The crowd from the March for Refugees — almost 8,000 by some estimates — filled the Utah State Capitol rotunda and spilled onto the plaza outside. Men, women, and children of all ages, faiths, and colors hoisted their signs high, chanted as one in a chorus that rang through the streets: “No Hate, No Fear, Refugees Are Welcome Here.” Children sat on their parent’s shoulders; marchers packed the stairways and leaned over the balconies. Those fortunate enough to find a space inside the rotunda were greeted with rousing, emotional speeches from civic officials, immigrants, resettlement organizations, and the refugees themselves.
Then it was Saida’s turn to speak. A sixteen-year-old refugee from Somalia who spent the first three years of her life in a Kenyan refugee camp, Saida escaped the turmoil and destruction in her native land to make a home in Utah with her family. Wearing a big smile, a black hijab with white stripes, and a “Black Lives Matter” sweatshirt, she strode confidently to the microphone.
“I’m black, I’m Muslim, I am all these stereotypes. I’m a woman. My whole identity has been under attack.”
The crowd cheered.
I’ve created this poem for all the refugee immigrants that want to come here, like me, to further their education.
“So many people wish for an education
with no limitation
but they live in a nation
where little boys learn about war before they learn their ABC’s
while their families are dying of disease.”
Mothers and children in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.
Saida’s home country of Somalia has endured almost thirty years of civil war since the overthrow of President Mohamed Siad Barre’s military regime in 1991. In the ensuing years, pro- and anti-government Islamist insurgent groups have wrestled for power, and millions of Somali civilians have been caught in the crossfire. The ongoing war, coupled with severe drought, displacement, and famine, have wreaked havoc on this small east African nation.
“When the bombs hit, there is nowhere left to flee…
Our countries are starving, and our blood is oozing down the street,
Mothers lose their children in conflict and violence,
Mainstream media turn their head in silence.”
“They hear loud explosions again and again,
When all these kids want is a paper and a pen.”
Somali children concentrate on their learning at a school supported by Unicef in Kobe refugee camp in Ethiopia June 12, 2012. Due to recent poor rain and continuing insecurity, the number of new arrival has increased.
Photo credit: Ethiopia/ Somali refugees / J. Ose / June 2012
Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the conflict in Somalia, from human-rights abuses by opposing military forces to dire living conditions caused by food shortages and drought. Ongoing fighting between the military and al-Shabaab, an armed Islamist terrorist group, along with ongoing clan fights, have forced many Somalis from their homes. But families running to escape the horrors in their villages find new ones on the road and in the makeshift camps. Al-Shabaab targets civilians in suicide attacks and with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They forcibly recruit young boys into the militia. Internally displaced women and girls are often raped, either by militia men and government soldiers. Government airstrikes against the militias rain down on terrorists and civilians alike, killing thousands.
“Their bones are breaking from all their burden,
Their skin is like glass from all the hurting.”
Somalia’s protracted drought has left many in the country malnourished and starving. Fighting has displaced many Somali farmers, leaving them without the land or animals they need to feed their families. Al-Jabaab attacks along supply routes and blockades of towns under government control make it difficult for humanitarian aid groups to deliver much-needed food and water. The latest food security and nutrition analysis from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) states that the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in Somalia will reach 6.2 million by June 2017 — more than half the population.
“They hear loud explosions again and again,
When all these kids want is a paper and a pen.”
By now, many in the audience were in tears. And after Saida uttered her final lines, the crowd erupted into a roar, a rising up of hope, courage, and determination that could be heard reverberating in the farthest reaches of the Capitol building.
Refugees wait for food and water at an aid distribution center in Dadaab
Makeshift housing at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.
Saida reading her poem at the March for Refugees.
Photo credit: SLCVoices
Saida means “happy” in Arabic, and it’s a fitting name for someone who is always smiling. In many ways, this diminutive young woman is a typical teenager. She loves pizza, is described by her sister as “loud,” and can’t seem to cut down on her use of social media despite her best efforts. She’s fashion-conscious (“it takes me two hours to get ready in the morning”) and wants good grades, which, in her words, makes her “kind of a nerd.” She has a YouTube Channel called “Fashion and Beauty” that includes everything from an Everyday Hijab Tutorial to an African Day Vlog.
But she is also a passionate, poetic activist. Although her life in a Kenyan refugee camp as a young child may be a distant memory for her, the struggles she sees today are not, and she feels driven to raise her voice against the hatred, racism, and intolerance that has gripped the country in recent weeks. In a Q&A video she posted on her YouTube channel a year ago — well before the travel ban — Saida exclaimed, “This world is horrible, how we treat each other. We need to start being nicer to people…everybody around the world has a different culture, a different background, and we need to start embracing it.”
