Start by giving us a little background. Who are you? Where did you come from? Why did you come? When did you come? With whom? How did you get here and was the trip long?
My name is Khadija Ali, and I’m a mom. I have two beautiful daughters of whom I am so proud. I’m also a businesswoman. I started my own company, Global Language Connections, in 2015, where I currently serve as CEO. I’m a friend. I’m a daughter. I live in Edina, Minnesota. I love my community and I love what I do. I’m also a refugee.
My life began on the opposite side of the planet. I was born in Africa, in a city called Mogadishu, Somalia. I had a loving family and a safe, happy life with a real sense of community. We lived in a lovely house, with a beautiful sunny courtyard where we played. My father was a politician, my mother was a successful businesswoman.
When I was 8 years old, at school with my sisters and brothers like I was every other day, my Uncle came to get us and told us we had to come home immediately. He said the city was “under curfew” and in a “state of emergency”. The next morning, we got in the car and left. With nothing. We thought it was a temporary situation, that we’d be able to return in a short time. But I’ve never seen that house again.
We made our way to another city in Somalia called Kismaayo. There was a civil war and my parents were on the opposite side of the clan that was in power and were placed under house arrest. It wasn’t safe for girls, so they shaved my head and dressed me like a boy so I could do the daily shopping in the market.
Eventually, we made our way to Kenya. We crossed the border, hidden by the dark. It took all night to make this difficult journey. During our journey to Kenya, my family was separated. For much of the trip into Kenya, it was only my mother, me, and my two sisters. My mother was arrested by Kenyan immigration and taken away. I ended up taking care of my sisters – one was 3 years old and one was only a month old – for several days. We stayed in the market in Garissa. We didn’t speak their language – Swahili – and we didn’t recognize their food when strangers offered it to us. I remember falling asleep when it was hot and waking up when it was cold and wet.
One cold, wet morning waking up in that market in Kenya with my toddler and infant sister, a woman in the market asked me in Somali what we were doing and if she could help us. Through the efforts of that one individual woman, she was able to reunite my sisters and me with our mother. This woman did not care who we were, where we were from, or why we were in the market that morning; she only wanted to help us.
After being reunited with my mom, we were eventually taken to a refugee camp where we lived until I was 13 years old. As refugees, we were isolated from civilization. With no idea what was happening in our own country, not to mention the rest of the world, we felt alone. We did not have proper food, shelter, let alone access to education. I had an amazing mother who was able to transcend all the bad and protect me and my siblings emotionally. She gave us hope and a life to live, but those years in the refugee camp were hard.
What was it like when you arrived in the U.S? How did you feel upon arrival?
When you’re a child refugee, there is so much uncertainty. Nobody tells you anything. My mother was able to protect us from the unknowns as much as possible but we didn’t have a plan for when being a refugee would end because the plan was never to become a refugee.
We knew nothing about the US. As a child, you aren’t thinking about other countries or places outside of your small world. I had no preconceived ideas about the US but it didn’t feel like I was coming home. I think that I handled the transition well once we arrived. I remember that I was excited to see my sister who had immigrated to the US several years prior.
Growing up as a refugee, what were some of the challenges or obstacles you faced, and how did you overcome them?
There wasn’t any traditional school and I loved school; it was the place to see friends. We received some informal instruction, but we didn’t have uniforms or school lunches as we did in Somalia. I missed the lack of structure.
What are some of the stereotypes and misconceptions about refugees in the U.S that you’ve had to confront?
People often believe that we somehow wanted to leave our country and we didn’t have a life before being a refugee. That we hated our homes. People expect that we are glad to be here. That we chose to leave a war-torn country. People assume that we wanted to leave. I had a normal life in Somalia - we traveled and took vacations and would see my grandma during summer break. We went camping. We had a normal childhood. We had routines and traditions and cultures. It wasn’t a choice to come here.
How can we empower immigrant and refugee youth in a country full of political tension and bigotry? Why is this important?
Internationally, the number of people forced to flee their homes has hit a historic high. Currently, there are more than 70 million people displaced from their homes by war, persecution, and conflict; that is more displaced people today than in the last three decades combined. This is deeply worrying, and it says a lot about the peace and security of our world.
Most every refugee in this world has nothing and is cut off from his or her home. This was my experience, and I am one of the lucky ones who received the generosity of humanity. I speak as someone striving to represent all those who’ve been displaced, who’ve been isolated from their home and don’t have a voice.
Given the extremely high numbers of world-wide refugees and our current policies in treating such individuals when they arrive at our country’s borders, something must change.
What is your definition of success? What gives you energy and motivation?
Being in an environment with support and opportunity that allows you to become the person you want to be is my definition of success. In Somalia, we had it all (the big house and money) and we lost it all, but I always had people around me who believed in me and we were all able to find success here.
As a mom and a woman and entrepreneur, being healthy and safe is my motivation. Being healthy and safe allows me to prosper and be who I want to be.
What would you say have been some of your biggest accomplishments since coming to this country?
Overcoming cultural and language barriers. Being able to give back and support my community.
Giving birth to my daughters.
Why is America so special and how can they empower refugees?
We should not be using refugees as an object or idea to manipulate and promote fear; instead, refugees should be seen as an opportunity to help better the life of another individual, refugees should be seen as an opportunity for neighbors to work together to help a community in need. Refugees should be seen as an opportunity to create stronger, more diverse communities in which we all live.
We need to create better systems to handle refugee populations that are already here and for those coming in. We need long term solutions. We need policies that support local communities and the local governments most often interacting with refugees and immigrants on a daily basis.
We must work together as citizens of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the US for a more stable world beyond our borders. These are difficult times that call for strong actions. We need accountability amongst our elected leaders and cooperation with our neighbors for the betterment of humanity.
I would tell them that you don’t have to change who you are for anyone. Your uniqueness and experiences make your life so much more colorful. Being a refugee is a badge of honor. It shows that you have the grit to build the life you want. Often, we struggle to find resources but we all want to reach our aspirations.
What advice would you give other refugees growing up and trying to find their place in a new country?
I would tell them that you're not less than anyone. You will eventually learn the language and understand the culture.
I would tell them that your beauty as a refugee brings so much beauty to the community so don’t change who you are and don’t change your experience. There will be so many people who will love and support you for who you are, so go and find them.
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