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October 2nd, 2002 Amy Roe | News Stories
 

Out of Africa

The conflicted worlds of Muslim refugee Mohamud Abi.

     
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Mohamud Abi, a 22-year-old refugee from Somalia, is sitting on a cream-colored sofa in his sparsely decorated, one-bedroom Portland State University dorm, flipping through photo albums with a guest. In one photo, he stands next to a girl at a bar in Portland. On the next page is a snapshot of Abi, taken a few years earlier. In this picture he is standing alone outside his home in Mogadishu, holding an AK-47 automatic rifle.

It is the picture of him with the girl--not the gun--that embarrasses Abi.

Abi, a junior at Portland State University, is Muslim. According to Islamic law, he is not supposed to date, drink or smoke. While he swears that neither tobacco nor alcohol passes his lips, the temptation of girls has been hard to resist. He exudes the unmistakable musk of Drakkar Noir; on the wall behind his sofa he has hung a calendar with a girl in a bikini.

Abi is one of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Muslims in the Portland metro area and one of about 3,000 Somalis, nearly all of whom are Muslim. Since arriving in the U.S. in 1998, Abi has tried to find his place in a community of refugees, and of college students. He has attempted to keep one foot in the culture of his native land and the other in the customs of his newfound home. He doesn't eat pork, in keeping with Muslim tradition, but when he goes to nightclubs he likes to wear gold chains around his neck, though such adornment is forbidden in Islam. He condemns homosexuality, which is prohibited in the Islamic faith, but he likes to dance, which is frowned upon by conservative Muslims.

Bridging two worlds is never easy. The events following Sept. 11 have made it ever more difficult.

As refugees go, Abi hit the jackpot. Not only did he gain entrance and permanent residence in one of the world's most coveted locations, but he also gets to stay. Thousands of refugees who left Somalia in the 1990s for neighboring countries are now being repatriated. Abi is too far away for repatriation, and besides, he says, he doesn't want to go back. He is home now.

There are many who would have little sympathy for Abi, who received an all-expenses-paid trip to America and has existed on financial assistance from the federal government ever since. He is reaping the benefits that continue to make this country the most attractive place on the globe for foreigners. In truth, with a car, an apartment and enough to eat, he lives better than many Americans do. And he feels entitled to it. After all, he reasons, America is a wealthy nation.

At the same time, however, it is easy to understand how America in general, and Portland in particular, now seems inhospitable to him. He wants to blend in, but with the recent scrutiny of the tiny community to which he belongs, he is conspicuous. He feels as though he is being watched, like someone--the FBI, the INS--is just waiting for him to mess up.

Sometimes he even jokes about this, in a kind of dark humor that has become popular among his Somali friends. For example, a guest asks for paper towels, only to find they are in Abi's car. Everything is kept in his car, Abi quips, in case he needs to make a getaway from the authorities.

On a recent Friday, Abi was driving his car, a battered red Kia sedan, to Masjed As-Saber, otherwise known as the Islamic Center of Portland. A hip-hop station played on the radio. Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, a requirement that Abi rarely fulfills, though he plans to, he says, with a laugh, "starting tomorrow."

Masjed As-Saber became nationally famous earlier this month when imam, or leader, Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye was arrested Sept. 8 at the airport by members of the Joint Terrorist Task Force on the little-used charge of Social Security fraud. He had with him a checkbook bearing a variation on his name, along with several thousand dollars in cash. Traces of substances suspected to be TNT and cocaine were detected in a bag with his brother's nametag, but tests of these later turned up negative. Kariye is being held without bail pending his Nov. 5 trial date.

Abi never met Kariye, but as a member of the mosque the imam led, he says he knew of him as a decent, holy man. (In Islam, it is forbidden to speak ill of another Muslim.) He thinks the charges are trumped up, and when he speaks of this, indignation bubbles out. He doesn't have the vocabulary in English to describe it, he says.

Even on his way to pray, Abi fumes with little provocation. He is an impatient driver, and when an accident blocks the highway near the entrance to the mosque, Abi impatiently swerves around it, yelling at the drivers who have paused to look. He can be a little self-righteous, and a friend in the passenger seat reminds him of this. "If we could all be like you," she chides, "then we would all be perfect."

In November of last year, Sen. Gordon Smith revealed that an intelligence briefing had provided evidence that Portland State University harbored sympathizers who raised funds for terrorists. The news angered students, and Abi was one of the most aggrieved.

As vice-president of the Association of African Students, Abi had helped organize three fundraising events at PSU to help Education Without Borders, a local nonprofit aid group, raise money to send books and computers to the University of Hargeisa in Somaliland. For one event, Abi put together a PowerPoint presentation on Somalia.

