Displaced East Africans Get a Second Chance at Mesa College

Monica Marie Dube, Staff Writer

Due to ongoing civil war and political instability, thousands of East Africans have fled their countries and are making San Diego their new home. In fact, San Diego currently has the second largest population of East African refugees in the entire nation. Looking to further their education, many East Africans are now attending Mesa College with hopes of working toward a bright future.

Ahmed Sahid, president and CEO of the non-profit organization Somali Family Service, estimates that there are approximately 38,000-40,000 East Africans residing in San Diego.  Once a refugee himself, Sahid stated, “When we got here, there wasn’t much of an infrastructure in place, compared with the other refugee populations.”  Somali Family Service was later founded to ease the transition of Somali people and other displaced East Africans into their life in the United States and to provide ongoing community-based support.

Rife with danger and uncertainty, the journey to the U.S. can take months, and sometimes even years. According to Sahid, there are generally two ways in which to carry out the journey.  “For Somalis,” he said, “They are forced to leave their homeland and often go to neighboring countries, like Kenya.”  Once in Kenya, they must apply for refugee status, which can take years to be granted, if at all.

“A very small percentage of people actually get processed,” Sahid said. Otherwise, they must journey on their own across a number of countries, which is often the case for many young people. “These are people who are taking a risk and who have no hope. That person will take the journey through various countries, then through Latin America, and up through the U.S-Mexican border.”

Once at the border, if an individual can successfully prove that they are seeking asylum, they are placed into a detention facility in the meantime. If asylum is granted, individuals without connections in San Diego are typically released onto the streets and left to fend for themselves.

Michael*, a 20-year-old Ethiopian student at Mesa College stated that he “got lucky” when making the journey.  His father worked for the Ethiopian government, and due to political differences, he fled to the U.S. Two years later, his father was able to return to Ethiopia to bring Michael and his brother along.

Others aren’t so lucky. Michael’s uncle, along with some companions, attempted to make the journey to Canada. While his uncle successfully made it to his destination, some of his companions did not, ultimately succumbing to starvation and being killed by gunfire along the way.

Once in the U.S., the struggles don’t stop, as many East Africans find it difficult to adjust to a new culture. Michael stated that he encountered a huge culture-clash. “Everything was different,” he said, “even the dress code was so different and the food we eat. We weren’t confident about ourselves so me and my brother didn’t talk to anyone for almost a year. We didn’t even know what to talk about. If I didn’t have my brother, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Struggles aren’t limited to the younger population. “It’s very hard for the older population too,” Sahid said, “because many of them were the breadwinners in their families. They have all of a sudden been stripped of everything. There are no subsidies in Somalia, and the people are very self-sufficient and don’t want to be on U.S. government support, so they try to open businesses right away, but it’s very different here.”

Thanks to groups like Somali Family Service, many East Africans have experienced success and positive results, and second-generation individuals rarely encounter cultural problems. Zamzam Nour, a 19-year-old student at Mesa College, is a second-generation Somali whose parents fled violence from the civil war in the 1990s. Assimilating into American culture “hasn’t been an issue,” she said.

Despite their harrowing journeys and traumatic experiences, the East African community’s resilience and perseverance has allowed them to succeed.  Sahid stated, “I am most proud of the fact that we have been an agent of change for positive in this community. We’ve seen lots of success, thriving businesses, and a large number of youths obtaining higher education.”  While they haven’t forgotten their past, the East African community has embraced the future with a positive outlook, and has added a rich new culture to both Mesa College and San Diego.

*Due to the sensitive political nature of his comments, Michael’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity.