Saciido Shaie: ‘America needed me, and I needed America’

She worries about raising her kids in a world that treats the words “Muslim” and “Somali” as some kind of equivalent to “ISIS” and “Al-Shabab.”

She worries about raising her kids in a world that treats the words “Muslim” and “Somali” as some kind of equivalent to “ISIS” and “Al-Shabab.” Saciido Shaie

One day, when Saciido Shaie and her daughter were driving in downtown Minneapolis, three men in a truck drove by. There was an air-splitting blat as they honked the horn. Then came a yell that Shaie still remembers.

“Go back to your country. We don’t need you here.”

They drove off, but to say nothing more came of that moment would be to discount every other moment when somebody made her feel like she didn’t belong.

Shaie is originally from Somalia. There, her family had been rich. They had cars, businesses, a big house.

“All of that changed in a split second,” she says.

In 1990, civil war broke out. Suddenly, Somalia wasn’t safe anymore. She became a refugee because her home was taken from her. Her country was taken from her. She came to America because they thought it was different than the rest of the world. America was a place where you could make something of yourself. They chose America because America was for people like her: people with potential.

That’s not necessarily something you can yell back at three men in a truck.

Shaie arrived as a child in the early ’90s and spent her youth as one of the few Somali kids in her school in Atlanta before she moved to the Twin Cities six years later. She received her elementary education through a language barrier, like drinking a lake through a straw.

She’s 35 now. She lives in Minneapolis and has three kids. She worries about raising them in a world that treats the words “Muslim” and “Somali” as some kind of equivalent to “ISIS” and “Al-Shabab.” She’s quick to confess how grateful she is for the opportunities she has. She sees herself as lucky. But the fact is, she’s given back just as much.

She graduated from Minneapolis Community and Technical College and got her bachelor’s degree at Metropolitan State University. By then, she’d already founded Somali Youth Action of Minnesota. Today, it’s called the Ummah Project.

The goal of the nonprofit is to help Somali youth going through what she experienced as a child: being forced to adjust to a different place that speaks a different language and is only so tolerant of that difference. Moreover, she wants to make sure fewer Somali youth end up on the giving or receiving end of violence, or become ill, or simply disappear. She wants to show that they have a community that cares deeply about them, and that they are worth something.

“Basically, I wanted to show them that I was there, and I overcame,” she says. “They see themselves that they can do better.”

Years later, she started a mediation and leadership program for youth ages 16 to 25, so they can learn to listen to one another, resolve conflicts, and advocate for themselves. At one point, she got them to sit in a circle and finally feel comfortable enough to say how they feel -- to talk about what kinds of pressure they’re under. Some began to cry.

She’s also served on multiple government boards: the Minnesota Juvenile Justice Advisory Council, the Cultural and Ethnic Communities Leadership Council, the Young Women Initiative Council, the list goes on. You could make a can of alphabet soup using just the acronyms.

She won the DFL Women’s Hall of Fame Rising Star Award in 2016. Most recently, with the help of the Ummah Project, she shipped a container full of medical supplies to hospitals throughout Somalia. She is an accomplished American woman.

“My biggest aspiration is to make the world better,” she says. “Even if I only bring my kids up as successful and teach them the right way to live, I’m bettering the world.”

Her dream is to open a rec center, a safe place for Somali kids, especially girls, for whom the culture shock and the scrutiny can be particularly fierce. She’s lived here for decades and still can’t swim. She wants a place where Somali girls can feel comfortable enough to learn how.

Shaie’s life is built around giving. She wakes up, takes care of her kids, and volunteers. But she also wakes up in a country where Donald Trump can visit Minnesota, claim that the state has “suffered enough” after taking in thousands of Somali refugees, and later get elected president.

She lives in a country where she only hears about another Somali person in the news when the story is about a terrorist attack. Where, meanwhile, young white man after young white man is perpetrating a mass shooting.

She lives in a country where she has to be an amazing role model for her kids, because she’s one of the only role models they have. Because sometimes, it’s hard for them to even see themselves as American.

She lives in a country where three strangers in a truck will yell at her to go home.

She is home.

It’s time, she says, for the country to pay more attention to the accomplishments of its Somali citizens, not just to talk to them after there’s been some new crisis.

“I might be doing more than you can imagine,” she says.