In some respects, Abdi and his family were among the lucky ones. When civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, they were among the first to flee the country. Abdi’s father had worked for the government and 21-year-old Abdi had a job of his own. They had enough money to rent a car and drive across the border to Kenya. “We saw killing everywhere,” Abdi said. “If the government sees you, they think you are with one of the (militia) groups. If the others see you, they think you are with the government.”
Like most Somalis, Abdi’s family hoped the crisis would be temporary. They arrived with the first wave of refugees accepted into the Dadaab camp, built to accommodate 90,000 Somalis, while the United Nations, the United States and neighboring countries tried to help reestablish a government that could unify warring clans and stave off Al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda attacks. As more than a dozen governmental groups emerged and fell apart, Abdi’s family remained at Dadaab. Hundreds of thousands would die in Somalia, either directly from the fighting or from the disease and famine that accompanied it. Hundreds of thousands of others would make their way to Dadaab, swelling it to more than four times its intended size until it became the world’s largest refugee camp. Both Abdi’s parents died there. His siblings found spouses and had children who have never known life outside the camp.
Abdi made himself useful at Dadaab. Always a strong science student, Abdi found work as a laboratory technician, and his English skills made him a valuable translator for foreign doctors. But the rest of his life, much like that of his home country, entered a holding pattern. Even if he had had the time, Abdi couldn’t imagine trying to start a family inside Dadaab. “Life is difficult (in the camp),” said Abdi. “You go to your job, you go home. You cannot get married and have children. It’s expensive to send them to school. So you forget about it.”
In the fall of 2016, Abdi came to the United States through the UN’s refugee resettlement program. In some ways, the move marked an exciting new beginning. In other ways, it’s merely extended Abdi’s holding pattern. He came with no family members or friends. He lives alone, works at a grocery store and comes to RHR to improve his English and learn more about American citizenship.
“It’s a beautiful country, beautiful people. The only problem here is the snow,” he says with a laugh. But for many refugees—especially those who resettle without families—isolation presents an even greater obstacle than Rochester’s harsh winters. I go to my home. I go to work. I come here,” he says. “I don’t know how to talk to people here. I think too much. Because (in Dadaab), the situation was no good, you couldn’t have a family, a wife, kids. So maybe you worry now.”
Abdi can still remember when Somalia was a beautiful country. As a young man who dreamed of becoming a doctor, Abdi and his friends would go to the renowned National Theatre in the heart of Mogadishu. One of the first structures to be bombed during the war, the site became a prized base for warring militia groups over the years. The first attempt to rebuild the theatre was derailed by a suicide bombing in 2011, but a new renovation effort began this year. Abdi may never make it back to the theatre, but he’s working on his own rebuilding project here in the United States.
“I want to be an American,” he says. “I like having an opportunity to learn more American history and more English. I want to become a citizen.” Abdi says he sometimes smiles and waves at strangers, but he worries that they might be afraid of him. “People think you might not be a good person,” he says. “People don’t know your heart.”