Mahamud Abdi had seen the worst of war and humanity in his native Somalia by the time he was 11 and found himself in a sixth grade classroom in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood in 1994.
He did not know English, and was confused and afraid in a new country.
“You literally walk into class feeling like you’re deaf,” he said. “You can hear, but what are you hearing?”
Back then, Abdi and his family, including his grandmother and 12 siblings, lived in a tiny three-bedroom apartment. The boy faced bullying, gangs and academic pressures. Another refugee, Abdiweli Heibeh, came to speak at school and inspired him.
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Now 30, Abdi is in graduate school for health administration at University of California, San Diego, and volunteers as a mentor at the East African Community and Cultural Center, where he hopes to instill the same sense of purpose in other youth. The nonprofit center, founded by Heibeh in 2008, serves East African youths and families in City Heights, east of downtown.
San Diego is home to about 30,000 refugees from Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea and other parts of East Africa, one of the largest concentrations in the nation. Many have settled in City Heights, known for its cultural diversity, poverty and crime.
The migration began with Ethiopians in the early 1980s and continued with Somalis in the early 1990s after civil wars broke out, forcing many to flee their homeland, said Bob Montgomery, executive director of the San Diego office of the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency. Somalis make up the largest group of East Africans in San Diego, with about 15,000, he said.
The committee assists all refugees, including through youth programs that offer tutoring, leadership development and career exploration.
Though they leave war behind, life in the U.S. means overcoming new challenges: learning English, obtaining schooling or a job, learning to drive and making enough money to support themselves and family.
Additionally, many East African refugees have stayed in refugee camps, often in Kenya, for years. For children, that means years of interrupted education, Montgomery said.
There also are struggles that are harder to talk about, like overcoming culture shock, trauma, depression and differences in gender roles within families between the homeland and America. In Somalia, men are the breadwinners, but when they come to the U.S. they can feel inferior if they face unemployment and their wives take jobs, Heibeh said.
Heibeh knows firsthand about the problems refugees encounter. He faced the same issues when he arrived in the U.S. in 1986 from Somalia. The process of seeking political asylum and assimilating to U.S. culture took time.
Creating a support base for refugees was crucial to Heibeh, who did not know where to seek help when he came here.
“I wanted to help my fellow refugees to not make the same mistakes I did,” he said.
Heibeh has become a role model to many because of his path to success.
Early on, he was a part-time interpreter for the courthouse, then a civilian community service officer, eventually completing the police academy and rising to detective. He was the first Somali American officer to join the San Diego Police Department.
He retired from the department because of a back injury and now focuses on the center, using his experience to help youths avoid the temptation of crime and gangs. Through the center, he has started a youth mentoring program where young Somalis in college and graduate school meet one-on-one during the school year with refugees in high school and middle school.
Heibeh matches the volunteer mentors to the youths based on need and experience on problems ranging from trouble with grades and how to apply to college to dealing with trauma from their past and getting off drugs. He also provides mediation between East African parents and youths who are growing up American.
More recently, he helped start regular roundtable discussions with the office of U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy, the FBI and community groups to improve communication and relationships. Among the group’s concerns are barriers that prevent youths from going to school, along with bullying and gang recruitment, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Burkhardt.
“We needed to create dialogue and build trust,” Burkhardt said.
One hope is people will feel more comfortable coming forward if they are victimized by crime or if they suspect criminal activity, she said.
Heibeh said another goal is radicalization prevention to deter young Somalis raised in America from joining Islamic extremist groups.
In February, four men, all immigrants from Somalia, were convicted by a federal jury in San Diego of conspiracy to provide material support to the terrorist group al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the Kenyan mall attack in September. There have been more reports of Somalis in Minnesota becoming linked with this group.
When youths have run-ins with the law, landing on probation or in jail, they are vulnerable to radicalization, Heibeh said. Groups recruit young, isolated Somalis in prison and through the Internet, he said. These recruits may have never been to their parents’ homeland or left at a very young age.
“They don’t talk to their families because they disappointed them,” he said. “They feel a sense of uselessness that nobody cares about them, so they spend a lot of time on the Internet.”
On a recent Saturday at the center, children tossed a ball while their parents took part in a health fair or a language class upstairs.
By afternoon, a mother, her head covered by a red hijab scarf with beading that sparkled, distributed pizza slices to a throng of attentive children. Laughter mixed with Somali and English words filled the room.
Many problems that Somali refugee youths face today are similar to those faced by children who arrived in the mid-1990s, Abdi said.
Abdi’s family came to San Diego after about two years in a camp in Kenya. Before the camp, his family often walked by night, hungry, dodging militia gunfire and seeking safety after the war broke out.
It took time to build confidence, but when Abdi was a high school junior he said he felt a sense of urgency about the future. At community college, he said he stumbled, but found his footing by the time he transferred to San Diego State University, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in social science.
The boys Abdi advises face pressures like cyberbullying, ethnic tensions, academic expectations from teachers and parents and intense economic hardships.
“Kids will tell you, ‘My father cannot sit down with me because he is driving a cab for 12 hours,’” Abdi said. “I try to motivate them … The only way you get there is you actually do the work. Seek help. You don’t know everything.”
Abdi urges students to use the stronger support system available to them now.
For instance, the San Diego Unified School District formed the Somali District Task Force in 2006 to better address the needs of Somali families. Somali parents were “feeling unheard and unvalidated,” said Agin Shaheed, the district’s program manager for race, human relations and advocacy.
Regular meetings between top school district and law enforcement officials, Somali community groups and families helped develop culturally relevant curriculum, language proficiency and goals that bolstered student and parent engagement, he said.
But in a large, diverse area, the need to communicate often and promote empathy remains.
“Every case is not the same,” Heibeh said. “The key is education, education and education.”
Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.