While Smith offered no evidence to support his claim, it is true that since the Sept. 11 attacks last year, U.S. agencies have been investigating international charities for alleged ties to terrorism. In November, the U.S. Treasury Department shut down Al Barakaat, Somalia's largest financial institution. The money-wiring service had transferred billions of dollars into the country. A Seattle halwah, or wire-transfer service, was also shut down last year, though no charges against it have been filed.

In May of this year, Abi was working at his job in the campus multicultural center, in a makeshift office in the PSU student center, when two casually dressed women showed up and flashed their badges. One was FBI, the other INS.

He says the women said they knew Abi knew everything that was going on in Washington, D.C., and that he knew Osama bin Laden was living in the U.S. before Sept. 11.

"There was no smile on their face," he says.

Abi wanted to laugh from nervousness, and from disbelief. Like most Americans, he hadn't even heard of bin Laden before the terrorist attacks, he says. He kept a straight face and denied any involvement, not thinking to refuse comment or request a lawyer. Before they left, the women gave a warning that, to Abi, felt like a threat. "They said if they find out something more, they're going to come back."

One of nine children, Abi was 11 when civil war broke out in his homeland of Somalia. A sliver of a nation on the Horn of Africa, it is one of the world's poorest countries. Almost a million Somalis fled the country during the bloodshed of the early 1990s; Abi was among them. He had been living with his grandparents, not far from the arms market in Mogadishu where machine guns were freely bought and sold; like most households in the city, his had a rifle. Abi remembers a helicopter coming so close to his roof that it tore it off. He woke up to the horrible sound, and looked up to find a hole in the ceiling, the early-morning sky still dark above him.

His grandfather bought him a one-way plane ticket to Kenya, where he lived for two years in a refugee camp.

His sister put his name on a refugee register in Kenya before he arrived, which made it possible to get out sooner. He was assigned to the United States.

With help from a church-sponsored refugee program, in 1998 Abi arrived in Memphis, where he befriended a fellow refugee from Bosnia. Abi says his friend received a better apartment than he did, but what really upset him was when his Bosnian friend enrolled in college after three weeks. Abi wanted to go to school, too. He'd had little education since he left Somalia; there were no books or desks at his Kenyan refugee camp. His refugee agency encouraged the 18-year-old to find work instead. He remembers it as his first taste of racial discrimination. Frustrated, he decided to move to Portland, where his older sister lives with her husband. He arrived here on a Greyhound bus later that year.

He signed up with a temporary agency and worked warehouse jobs. Abi enjoyed the camaraderie of manual labor. He says his co-workers took great interest in him.

But Abi aspired to more than day labor. He was hindered by a language barrier. (Abi's mother tongue is Somali, an ancient language that was unwritten until it was assigned Latin characters in 1972.) He also suffered from an incomplete education; he took the general education test three times before he could enroll at Portland Community College. He took remedial classes there until 1999, when he entered PSU as a freshman.

His determination impressed Dan Shea, co-founder of Education Without Borders. Shea remembers when Abi had to make a speech at one of the fundraising events the Association of African Students co-sponsored. Abi's English wasn't good, and he sounded nervous. He could barely find the words. "He was just trying to say things and was having such a difficult time. It was just one word at a time. But he had the courage to go through with it," remembers Shea. "Terrific courage."

Now Abi survives on financial aid, a small loan and an 18-hour-a-week job as an office assistant that pays about $7 an hour. He splits the $605 rent and other expenses with his roommate, a student from neighboring Eritrea who is Christian. Whoever happens to have money pays for things--there is no American-style divvying up, he says.

While Abi projects the laid-back demeanor of a typical college student, just below the surface simmer intensely conflicted feelings about America. On the one hand, it is a land of boundless opportunity, even for refugees. A striver himself, Abi appreciates the self-determination and upward mobility he sees in the U.S.

At the same time, he will gladly bite the hand that has fed him. Abi holds the United States at least partly responsible for civilian casualties during the nation's intervention in the civil wars that racked his homeland. Operation Restore Hope, the 1992-1994 U.S. peacekeeping mission in Somalia, was of questionable help to Somalis, Abi says. He says the United States intervened in Somalia under the pretext of humanitarian aid, but also had another motive--controlling the tiny nation's natural gas and oil.

(Abi appears to be misinformed. While Somalia boasts a strategic location on the horn of Africa, just 160 miles across the Gulf of Aden from the Middle East, Somalia has no oil or natural gas. Abi claims the resources are there, but the wells have not been drilled: "I'm not sure, that's what my grandfather told me.")

