearing soccer shorts and a clean, bright white, untucked T-shirt.

This is Ahmed’s fifth apartment, which he shares with a half-brother.

His family is complex and extended. His father has three wives, as is still common in much of Africa; two of them — including Ahmed’s mother — have resettled in the U.S. Ahmed’s mother and her six younger children moved last year to Cape Girardeau, where it is less expensive to live.

Ahmed’s father works four days a week in a sewing factory in St. Louis; he splits his time between his sons’ apartment there and his wife’s in Cape Girardeau. Another of Ahmed’s half-brothers, that brother’s Burundian wife and their two young children also occasionally stay at the apartment; at other times, they stay at their own apartment near a downtown hotel where the brother works.

On a midday in March, it is just over 80 degrees and the parking lot outside doubles as a gathering place — one where Ahmed does not socialize. Reggae music pumps from one car where a handful of men and women hang out. Two other men, one from Honduras and one from Argentina, both of whom came to St. Louis looking for roofing work, smoke cigarettes and drink cans of beer in a van with the blinds down on the windows but the side door open.

The neighborhood beyond appears occasionally optimistic — a garden here and there, sidewalk construction across the street — but largely abandoned. Windows are broken, a burnt porch looks as if it’s been falling down for years. A young man in jeans and a baseball cap trudges down the road, head back, guzzling from a 40-ounce can wrapped in a brown paper bag.  Drained, he pitches it to the pavement without breaking his pace.

Sweet, musky incense suffuses the second-floor apartment, in stark contrast to the layers of stale and fresh cigarette smoke permeating the halls outside. The apartment walls are clean and the linoleum floor swept, as opposed to the kick-stained stairs, the drip-stained entrance walls or the smudge-stained, narrow windowpane inside the building’s front door.

If it weren’t for incense, you might think this apartment’s tenants had just moved out. The pale walls are blank. The floor is bare, save for a small, simple woven rug by the living room window, where Ahmed has placed two folding chairs. There is no couch. There is no table. No lamp. Not a shred of domesticity, save a curtain, to be seen.

It is brightened only by sunlight from the east-facing window. The lights are off, and Ahmed’s soft voice can finally be heard when a neighbor silences some floor-rattling rap music that’s heavy on bass and f-bombs.

"We live inside," Ahmed says, pointing toward a small kitchen and down an interior hallway toward their bedrooms.

From the living room’s open window, the polyester curtain, bursting with a pattern of giant red tulips, blows lightly into the room. The curtain softens the view onto a scarcely green courtyard at the center of four more brick and vinyl buildings just like his.

WORK

What Ahmed knew:

"Scantily monetized" is how a U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees report in 2000 described Kakuma. Such little money makes employment in the refugee camp a complicated prospect, with no illusions of self-sufficiency.

Some adults earn "incentive pay" of $40 to $90 per month by working for humanitarian organizations. Ahmed’s father started a store to capitalize on what little movement of goods and money there was. Dependence on handouts and international aid was an assumption perpetuated by the conditions and restrictions within the camp.

What he imagined:

Ahmed assumed he would work and save money in America. This part of his dream was only partially informed. 

Once in the U.S., refugees have 90 days to start working or find other sources of income to provide for themselves, according to the International Institute. Within six months, they must begin repaying their travel loans, which can run up to $1,500 per person.

"I wasn’t expecting all these bills," Ahmed says. "I know you have to pay rent. But I just thought ... your house, it’s yours, so nobody’s gonna come for you. ... You just have to pay for everything, you know. That’s one thing I learned."

Besides rent, Ahmed was introduced to water bills. Car insurance and registration. Phones and the fees that come with them.

He tries to remember the word for when you buy something for, say $2.99, but you have to pay extra on top of the cost.

"Taxes!" he slaps his knee in excitement. "Yeah. ... Nobody told me about those things. I just have to learn, you know."

What he found:

It’s Friday night, and almost everyone who asks Ahmed for anything at the Union Station Marriott in downtown St. Louis is some degree of drunk.

