For young Somali-Americans, there is little connection to the homeland.

“What’s your name?” asked the agent for Catholic Charities.

“Nasra,” answered the client, her head covered in a hijab, the traditional headdress worn by Muslim women. In her left arm a mass of paperwork; in the other, a wiggly baby girl.

“Place of birth of your daughter?”

“Kenya.”

“Kenya?” the agent looked up. “Aren’t you Somalian? How could your daughter’s birthplace be Kenya? So you’re Kenyan?”

“No, my daughter is Somalian. My family fled to Kenya after the civil war broke in Somalia. She was born in a refugee camp there. So, she was born in Kenya, but she’s Somali. That makes her a Somali-Kenyan,” said Nasra.

“Well, I’ll have to ask my supervisor about this. If she was born in Kenya, by U.S. laws, she’s Kenyan. Stand over there while I check.”

Such confusion is typical for many Somalis living in the Lewiston-Auburn area. The above story is true, relayed to me by Nasra herself, who lives in Lewiston.

After the civil war of the 1990s, many Somalis fled to neighboring countries, such as Kenya, Yemen and Sudan, often bringing and starting a family in the host country. Refugees can remain in those host countries for years with the children being taught in English, knowing little about their Somali homeland or culture.

This prolonged residence of Somalis in other host countries leads to the rise of the Somali- Kenyan (or Sudanese, Yemeni, etc.) generation; a younger set which doesn’t identify with either of the cultures. Even to native Somalis, these refugees who were born, or stayed, in Kenya for a long time are called Sujuu, a Swahili word meaning “doesn’t know.”

It’s a slight insult suggesting that even to some Somalis, this person isn’t a true Somali. The problem becomes worse because these young people, caught in the turmoil of a civil war, have no place to look to as their homeland. Kenyans, Sudanese, Yemenis, and even Americans see these refugees as obviously Somali.

For the person, however, it gives an image of not quite belonging anywhere.

I am one of those Sujuu. My parents moved to Kenya when I was 8 years old. We lived there for 14 years before I moved to the United States with my brother. I grew up in Kenya, having few and only distant memories of my homeland. While in Kenya, I went to school and learned in English and Swahili, lessons about math, world history, science, but nothing about Somalia. My memories of Somalia became the occasional stories that my mother told around the dinner table.

Over the past several years, many Somalis immigrated to cities around the United States, including Lewiston-Auburn. This has led to a whole new generation – the Somali-American generation, those who were born or passed through a refugee camp.

Muktar Sharif, a University of Maine freshman who graduated from Edward Little High School last year, was 2 years old when he left Somalia, lived in a Kenyan refugee camp, and came to the United States when he was 9.

“I don’t remember anything about Somalia, but that doesn’t necessarily make me less Somalian. I still speak Somali well (even though my parents wouldn’t consider it the best). But there are older Somalis who see me as anything but Somali, maybe Kenyan, maybe American, but not a true Somali,” says Sharif.

Safia Nur, a former Lewiston High School student, who was in the class of 2004, recently graduated with degrees in international relations and child development from the University of Maine in Orono. She first moved to the U.S in 1996, and went to middle school in Massachusetts before moving to Lewiston, where she has lived since then.

“I wouldn’t hesitate to live anywhere around the world, as long as I could find a job. I feel like I could fit in anywhere. Where do I belong? Not sure. Somalia? Kenya? Massachusetts? Lewiston? Orono? All of the above, I would say. Who would have thought I would spend four years of my life in Orono, Maine? My experiences both in Orono and here in Lewiston enriched my being,” says Safia with a smile.

The distance will only get farther for those with no, or distant, memories of Somalia. My children, and their children, might only know stories from grandparents about a land that was years ago and far away.

I suppose that makes us no different from many other groups who have left their homeland and come to America – Italian, Greek, Russian, and so many others.

They have left one land to build a life in another.

Fatuma Shinio of Auburn is a student at the University of Maine, studying clinical laboratory science. E-mail: [email protected]


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