Abi's opposition to Operation Restore Hope puts him in another precarious position. It gives him something in common with al Qaeda, which opposed the involvement of United States armed forces in the Gulf War in 1991 and in Somalia. Both were viewed by al Qaeda as a precursor to U.S. occupation of Islamic nations. It is widely believed that in 1993 bin Laden sent one of his lieutenants, Mohamed Atef, to Somalia to plot attacks on American military engaged in humanitarian aid and famine relief.

Subsequently, bin Laden claimed responsibility for the deaths of 18 U.S. servicemen killed in Somalia in 1994.

While the details are sketchy to Abi, he is aware of the link between al Qaeda and Somalia. It worries him, but he is not about to censor himself. On the contrary, he is quick to point to the racism and hypocrisy within "the system." He is currently reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Unlike other Muslims, Abi sees the world in terms of racial, not religious, discrimination. "It doesn't matter whether I'm African or African-American--I'm black," he says.

This fact informs everything for Abi. For example, he says when he started school in the U.S. he noticed that minority students have to work harder than their white classmates. "You have to work double," he says. "You have to do double shift to become equal to a white person."

He was surprised to find American students were oblivious to their own history. "From middle school to high school, they only teach Civil War, they don't teach black history."

Outspoken and stubborn, Abi tried to fill in the gaps. He says he often got into debates with fellow students who, he felt, were unwilling to acknowledge his take on racial oppression in America. He doesn't take such disagreements personally, but he fears that one white student in one of his classes felt he was attacking her personally, not simply stating his point of view.

He says he told her, "I am the person that used to be your slave. Your history was to be the master. My history was to be the slave."

As an African, he considers the legacy of slavery, in America and elsewhere, as his identity. "That past is my history, and I'm going to keep it with me 'til I die," he says.

He wonders if there's any point in explaining this to some of his classmates, whom he sees as too obstinate to understand him. "Some of them just don't want to accept it," he says.

But that is not what really gets him steamed. "What I hate the most is when they ask if you are a basketball player, football player," he says. Is it that unusual, he wonders, for a black student to be a scholar and not an athlete?

The questions don't end there. Why, he wonders, is Eminem given a soapbox with which to explain his youth, when black rap stars never get to talk about their past? Why does the reality-TV show COPS always portray blacks as criminals?

Although critical of the media, Abi is perversely drawn to it. Sometimes he watches three network and local news broadcasts each night. He flips back and forth between the channels, favoring ABC. "Propaganda," he says derisively, fingering the remote.

Because American media tend to ignore African news, he often visits websites of foreign news organizations such as the BBC. Abi is convinced most Americans don't care about what happens in Africa.

In fact, he wrote in a class journal entry, "Most of the world would mourn the entire country of Somalia's passing with the same universal sense of sadness that most people would feel at the passing of a wounded badger that had taken up residence in their garage."

At the same time, Abi doesn't find American culture vulgar or immoral. He likes the rap music of Tupac Shakur, and any music that has meaning, he says. For laughs, he sometimes watches Christian evangelists, much to the chagrin of his friends and his roommate. They don't like the gospel music or preaching. Abi just thinks it's amusing.

He also watches movies. Tapes from Blockbuster are stacked on his VCR: We Were Soldiers, Lord of the Rings, Boyz N the Hood. Abi can't comprehend why people would connect his religion with censorship or hatred of Americans and their culture. Terrorists are not true Muslims, he says. For him, Mecca and Hollywood are not at opposite poles. "I don't really relate Islam to that," Abi says. "I'm a normal person who goes to movies."


The Republic of Somalia was formed in 1960 when former British, French and Italian protectorates gained independence within a few days of each other. (Many older Somalis now living in Portland also speak Italian.)



In 1996, the most recent year for which data are available, a United Nations development report ranked Somalia at No. 172--the least developed nation on Earth.



The events surrounding 9/11 prompted Abi to change his major from computer science to political science.



In his spare time, Abi likes to play pick-up games of soccer with other Somalis.



In Somalia, Abi had a part-time job at a pharmacy.



Somalia's Northwestern region declared itself independent Somaliland in May 1991, but the U.S. has yet to recognize it as an independent nation. Its capitol is Hargeisa.



Abi had a poster of Duran Duran on the wall of his bedroom in Mogadishu because he thought it looked cool. To this day, he has never heard the group's music.



Abi disliked Black Hawk Down, the 2001 film about Army Rangers' debacle in Somalia, because he felt the movie gave short shrift to the suffering of Somali civilians.
 
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