Her Story

When Kaltum Sheikh Ibrahim thinks about her homeland of Somalia, she yearns for two things that have disappeared from the landscape: music and peace. Kaltum grew up singing and dancing in Somalia, a cosmopolitan nation with a broad mix of traditional African, Islamic and Western influences. Kaltum’s talents earned her a spot in Waaberi, Somalia’s famous 300-member singing group attached to its National Theatre. Waaberi toured across Africa and beyond during its heyday.

Its members were known throughout the country, and several, such as internationally acclaimed singer and composer Maryam Mursal, went on to launch solo careers.

But the music stopped 25 years ago. Somalia’s government was overthrown in 1991 and civil war still rages there. Many of the warring militias have ties to Al Shabaab and other fundamentalist groups that have imposed variations of Sharia Law. Secular music is banned altogether in most of the country, and the sight of a woman singing and dancing in mixed company would warrant a swift and merciless death.

Almost overnight, Waaberi went from being a national treasure to a symbol of decadence. The group disbanded and its members scattered across the globe. Kaltum fled to Dubai before eventually landing in Rochester, where she has lived with her younger son for the past 10 years.

Within Rochester’s Somali refugee community, Kaltum still holds some celebrity status, but she says her music career is over. Now in her 50s, she is building a new life—one that has time for something she bypassed in her youth: education.

As a girl in Somalia, Kaltum had no time for school; her singing and dancing came first. As a member of Waaberi she had all the career she would ever need. Today, she is learning English and citizenry through Rochester’s Refugees Helping Refugees.

Speaking through an interpreter, Kaltum said her English is coming along slowly.

“When I go to the store, I can say, ‘How much?’ I can say to my children, ‘I love you.’

Kultam still holds out hope for a day when music might return to her homeland, but 25 years of bloodshed and famine have made it harder to look back.

“I have a good life in America,” she said through the help of an interpreter. “They’ve shown me hospitality. I have opportunities for life—school, home, shelter, hospitals, everything. I still think my country (Somalia) was the best country ever, but not now. Not until they have peace. Now I have a second home here.”