By Abby Higgins
March 7, 2012
A young Somali woman peeks out from behind her friend’s child in the one-room apartment she shares with two other adults and two children.
Photo: Abby Higgins
The view of the streets and houses from the top of an affluent hotel at the entrance of Eastleigh.
Photo: Abby Higgins
Three women pass below the cafe where I interviewed Mohamed and Abdigani.
Photo: Abby Higgins
A few months ago, I was riding in a cab from Seattle’s First Avenue to Capitol Hill. As we rose up Seattle’s steeply graded streets, I recognized the music on the driver’s radio. I asked him where he was from, and he answered wearily, “Somalia.” He’d had this conversation before.
He became more interested when we realized that both of us had lived in Kenya. I was headed back in a few weeks to pursue a career in journalism; he was going for a visit in a few months.
“What are you going to do when you get back?” I asked.
“You know”, he said, “chew some khat (a natural stimulant illegal in the United States), visit some friends, see my family.”
More than a million people make up the Somali diaspora worldwide, meaning that 14 percent of Somalis live outside their home country. Somalia has been in a state of civil war since 1991 when the government effectively dissolved, leaving a power vacuum that has created one of the most violent and unstable places in the world.
Much of the population has been forced to flee, usually first to neighboring Kenya, and then to other countries such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway and the United States.
According to a United Nations Development Report, the greater Seattle area hosts the third largest population of Somali refugees in the United States.
When I mention my hometown in other parts of Nairobi, I get a blank stare; maybe a vague reference to “Grey’s Anatomy.” But in Eastleigh, where Nairobi’s Somali population is concentrated, faces light up at the mention of Seattle. I often hear, “My brother/cousin/best friend/mother lives in Seattle!”
“Seattle is in the north of America. It is very, very hot and life is very good!” says a young Somali refugee named Abdigani, sitting in an Eastleigh cafe. At least he has two out of three facts right.
Abdigani, like most of the Somalis I speak with, is uncomfortable giving his full name because of his uncertain immigration status and a mistrust of outsiders. His friend Mohamed feels the same way, but is eager to share the rest of his story.
“I’m very excited, because it will be a new experience. I’m not scared, I’m happy,” says Mohamed. “I want to be an American citizen, I want to go to university there.” Mohamed is 21 years old and recently received the news (after medical check-ups, background checks and a two-day cultural training from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) that he will soon be resettled to Washington state.
He is confident he is prepared for his new home. “Even the way of eating will be different. We eat goats and camels, and in America you eat … bacon, is that true?” he asks.
He is waiting only for a departure date and his plane ticket so he can begin his long-awaited journey. It has been months since he’s heard anything but, after 15 years living as a refugee in Kenya, Mohamed says a few months are no big deal.
For now, Mohamed will wait in Eastleigh. Kenya has the largest population of Somalis outside of Somalia — a steady stream of refugees it will take years to resettle. Many of these refugees leave overcrowded refugee camps in favor of settling illegally in Eastleigh, where they can easily blend in with the large Somali-Kenyan population.
Little English or Swahili — Kenya’s two national languages — are spoken here. The restaurants have separate sections for men and for women, and burqas line the walls of shops. Somalis rarely leave Eastleigh and many Kenyans are afraid to visit. It is an insular place.
Even though Somalis have lived in Kenya for generations and many have citizenship, they are viewed as outsiders, and often as unwelcome. Every Somali I spoke with talked about experiencing discrimination linked to Al-Shabab, a militant Islamist group from Somalia responsible for terrorist attacks around the world (including Kenya) and infamous for piracy off the coast of the Horn of Africa.
In October 2011, the Kenyan army invaded Somalia after a spate of Al-Shabab–related kidnappings of aid workers and tourists in Northern Kenya — serious crimes in a country with an economy driven by tourism.
Soon after, two separate bombings occurred in Nairobi, killing two and injuring many more. Some linked the bombings to Al-Shabab, which issued threats of attacks if Kenya refused to pull its troops out of Somalia.
Tensions are on the rise and nowhere is this more apparent than in Eastleigh.
“You hear negative sentiments, in the store, on the bus,” says a Kenyan-Somali businessman, who asks not to be named and says that Kenyan police are known to make arrests and demand massive bribes if residents cannot produce proper papers. “A cop arrests me, handcuffs me and the first thing that somebody will think is ‘Oh, this guy’s a refugee and if I trample on his rights it doesn’t matter. I’ll get away with it.’ ”
The businessman also believes that Somalis’ economic success, which has turned Eastleigh into a booming business center, fosters resentment in a country that suffers from 40 percent unemployment.
“Business is in the DNA of the Somali people,” the businessman says to me, turning his forearm over to expose his veins.
The hostility makes it hard for refugees to feel at home in Kenya, and many Somalis hope to settle abroad and find a better life — some, like Abdigani and Mohamed, in a distant city named Seattle.
I’m sitting with both of them on the crowed balcony of a popular Eastleigh restaurant at lunchtime. The restaurant is full of men folding spongy, sour canjeero — Somali bread — between their fingers and scooping meats and vegetables off massive aluminum trays in the center of each table.
Over the edge of the balcony, groups of veiled women pass below us, absorbed in conversation.
Abdigani is shy, and his English is limited, but he tells me he fled Mogadishu two years ago. His brother is a taxi driver in Seattle. He hopes to join him one day, but he rarely hears from him anymore.
“When people are there, they don’t normally communicate with people in Africa,” he says of Somalis who have immigrated to the United States.
Mohamed believes it is because of the poverty in Africa, “If you communicate with people here, they just ask for money, and so that’s why they run away from you.”
“But I will be different when I go!” Mohamed exclaims. “I will keep communicating with them!”
His friends giggle, playfully punching him. “I’ll send them money and everything!” he says, grinning back at his friends.
Listening to Mohamed’s enthusiasm I thought of the cab driver, winding along Seattle’s downtown streets, homesick for the very city these young men are eager to leave, one in a million Somalis who can never really go home.
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