Wedding revelers and wrestling fans in town for the NCAA Championships vie for the attention of a black-clad cocktail waitress weaving between low tables and leather chairs. At the center of the former railway station’s Grand Hall, the swanky hotel lounge is dwarfed under sweeping archways that rise to 65 feet at their peak. Art glass windows, fresco paintings and gold-leaf detailing surround the interior of this castle-like stone relic of a building.

Guests with cell phones pull up a seat on the edge of knee-high planters, swig Corona from bottles and shout over the din that reverberates through the Grand Hall like the rumble of trains must have 120 years ago. Constructed in the 1890s, Union Station once served more than 100,000 rail passengers a day. Now rooms start at $169 per night —$239 on weekends.

Ahmed’s uncle, who also works here, helped him get his job as a doorman and bellman in October 2011.

What’s the best place to get oysters, a guest wants to know. Where are the ballrooms? How do I get to the Hard Rock Cafe? What time does the concert start? Ahmed arrives at work more than an hour early to find out what’s going on in the city and read the newspaper as preparation for fielding any questions that might come his way.

Spilling out of the hotel in rushes and dribbles, guests need directions, cabs and — they may not know this yet ­— a bit of entertaining banter. Rules of engagement change outside. Away from the front desk and out in the fresh air, doormen and guests alike are more talkative.

Doormen make better tips than bellmen, Ahmed says, because they have more chances to do things for people. And it’s not just guests that doormen manage.

A line of taxis populates the street shoulder that leads to the hotel entrance. Drivers, restaurant owners and some who trade in more illicit services are known among travelers the world over for giving kickbacks to doormen who send business their way.

But the system at the Union Station is just that: a system. Guest needs a ride, doorman blows his whistle, first taxi in line pulls forward and the rest of the line inches up. Most of the time.

Tonight, a very drunk man wants to hire the taxi that has just pulled up with a carload of passengers for drop-off. But according to the system, it’s not that taxi’s turn — a point Ahmed gently tries to make.

"I’ve already called the taxi for you. He’s right here," Ahmed says, pointing to the cab driver pulling into place. But the man is not looking. The man is opening the door of the arriving taxi; the passengers inside look surprised.

Ahmed tries to negotiate a complex matrix: the drunk man who wants his ride and wants it now; the drop-off taxi driver who might get lucky enough to score two fares back-to-back; the pick-up driver next in line who might lose his fare. Ahmed shifts on his feet. He calculates.

Then he tells the pick-up driver with the empty cab to hold on, sticks his hands in his pockets and waits. He glances over his shoulder now and then, checking on the drunk man, who gets into the cab as soon as the arriving passengers get out. And in no time, another guest walks into the night, looking for a ride. This time, the problems solve themselves.

More guests emerge from the hotel, asking for a late-night place to eat. Ahmed pulls a short stack of coupons out of his pocket and suggests an Irish pub down the block, but they don’t take the bait.

It’s a trick of the trade that Ahmed recently learned from his uncle. He’ll get a certain amount of referral money for each party who brings in a coupon with his name on it. Ahmed thinks the restaurant pays out once a month, but he’s not sure, and he doesn’t know how much they pay. He hasn’t sent anyone there yet.

Shyness is not a lucrative trait in this business.

EDUCATION

What Ahmed knew:

Back in Kakuma, children were taught math and science, but English and the Quran were the most important things to learn."We weren’t worried about history," Ahmed says. His family’s history, like that of all the refugees, floated through the air, in the conversations of grownups. It was as ubiquitous as the dust kicked up from the scatter and shuffle of bare feet on scorched dirt roads. It was nowhere and everywhere.

"We were just worried about learning English," he says. "How to speak English and how to write English and how to read English."

To learn the Quran, he attended a Duksi, as religious schools are called in his native Bantu language. Ahmed remains religious — a call-to-prayer app sounds five times a day on his iPhone — but he does not miss the Duksi. Recitation was a staple in the classroom, but most students "didn’t know how to read in our head," Ahmed says, talking about the hard chore of memorization. "I can read while I’m looking, but I can’t read if you cover (the words) for me."

Nor does he miss the Duksi teacher. "That teacher was mean. ... Everybody used to get beat, no matter who you are," he says.

One day, the oldest boy at the school fought back, saying he hadn’t done something the Duksi teacher accused him of. "Not the biggest, but the oldest boy in the place," Ahmed remembers.

