First in a three-part series
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
San Diego is home to one of the largest Somali communities in the United States. In the first of a three-part series, KPBS takes a look at how the Somalis refugees are rebuilding their lives in San Diego.
San Diego has one of the largest Somali communities in the nation. Many Somalis are immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico. Their circuitous path is raising concerns among intelligence officials at a time when the Somali terror group, al-Shabab, is recruiting from the U.S.
It was 2 o'clock in the morning back in 1988. Amina Farah was about to go from a middle-class mother with a house and a job at the Central Bank of Somalia to refugee. Civil war had just erupted. The dark of the morning lit up with firefights. The air choked with smoke. And Farah says she had no choice but to grab her four-year-old son and run.
"You saw the children sitting with dead bodies," Farah said. "You saw injury. You saw no food and no hospital, no light, no doctor, no hygiene, no water."
Farah traveled by foot with thousands of other Somalis to Ethiopia in scorching heat. Each day of the month-long journey she thought would be her last. Farah tried to prevent her young son from succumbing to dehydration -- at times she gave him her saliva.
"Several times I thought he was dead," she said. "I just put him down. And then I remember the guy told me Amina one time he told you he is alive."
Today, that boy is 25 years old and works at a golf course in Temecula. Farah is now 47. She has two other children, a 22-year-old son in the U.S. army and a 16-year-old daughter in high school.
"I am so happy. The peace for my children and for me that was the first thing I was looking for."
Farah moved to San Diego with her family in 1997. She was part of a huge influx of Somali refugees in the 1990s. When she arrived, she enrolled in school, got a job as a teacher's aide She's working on a bachelor's degree in social work and she is now doing what she believes is the most rewarding work of all. She is a case worker at the International Rescue Committee in San Diego.
Each day, she wears a long skirt and a head scarf to work. She's a Muslim, but back when she lived in Somalia, it was okay to wear a mini-skirt. Nowadays, the newcomers from her homeland expect a woman to dress more modestly ever since Islamists came to dominate her war-wracked homeland.
Even though she's adjusted to life in the United States, the memories of war still keep Farah awake at night.
"It doesn't go away," she said. "It's always with me in spite of my life. I lose so many family members. In just one day, 17 people are dead ...one day. None of them survived."
Abdi Mohamoud is the director of the Horn of Africa Community Center. He say's Farah's memories are not unusual.
"It's just really a tragic trauma that still haunts families today," Mohamoud said. "I would say that all of the refugees here have suffered first-hand torture. Because that's what led them to flee for their lives."
And for thousands, the exodus led them to San Diego through the refugee resettlement program. The city has nearly 20,000 Somalis. They have bought houses, businesses and are raising families. Many live in City Heights where women wear burkas, markets sell halal meat and men walk to prayers at neighborhood mosques.
Some Somalis such as Ali Artan say assimilation has not come easily.
"It will be hard and a long road that they can integrate with the mainstream," he said.
Many of these immigrants came from rural areas and do not speak English.
Mohamoud says unemployment within San Diego's Somali community is between 40 and 50 percent.
"Many of them are just settling for whatever jobs they could get, part-time, odd jobs, you tend to see some customer service at hotels…maybe some janitorial, housekeeping, security guards," Mohamoud said.
Even with the bad economy, Somalis keep coming to the anchor community they've established in San Diego. In the past two years, the number of Somalis immigrating to the U.S. through the political asylum process has increased. And some of them are taking a circuitous path that's raising red flags within the intelligence community.
In part two of our series, we will examine that path.