Better Days

They went through hell in Mogadishu. But for 17-year-old Mohamed Abdullahi and other Somali immigrants, in Minneapolis it's still an uphill climb.

Ali says he received a call from Mogadishu earlier this year from his brother, who said he'd been accused of murder and needed $3,000. According to the Benadiri, it's a common but macabre moneymaking scheme: A body is dragged to your door and a relative of the deceased accuses you of murder. An elder or tribal council determines that you must make restitution or face execution. Although he knew it was extortion, Ali says, he took up a collection, depleted his savings, and raised the money for his brother. Amnesty International's 1999 report mentions specifically that "[m]embers of vulnerable minority communities, such as Bantu agriculturalists and artisan 'castes,' and of the wealthier Benadiri business community, continued to be at risk of arbitrary killing, looting and rape." Explains Ali: "They try it more often when they know there is a relative with access to money living outside the country. We didn't really have a lot of choice. I believe they would have killed him if we didn't pay."

When negotiations where being made about a transitional government in Somalia, Ali says, "the Benadiri people were referred to as 'others.' We came from Somalia almost 1,500 years ago, before everybody. And now, because we did not participate in the civil war, we are called 'others.' What that means is, 'You guys are a minority.'"

Across the room, Mohamed Husein nods his head. "Yes, we are a minority," he says. "It is very difficult."

Fred Petters


When his family first came to America, Mohamed Abdullahi had nightmares about the war. His mother set up an appointment with a psychologist, but after two visits Mohamed quit going. "The guy didn't have anything to help me with. He wasn't in my mind," he explains with a shrug. "He said, 'Talk to me.' I could talk all day, but it wasn't going to help me. What would help me is if what happened didn't happen, you know?

"Now I'm stronger because I forget about the past more," he goes on. "I mean, I'll always be caring about it, but thinking back to that stuff will just pull me down, and I'm not going to let it."

According to Abdi Husen, such a reaction is typical. "A lot of people of all ages think it's better just to forget about it, not talk about it," the Community University Health Care Center staffer asserts. "The people we see generally have waited until they can't eat and sleep, when it really starts to get physical."

"He says it's best to forget," Faisa Ali says of her eldest son. "But still sometimes now he'll talk about what happened."

A year after the family arrived in America, Mohamed's father joined them, but the reunion was short-lived; the war had changed the former doctor, causing turbulence. Now Faisa is raising her four kids as a single mother. (Besides Mohamed, there's his 10-year-old sister Kadija and brothers Abdirahman, who's 16, and Feysal, who is 4.) Twice since their arrival in the Twin Cities they've been evicted. Another time Faisa moved them away from a drug-infested neighborhood because she was afraid to let the kids go outside. Having bounced from Minneapolis to Eagan to Hopkins, they now rent a modest house in north Minneapolis. Blankets and sheets cover the windows instead of curtains. Thrift-store paintings dot the walls of the living room, in which a tiny television set perches on a table opposite a pair of couches. Faisa works 16 hours a day as a home health-care aide and sends what money she can to her brother and his four children in Mogadishu, and to her sister at the refugee camp in Kenya. What's left is enough to live on.

Though Mohamed is at first reluctant to discuss his American education--"I think all the schools I've been to are good," he says--with a little prompting from his mother, details emerge about life at Washburn High in south Minneapolis. "I guess with all the changes, it has been hard for me to get settled. I didn't use to talk to anybody, and they basically didn't talk to me. I just go to class. I am learning things, but at the same time I'm not because I'm just going from classes to classes."

Will he graduate?

"Yes!" Faisa says firmly.

"That's a hard question," Mohamed counters. "I am trying my hardest. At the same time, I can't get enough credits. We'll see.

"I have friends here," he continues. "Mostly other Somali. We play basketball and soccer--just hang out at the gyms or each other's houses. It is easier to be friends here. The most important thing is, other Somalis know what we have gone through. That's what is keeping us together: what everybody went through."

When the conversation turns to how his friends are treated at school, Mohamed becomes more animated. "Like dirt," he says. "At the end of the year last year, they were throwing eggs at the Somali students, hitting them in the back. And every time the Somali students walk by through the hallway, they would hold their noses and say, 'Oh, the Somali students stink.'

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