photo of a mother in a burqa carrying a small child

OPINION: From Somalia to Afghanistan, We Stand With Our Newest Neighbors

by Shukri Olow

Fresh fruits and seafood. White sandy beaches and miles of coastland that rival states like Hawai‘i. Markets that are lively until midnight and youth enjoying the freedom to roam unafraid. These are all experiences that my mother talks about when she recalls life before the civil war in Somalia.

Thirty years ago, a civil war broke out in my birth country. Just a few months before the war, my father died in a tragic car accident. Tensions were palpable and my family continues to believe that his death was planned and intentional. Without even a moment to grieve, at the tender age of 22, my mother — seven months pregnant with three children under the age of four — shifted her strength and energy toward another tragedy: a war that has changed the lives and the trajectories of millions of people, including ours.

I was four. I don’t have too many memories from the conflict. I remember episodes where my father before his death would come home to us beaming with love and joy. He would greet me first because I was his favorite (my siblings still disagree). I remember the taste of sand, as I loved the texture of it as a toddler.

I also remember the hands of people who held ours as my mother fled with three of us, carrying my little sister on her back. Seven months pregnant. I remember the warm shaky hands of people who were just as afraid as we were, running toward uncertainty and hoping to live. I remember the bodies on our path who didn’t make it. I remember the horror and I know that my young brain suppressed some experiences from that trauma to protect itself.

From the time I was four to 10 years old, we spent six years in a refugee camp, praying for an opportunity to find peace and security. We lost the baby my mother was carrying due to malnutrition and nearly lost my younger sister. Fortunately, after six years of fighting with UN officials and proving that my younger sister needed to have urgent heart surgery, my mother was told that we would be resettling in the United States.

In 1996, at the age of 10, I arrived in the state of Texas with my family, with no historical context about our new country. We soon found a home in South King County, in the city of Kent, now the 10th fastest-growing city and 8th most diverse in the country. We were welcomed by educators, including Ms. Kelly at Crestwood Elementary, who extended her love to all of her students in the classroom and beyond. We accessed the food bank and we had social workers connecting us to additional resources in the community. We were surrounded by helpers who met us where we were and helped us envision a brighter future in our new home. Kent is where we found hope. Kent is where we found a sense of belonging, a sense of safety. Kent is where I went to school, bought a home, raised children, received a doctorate, and made my community.

Now, as I did over 20 years ago, new refugees from Afghanistan will be calling Kent and South King County home over the coming days and months, and more are looking to find their sense of safety here, too. 

This week, many of us have been horrified by the images of people fleeing, falling from planes, and risking death because what’s waiting for them on the ground is too uncertain — that fear penetrating through the bodies of grown men, women, and children is all too familiar. I felt that fear. I know that fear. Growing up in this community, I have realized that what is greater than that fear is love. What is greater than that fear is compassion. What is greater than that fear is a community with open hands and an open heart. 

I know and have felt the deep sense of care that this community has the capacity for and I’m calling on our South King County neighbors to extend the same grace and compassion to our newly arriving siblings from Afghanistan. My hope is that we set aside our judgment and prejudices and we invite our better selves to see our shared humanity — to see that our fates are interconnected and so is our destiny.

Many are already doing that work right here in our community and have shared the burden being felt in the Afghan diaspora. The Afghan Health Initiative anticipates unmet needs, particularly including transportation, food, and basic requirements. 

How you can help:

In the words of the Somali poet Warsan Shire

No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear 
saying — 
run away from me now 
i don’t know what I’ve become 
but I know that anywhere is 
safer than here 

Let here be their refuge.

Dr. Shukri Olow is a former refugee from Somalia. She lives in Kent with her family.

📸 Featured Image: Afghan refugee in Iran is attributed to the EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Flickr account under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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