Asha, born in Mogadishu, Somalia on May 5, 1989 to parents who were both born and raised in the city. Her native language is Somali and she is a Sunni Muslim (99.8% of Somalia’s population is Muslim).
What do you remember from your early years in Somalia? “We had a really, really big family. My father had a first family [common place in Muslim culture], so I had a lot of other siblings. My mom was the second wife at the time. I am the 3rd eldest out of 8 kids of my mom’s kids, but my dad has a lot of kids. I liked having a lot of siblings.”
What led to your family’s immigration to the United States? "In 1991, the rebels arrived in the capital and a civil war erupted. The following year, my two older sisters were playing in a park nearby our home. A bomb hit them. One sister (age 7) died and the other was badly wounded. Her leg had to be amputated. My mother waited to see if things would calm down but it did not. By 1994, it was a time of panic. All transportation stopped in the city and we fled on foot. My mother, with encouragement from her brother, who was a U.S. Embassy employee, made a decision to flee our home with only a few belongings. We walked from one city to another, going through different refugee camps. We eventually arrived in Dadaab camp in Kenya [the largest refugee camp in the world].”
What do you remember from the time you lived in the refugee camp? “I remember my mom building the little wood houses we stayed in. We had been so spoiled in Mogadishu. My parents both had really good business set up, so we lived pretty well. To go from living in a home to a straw/wooden “house” in the camp was drastic.”
“I also remember my mom’s absence. There was not enough food at the camp, so she went back to Mogadishu to work. My mom was very scared to go back, but she said her family needed the money, so there was not a choice. She would send money for us to buy food. I clearly remember her absence because there female circumcision ceremonies going and I didn’t want to be a part of them. I wanted her to help me out but instead, I remember running away. I was able to avoid the ceremonies.”
What do you remember about arriving in the U.S.? "We arrived August 20th, 1996 in Seattle, I was 7 years old. I started school just a few weeks after we arrived. Because I was only five when we left Mogadishu, I had never been to school. It was so scary. I remember crying. I had never been separated from my siblings or cousins. It was the first time I ever saw people of different ethnicities.
I started in 2nd grade without knowing any English and because we were the first wave of Somali to arrive in the city, they didn’t have an ESL program.”
“I used to be really aggressive...I was a bully. I didn’t know how to communicate and I didn’t know or understand school rules. I remember going around the classroom, since I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know how to ask for things. If I needed something like a pencil, I would just grab it from someone’s desk. I got taunted so much for my dress and wearing a head scarf. It is hard not knowing the language and then getting taunted. The only way I could express myself was physically. I think once I began picking up the language by 4th grade, I got calmer and learned how to express myself with words.”
How did you go from being the class bully to excelling in school? “My mom would always tell us, ‘You have to excel in school. You have to do your school work.’ She didn’t know any English, but she would still look over our homework, even though she couldn’t make a difference. But she was just giving us that support, you know? My mom, even to this day, she tells me, ‘Asha, when you need help, get the help that you need. Don’t be shy to ask for it.’ I am typically a shy person, but I do ask for help and that has made a big difference.”
“I was always scared [in school]. I tried my best. By the time I got to middle school, I had everything down. I was a little 4.0 student and I didn’t bring anything less than that home. I really worked hard and my teachers were really supportive. If I needed extra help, they would help me.”
"In high school, I took some IB classes. That was interesting because I was the only African, the only Muslim girl in the classes when I started. The divisions in school were clear--Asian kids hung out by themselves, East African kids hung out by themselves, black kids hung out by themselves and in the honors classes the kids were mostly Asian and white. For a long time, I didn't hang out with East African kids because they would say I was a 'sellout' or 'too Americanized'. It was tough. But I continued to work hard. I was in a program, One World Now. If it was not for the founder, Kristin Hayden, I probably wouldn't have pushed myself to apply to the University of Washington. She said to me, 'Asha, you came from a challenging background and you were able to go through so many obstacles and you have the determination to push forward. Make sure, throughout the rest of your high school years, you take honors classes and keep applying yourself so you will be able to go on to college.' I am so grateful for her belief in me and her guidance."
What are you most proud of? "Finishing college and hopefully moving ahead to get a masters in Education."(since our interview, Asha has matriculated into a masters program at the University of Washington)
Why did you decide to study education? "I want to be able to help out somebody who is going through the same struggle that I did. Knowing how it goes to be able to start from nothing..."
What is your favorite thing about Seattle? "Being able to practice my religion freely."
What do you think Americans take for granted? "Being able to practice any religion freely. And being able to move and know people outside your own community...with an American passport you can go places, you can learn, you can step outside freely and come back."
What is the biggest life lesson you have learned along the way? "Understand that everything happens for a reason. If things don't go the way you expect them, maybe it wasn't meant to be that way."
How I came to meet Asha: I was with my family at Gasworks Park. It was one of the first sunny days of the spring that the park was filled with people. As we were about to leave a CRAZY dog broke free from its owner, wildly trampling through three young girls’ hillside picnic. After the dog tore through their spot a few times, my son and I exchanged how rude we thought the owner was to ignore corralling her dog. We then exchanged a few pleasantries and extended our empathy for their ruined picnic. After realizing the girls may be from another country, my son emphatically encouraged me to find out if any of them were born in another country. We were both thrilled to learn that Asha was born in Somalia & was open to being a part of The World in My Backyard.