We’ve selected a few excerpts from her interview with Women of the World to share with you. We hope you’ll listen to the full interview on our monthly podcast, where you can also hear her recite the poem she read at the Capitol.
Please join Saida and women from around the world for Women of the World’s 2017 Fundraiser: “Modeling Our World” Fashion Show. The International Women’s Day Fashion Show is a chance to learn about refugee women and world culture while enjoying ethnic food and fashions. The show will be held on March 9th at The Leonardo beginning at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are available at womenofworld.org/fashion17tickets.
Where were you born and how did you come to America?
I was born in a refugee camp in Kenya. My mother tried her hardest to come to the United States, not only for me but for my other siblings. She finally got accepted to come, so when I was three years old we packed up and left the only home we’d ever known. I don’t really remember anything of Kenya or the refugee camp. My mother would always tell me stories of the situations that people were in back then, and I’m just thankful that I’m here, and I have the safety and stability that I’ve always wanted. I’m just so grateful to call America my home.
What prompted your family to leave?
We come from Somalia, a war-torn country. I love my homeland, but it was a very dangerous place, so my mother moved us to Kenya. We lived in a refugee camp there for a couple of years. The refugee camps didn’t have a lot of food to share or water to go around. So my mother decided, everybody knows America is the land of the free, and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and we just wanted to be happy. Our mother wanted to give us a better education and a better life, but she didn’t believe that living in a refugee camp was what we were destined to do.
We come from Somalia. It’s a war-torn country. I love my homeland, but it was a very dangerous place, so my mother moved us to Kenya. We lived in a refugee camp there for a couple of years. The refugee camps didn’t have a lot of food to share or water to go around. So my mother decided, everybody knows America is the land of the free, and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and we just wanted to be happy. Our mother wanted to give us a better education and a better life, but she didn’t believe that living in a refugee camp was what we were destined to do.
Do you feel accepted here?
When I went elementary school, I went to a predominantly white school. My high school is mostly predominantly white. But I’ve always felt like I’ve had some sort of connection, some sort of relationship with people, because people just put aside that I’m from a different place. Also, I’ve had a great community with the Somali community and the Muslim community in Salt Lake, and my family has always been a part of that community, so we’ve always had a shoulder to lean on.
Recently, with everything going on, there has been a sort of discomfort everywhere you go, so I don’t really know if I feel welcome sometimes. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. But most of the time, I’m just going along and trying to be a teenager.
What do you think about the travel ban?
I couldn’t believe it when Donald Trump was running for president and he talked about a Muslim ban — it’s in the Constitution, freedom of religion! And to think that I’m from Somalia, and this ban, if Donald Trump had been president ten years ago, I probably wouldn’t be here. How would my life be right now? My mom fled from war and a refugee camp to further my education, and I got to stand up there and read a poem about refugees. What if I had been one of the refugees that hadn’t been able to come in? Then no one would have heard my voice.
A lot of people are frightened and afraid right now.
My family that lives in Somalia, we got phone calls from them, scared, and they didn’t know what was happening. My mom actually scheduled a trip to Kenya before the Muslim ban, and she questioned the whole thing, like, if I go, will I ever be able to come back?
What do you say to the young girls who are scared and come to you? What kind of advice do you give them?
My advice would be not to generalize every single American by what they’re seeing in the media, cause there’s so many that want them here, and so many people who are standing up and trying to stop the ban.
With hate crimes going up since the election, my mom doesn’t want me to go anywhere. And I don’t want to keep living my life like that. I’ve lived most of my life here, and I don’t want to have that weighed against me, like with my (head) covering, oh, be in danger. I shouldn’t be afraid to walk outside my own home.
With hate crimes going up since the election, my mom doesn’t want me to go anywhere. But I don’t want to keep living my life like that. I’ve lived most of my life here, and I don’t want to have that weighed against me, like with my (head) covering, oh, be in danger. I shouldn’t be afraid to walk outside my own home.
I’ve gotten so many text messages from people (my age) like, “Hey, I’m scared, I want to take off the hijab,” and it makes me so sad. They say “I’m scared to go to school, I’m getting weird looks, I’m scared to walk home in hijab, do you have any advice?” And my advice is, look, you should not be terrified about doing something to support yourself. You wear hijab for yourself and your religion and for God, and they cannot stop you from doing that. It’s taking away some of the biggest parts of Islam from these women, they cherish their hijab, they love it…and because of this election, they’re taking it off.
That’s not what America was founded on…It’s about different cultures, different foods, different languages. That’s what America is based on, people immigrating here and combining cultures, and if you take all of that away…You have to remember the roots of the country, you have to remember the roots of yourself. It’s makes me so sad to hear about people changing themselves, because you can be an American and still have your culture.