When you live your whole life as an outsider, you learn to look deep inside to figure out who you are. Rukia Abdimajor has a hard time finding ready-made labels that fit her. Is she Somali? Kenyan? American? African-American? She just graduated as valedictorian of her class at Rochester’s prestigious Joseph C. Wilson Magnate High School, but she’ll tell you she’s no genius. She’s Muslim, but she doesn’t expect most of her friends and classmates to understand what that means.
Adimajor will let other people worry about the categories; she’s too busy planning her future.
“At the end of the day, you need to know your purpose,” she says.
Abdimajor had to search for that purpose growing up among thousands of Somali refugees who fled civil war in their country and landed in Kenya’s Kakuma camp. Her parents were among the first wave.
The Abdimajors are determined people. Rukia’s mother still carries the bullet that struck her near the breast as she was fleeing Somalia, pregnant with twins, shortly after war broke out. She gave birth along the way, then picked up and moved on. She and her husband would be stuck in Kakuma for more than 15 years, raising eight children and hoping each day for a chance to start a new life.
Rukia lived her first 10 years at Kakuma, but it never felt like home.
“You’re confused, because you don’t know if you belong here or there,” she says of her time among the more than 150,000 refugees at the camp. “You’re living in somebody else’s country, so now you have to learn survival skills. There are a lot of struggles—violence and discrimination. You have to find a way to get back up and keep going.”
Rukia’s mother made escaping Kakuma her daily mission. After filling out all the necessary paperwork and completing background checks and interviews, only to being turned down in their first request for resettlement abroad, she began walking every day to the processing center and standing in line, waiting for a chance to make a case for her family. Her determination finally paid off in 2009, when they received permission to come to the United States.
At the time, Rukia didn’t know any English and had received minimal schooling, but she had learned something more important: how to survive and adapt without surrendering her identity.
“Coming here, you think, ‘I’m going to live the American Dream.’ But there’s still struggles; there’s still discrimination. Now, you have to learn another language. Now, you have to go to school and try to interact with people you’ve never seen before.”
Rukia has settled into a life that lies somewhere between her Somali roots and her American home. At first glance, she looks like a traditional Somali woman, donned in a hijab and long dress and wearing no makeup. But her voice is straight out of downtown Rochester, and her plans come straight from that American dream: college and a career in the medical field, with no intentions of marrying and starting a family in the immediate future.
“I don’t want to be a housewife,” she says with a laugh. “I’m too hyped to stay inside!”
Her first priority is to take care of her parents, who quickly discovered that they would have to find jobs on their own in Rochester, despite their lack of language skills and local contacts. Then they learned that bringing in a modest income meant giving up the government assistance they had initially received. Rukia found a job of her own, but she’s figured out that her family will never gain any traction unless she and her siblings can pull them forward.
“A minimum wage job is not going to cut it,” she says of her career plans. “I have to get a better job so that I can help (my parents) out. I can never repay them for what they’ve done for me.”
Simply getting Rukia to America was only part of her parents’ gift to her. They also instilled in her an unshakable set of values and a love of the Somali culture that Rukia never got to fully experience.
“That’s what I value. It’s what I hold dear to me,” she says. “There are a lot of people who’ve come here from different countries who’ve forgotten their own cultures, their own roots. But it’s like, you don’t have to change for nobody. You can still be who you are and still fit in. This is how I carry myself every day. I don’t need to look like that person sitting next to me. I don’t need to act like that person.”
Rukia’s parents lag behind their children in learning English, and they knew nothing about the American education system when they arrived. But their daughter caught on quickly. In addition to learning her lessons in school, she learned to choose her friends wisely.
“In high school, there’s a lot of fakeness, there’s a lot of drama,” she says. “At the end of the day, you control who you want to be with. You can’t be with a bad crowd, because you will become one of them.”
Although she graduated at the top of a class of 208 students at one of Rochester’s most academically advanced schools, Adbimajor isn’t impressed by her intellectual gifts.
“To be no. 1, you don’t have to be smart,” she says. “Kids don’t understand that. You need a little bit of smartness, but you need to work hard and try not to settle for less. I’m not great, but I’m still learning, each day that goes by.”
Abdimajor has learned a lot about her new home, but she’s surrounded by people who understand nothing about the world she left behind. Few of her classmates even knew that she had grown up in a refugee camp, and whenever she hears about a terrorist attack anywhere in the world, she knows she can expect suspicious looks from strangers and confused questions from acquaintances.
“It’s like, a Muslim does something; now we’re all terrorists,” she says. “That’s what we have to put up with at school. Look, I understand that 9/11 happened, but I had nothing to do with it, so why are you punishing me?
“And now they’re talking crap about refugees. Like, with the Syrian refugees, they’re not going to let in people who, I was once in their shoes. They need help. They had nothing to do with what was happening. Now you’re punishing innocent people.”
Although Abdimajor has close friends who are Americans, she’s frustrated by many of her peers’ lack of empathy and understanding for the world beyond their borders.
“They don’t know anything. They’re not open to anything. Their minds are closed,” she says.
The recent shooting in Orlando brought a new round of questions from Abdimajor’s classmates and put her on the defensive once again.
“They’re all like, ‘So Muslims are really against gay people?’ and I’m like, ‘No! Why is that only some people are doing this? These are radical Muslims, not Muslims. They’re just using the name to get by, and they’re interpreting what the actual teaching is into something they want.’
“That’s where education needs to come in. Kids need to be educated to things that happen outside their own countries. They’re not exposed to that, and most don’t even know American history.”
But Abdimajor learned long ago that, if you know yourself, it doesn’t matter how other people see you.
“It’s all labels,” she says, “and I try not to get into that. If you think you’re right, that’s fine. I don’t need to get into arguing.”
She’s got more important things to do. School. Family. Career. Abdimajor knows how she wants to fit in.
“I want to give back to people who are suffering,” she says. “I was once in their shoes. I know how it feels to have nothing. I don’t have much now, but one day I will.”