"It was just so funny because we want the teacher to get beat, you know," Ahmed laughs. "We had (the boy’s) back because he was standing up for us. Because we was so young. We can’t say nothing, you know, he (the teacher) just gonna do whatever he want to us."

The teacher won; the defiant student was thrown out of the class. Two days later, his parents brought him back to school, and the routine continued.

What he imagined:

For his life in America, Ahmed imagined what he could not have in Kakuma: college. He hopes also to have a family here, but family is where his goals would have stopped in Africa.

"I’d probably have a son — I mean baby,” he laughs. He will take what God gives him. "Live in my own house, you know. Take care of family. Forget about college, forget about education, all that. Just try and live."

Those were his old dreams. As he talks, an approaching storm has arrived. Lightning smacks close by. Ahmed closes the window, calming the curtain and keeping the sill dry, as thunder rumbles.

Here, he imagines a different future. It, too, involves a family, but in a sort of hybrid Bantu-American tradition. Marriages are still arranged, he says, but more and more Somali girls are holding out to marry "the right one ... because they start listening to this crap." He laughs — a little bold, a little shy — and glances down while he sips mango juice from a tall glass.

The chance for girls to finish high school before having children, to have a say in whom they marry, is as hard for Ahmed to get used to as his own new dreams.

"Sometimes I (think) about becoming a pilot," he says. "Or an artist," because he likes to draw. Or a photographer. But then, he wonders, should he pursue something less ambitious, more attainable?

Ahmed tries not to think too hard about his future right now because it’s so uncertain. His goal is to stay afloat with work and continue to improve his English, so that he’ll be ready for his future when it arrives.

What he found:

One familiar comfort for Ahmed in America was soccer. They played it quite differently at his new high school in St. Louis, but they played it, and that’s what mattered.

At the camp in Kakuma, Ahmed and his friends would improvise their own field: Impromptu boundaries marked with the shirts they would take off their backs, goals staked in the ground with two sticks where the front posts would go. They couldn’t conjure a net, so successful goals sent the boys running to chase down the ball.

Their soccer ball was also a feat of imagination: plastic grocery bags bound together with rubber bands. Lots of them. Thick ones. The rubber bands were how they got the  ball to bounce.

Indoctrinated into the sport in this way, Ahmed was used to kicking the ball quite hard to give it air and distance, but he’s too modest to say whether he could kick harder than the American kids he played with here.

Now that he’s graduated, Ahmed still enjoys the sport. He plays with Bantu friends, and they invite others to join them — Liberians, Mexicans. "Yeah, we play a lot," Ahmed says. Even on this rainy day, he’s hoping to sneak in a muddy game.

Fellow refugees make up a lot of Ahmed’s friends. His girlfriend is Somali. Even many of his co-workers at the Union Station Marriott are immigrants – not uncommon in hotels around the country.

This extends a cultural stratification that he also found in high school. The immigrants and Americans didn’t mix much, he says. Perhaps it was culture. Perhaps it was language.

Despite the emphasis on learning English in Kakuma — and his usefulness helping his parents navigate this new land — fluency remains elusive.

Ahmed was optimistic after graduating from high school. But in 2010, after starting at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, he found that he couldn’t keep up with the language and the rigors of college.

Now he attends Forest Park Community College, "where most foreign kids go," he says, hoping to transfer back to the university after a couple years. He doesn’t have a major yet. For now, his classes simply help him get up to par so he can pursue his education.

Success and struggle mingle. He passed two of the classes he took last fall. But he failed grammar, so he had to retake that this spring. And he read four books in the fall for a reading class. But he lost a fifth — a biography of a basketball player — that he had checked out of the library of his own accord. The $50 fine has scared him off from checking out another.

Instead, he stays in the library to read one or two pages at a time when he’s on campus. He recently started a new book.

"I don’t know the title but it’s about Martin Luther King," Ahmed says. "Like, how African-Americans were back then. That’s the kind of book I am reading."

He had never heard of King before or of the Civil Rights movement. The only American name he knew in Kakuma was President George W. Bush. The only American event: 9/11.

This young man who was never taught the history that displaced his family, and who waits for a future he can’t quite imagine, is slowly learning the past of his new home. 


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