New U.S. citizen balances old and new cultures (Tennessee Register)

Posted 11/21/2014

By Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register

The path that Abdishukri Abdi followed from a war-torn village in Somalia to a refugee camp in Kenya to an apartment in Nashville to receiving his U.S. citizenship has been a long, grueling journey.

Uprooted from his home due to violent civil war and forced to live in a refugee camp for 18 years, Abdi said he often struggled to figure out where he fit in, wondering, "Am I going to be a refugee forever?"

Abdi, who was resettled in Nashville by Catholic Charities of Tennessee in 2009 and now works for Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services as a housing specialist, said during that long time in the limbo of a refugee camp, "I felt like I lost my identity. ...You don't know where you belong."

Since he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen earlier this month, Abdi finally feels like "I am now home."

Home for Abdi and his family of nine, these days, is a three bedroom apartment in South Nashville. It's modest, cozy and a far, far cry from living in a wind- and sand-battered tent with his wife and five children in the refugee camp.

Abdi arrived at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya when he was 12 years old and eventually met and married his wife Kadijo Mohamed there. She gave birth to five of the couple's seven children there; they have had two more children since arriving in the United States. Mohamed is not yet a U.S. citizen, but is preparing to take the test.

When the family first arrived in Nashville from Kenya, however, Mohamed spoke no English, couldn't drive, and largely remained isolated at home with the youngest children in the couple's apartment.

"At first I had to take care of all the family business," Abdi said, including getting the children enrolled in school, taking them to doctor's appointment, and working, which was a difficult balancing act. Since then, Mohamed has been learning English and gotten her license.

Still, the matriarch of the family remains the most rooted in the language and culture of her Somali homeland. She cooks traditional Somali food whenever possible, with ingredients from a Somali-owned market nearby. She speaks mostly Somali at home even though the older five children who attend school are totally immersed in the English language and American culture, which is sometimes difficult for the family to reconcile.

"The kids are more adaptive" to the U.S. resettlement, said Abdi. The children were eager to trick or treat on Halloween, and enjoy superhero movies. "They're more American than Somali," he said.

Indeed, none of the children were born in Somalia or have ever been there. Connecting them to a cultural heritage they never knew in the first place is an on-going challenge for Abdi and Mohamed. "It's a process of learning," Abdi said.

Abdi and his wife try to keep the Somali culture alive by speaking the language and serving the food of their homeland. They also remain true to their Muslim faith; Mohamed and the girls of the family wear the traditional veils and flowing robes that immediately signify to outsiders that they are members of the Islamic faith. Abdi and his family worship at a local mosque with Somalis and Muslims from other nations. He said he hasn't faced any suspicion or judgment for being Muslim in Nashville, and is dismayed that terrorist organizations in the Middle East are hijacking the religion to carry out violent acts. "I don't feel like those people are even Muslim," he said.

When he was still living in the refugee camp, Abdi attended school and learned English, often outside under a tree. However, many refugees are unable to attend school. With so many people remaining in refugee camps for so long, school is often undervalued because it is almost a given that refugees "will end up unemployed or working without dignity," Abdi said.

Abdi was one of the few Somali refugees in the camp able to find employment through an international aid organization. While the meager paycheck enabled him to eventually move out of a tent into a more solid structure, he was paid far less than his Kenyan counterparts to do "the hard part of the operations" as a community development worker serving orphans and unaccompanied minors.

While working and struggling to provide for his growing family in the camp, Abdi began to wonder, "Will my children suffer as I suffered?" Now that his family is settled in Nashville, "I am sure they have a bright future." The school-aged children are making good grades and the younger ones are eager to follow in their footsteps.

Abdi is optimistic about the future. He hopes to move out of the cramped apartment and into a house with a yard someday. "America is tough if you have several kids and do not own a house," he said. He enjoys his position at Catholic Charities, but dreams of becoming a professional diplomat or human rights activist one day. "I can't be president or vice president, but there are some more things I can do," he says with a laugh, almost giddy with excitement over his new status as a U.S. citizen.

Abdi just missed being able to vote for the first time in his life in the Nov. 4 statewide election, but is looking forward to casting his first ballot the next opportunity he has.

For now, he is just thankful to be here, and relishing the freedom that comes with being a U.S. citizen. "My
dreams became true and I got resettlement opportunity to USA, Nashville through Catholic Charities of Tennessee," he said. "I am just feeling I am at home."

SOURCE: (page 19)

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