There was a time in my early twenties that I was finding myself and decided to leave the country. I was in an early life crisis! I was a chronic failure in the boyfriend department and was allergic to cats so I didn’t even have that option! I was getting nowhere with my job which was less than desirable to begin with. I decided to run away from home! I’m from New Jersey-Can you blame me?

I found a job and moved to Nairobi for two years. People generally think it’s sooooo cool that I lived and worked in Kenya for 2 years, that too, during a severe water shortage, and on top of that, with a refugee community. However, if you saw me having a meltdowns over power outages and the sound of mosquitoes swarming outside my mosquito net, you may be less impressed.

I wasn’t always the greatest person out there. Americans weren’t really known for being the most gracious guests in different countries. But my hosts were always gracious and those were the happiest years of my life. I have been very quiet about that time in my life because, after all these years, I still didn’t feel ready to talk a lot of what I experienced. Not from disappointment with the community in Nairobi, but more so disappointment with NGO’s and our extreme prejudices against the people we claimed we traveled over land and sea to serve. However, in light of Trump’s recent executive orders banning immigration of refugees from select war torn nations, I will share more about what my life was like when I was there.

I lived and worked in a Somali community. Many were Refugees because Kenya is a goodwill country, and many were Kenyan Somalis. There is a common mythology in many Western countries that only western countries receive refugees and have government funded refugee programs. This is not true. Many developing countries do this as well.

In that time, when I was far away from home, many Somali people were my colleagues, friends, and became my family.

I was welcomed into the community with open arms. My Somali friends were students, teachers, domestic workers, doctors, mothers, fathers, children, young and old. Lots of my Somali women friends were hella boss, owning and running shops and all kinds of businesses-a portrayal of Somali women the news will never show you. I learned about Somali dance music, rich poetry, and bomb ass Somali food. If you never had camel meat-you are missing out. And the bad-assness of Somali Muslim women’s fashion. There is something so empowering about a vivid rainbow colored tie-dye bourque. And super huge plus-you can have a bad hair day and no one would notice.

Somali society is traditionally nomadic. I heard many stories of the beauty of nomadic life which was destroyed by western imperialism (Somalia was divided and colonized 5 five separate European countries) and civil war. We never get that picture of Somali society here in the west. All we see are bombs and violence. Never the beauty of the culture and heritage that is rapidly being attacked and threatened by cultural genocide.

I was a volunteer English as a second language teacher for Somali Students-mostly refugees-at the Mennonite Center. The students were not much different than me when I was a teenager-worrying about dates and cloths and aspiring to go on to college. Except I had much more unearned privilege. I would forget how different our lives actually were until one of my students would casually recall a day in grammar school when classes were cancelled because a missile blew off the roof of the school house and having to walk home in the midst of bombs raining down from the skies. The same way I talked about missing my train. I may have not grown up as particularly privileged in the American context, but I really am a beneficiary of our global systems of haves or have nots. I would see children, some of them homeless, striving to make it to university. College was always an expectation for me. Something I went into debt to do, but was able to do none-the-less. We all live such different lives. There is no rhyme or reason why some people have so much and some have so little. I will never try to justify injustice. But I will urge all of us that have excess to recognize it and strive to remain empathetic to those who, for no rhyme or reason, happened to be born in places of great devastation.

Seven plus years after I returned to the US, my Somali friends never forgot me and still keep in touch because that is the degree of love and loyalty I experienced there. I also never felt unsafe. I share all this because Somalia is one of the countries in Trump’s executive order. Too many Americans are celebrating at the idea of never receiving another refugee from this region.

Liberals and conservatives alike often portray very monolithic and orientalist pictures of Somali people via news media and NGOs. Hopefully, sharing a glimpse of how I experienced living and working in a Somali community will help challenge these limited narratives. Somali society is diverse and nuanced and not limited to what you see in CNN special reports and in one shitty Tom Hanks movie. You go there and you live there and see that everything the news taught you is wrong. And sure, Somali refugees can tell you this on their own. However, society has a tendency not to believe people who are in need. We would rather hear the negative narrative from people who stand above them. So, often, it takes an outsider like me with seeming status to share the narrative for it to be taken seriously. I hate speaking for someone else. However, I am trying to figure out how to use my privilege responsibly. I have seen refugees on line outside UNHCR desperately seeking refugee status. I stood on those lines with my friends. Many live their whole lives and eventually die waiting on those lines. Only a monster would close their country’s doors to refugees.

Refugees have no track record of bringing harm to America. The crime rates are not higher and there is no evidence that refugee communities weaken our economy. If we are upset about crime and weakened economy, we would do better to shift our focus to wall street.

We are all humans. All from the same origins in Africa. Yet all travel on extremely different trajectories. But, at the end of they day, we all deserve to have our basic needs met, community, home, happiness, and quality of life. Keep your hearts open, minds informed, and be careful not to fall for the single narrative.

Written by | Raja Michael

Raja Michael is a STand-Up Comic, Story Teller, Actor, and Public Speaker based in L.A. She grew up in working class Brooklyn and New Jersey and will always be an East Coast girl deep down inside. Raja was a social service worker most of her adult life, working with domestic violence survivors, homeless families, youth in the foster care system, and refugees, both here in the US and overseas. She moved to LA to attend grad school and realized that it was time to drop the books and grab the mic and she has been making audiences laugh ever since.

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