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Living In Two Worlds: Somalis On Moving To America

photo of Ahmed Abukar and Sahra Abdullahi
Ahmed Abukar and Sahra Abdullahi

Sahra Abdullahi and Ahmed Abukar were born in Somalia and moved to the United States when they were young. Both had a hard time fitting in and navigating American culture.

But while Abukar came with his parents, Abdullahi moved with her aunt, leaving behind her parents and six of her seven siblings. She faced many hardships in her new home and eventually in foster care.

As part of StoryCorps COLUMBUS, the two sat down to talk about their struggles to assimilate, and how they met when Abdullahi moved to Columbus in dire need of assistance. Abukar, a caseworker with Jewish Family Services, connected her to the resources she needed.

For Abukar, being born Somalia but growing up in the United States was like living in two worlds.

"I step outside my house, I'm in America," Abukar says. "I step back inside my house, I'm in Somalia."

Abdullahi felt the same.

"I wanted to live the American life because you had more freedom, more fun," she said. "I mean, eight hours of the day, you're with people that don't look like you. They don't speak like you. So you want to fit in so bad."

It was hard for Abukar to understand why he wasn't accepted by the African Americans he met when he arrived.

"They might not speak the same language as me, but I know they're African," he said.

But his peers didn't see it that way. He would tell his parents, "I can't get along with these kids because they're saying I'm African and they're American."  

Unlike Abukar, Abdullahi didn't have her parents with her. She lived with a relative who she said only took her in for finanacial gain. She says it was not a good situation, and she faced more difficulties after ending up in the foster care system.

"I'm not fitting in with the blacks. I'm not fitting in with the whites. And I'm not fitting in with the Spanish. So when you're thrown into foster care, you are literally the only one," Abdullahi said. "So what I ended up doing is shutting down emotionally." 

When Abdullahi moved to Ohio, her life started moving in a positive direction, thanks in part to help from Abukar and Jewish Family Services. She told Abukar how grateful she is for these resources.

"I really thank the American government for putting in place, you know, organizations such as yours, because if we didn't have that, I would be in a shelter with nothing," she said.

Today, Abdullahi has a job, a car, an apartmant, and a sense of confidence she's never had before.

At the end of the conversation, Abukar asked if she has any regrets.

"Absolutely none," Abdullahi said. "Because everything I went through made me to be the woman that I am. Had I done it any differently, I don't think I would have been the mother that I am today or the daughter that I am today." 

Sahra Abdullahi and Ahmed Abukar were recorded in the StoryCorps mobile recording booth when it was in Columbus in 2019.

To hear more stories from your neighbors, be sure to subscribe to the StoryCorps COLUMBUS podcast on AppleSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Michael De Bonis develops and produces digital content including podcasts, videos, and news stories. He is also the editor of WOSU's award-winning Curious Cbus project. He moved to Columbus in 2012 to work as the producer of All Sides with Ann Fisher, the live news talk show on 89.7 NPR News.