Somalis flee civil conflict to face new challenges in Memphis

Hamdiyo Abdullahi, 19, says she remembers celebrating Ramadan with her family back in Somalia before relocating to Memphis. Abdullahi has been with the Refugee Empowerment Program since her family moved to Memphis 14 years ago.

By Lois Charm and Lee Watkins

Inside the Binghamton community lies a small segment of Somalis, who overcame the daunting task of escaping the civil war in their country to resettle in America.

But once these immigrants arrived in Memphis, they faced another difficult struggle: starting their lives back over.

Mahad Farrah, 62, along with his wife and son, resettled in Memphis over a year ago.  Before coming to Memphis, Farrah and his family fled to a refugee camp in Ethiopia after escaping the Somalian Civil War, and they lived there for 10 years.  Farrah wanted to come to the United States to seek a better life.

“We came here to get American citizenship; to move around freely,” he said.   “Our security is very good, much better than Africa.  Our children who are brought up here take advantage of the country’s resources.”

Farrah and his family are three of the estimated 911 Somalis who resettled in Tennessee between 2012 and 2015, according to the  Office of Refugee Resettlement. Furthermore, an estimated 102,393 Somali refugees settled in the U.S. between 2001 and 2016 according to the Refugee Processing Center by the U.S. Department of State .

The city of Memphis has several programs to help assist Somalis in areas such as language, employment and education.

One of these programs is the Refugee Empowerment Program. Founded in 2007, its office is located in the Binghamton area and serves between 200 and 400 refugees a year by offering tutoring for children in grades pre-K to 12 grade, ESL classes for adults, and a reading program for its students.

As the executive director of the Refugee Empowerment Program, Cam Echols assists refugees from all over the world who settle in Memphis. Echols has been with the organization for 14 years now.

“I got involved in the work I do because I’m passionate about meeting new people and making them feel a part of the community,” she said. “In this city, I think we see things so black and white that we don’t realize that we have a rich culture of immigrants and refugees that are here.”

Handia Abbas, 37: “Basically for me, I’ve never had any problems living in Memphis. I’ve never had any bad or negative experiences from anybody. Everyone here has been very supportive.” 

Another program is Asha’s Refuge, which was named after a Somali refugee who escaped the dangers of the civil war back home.  Once Asha arrived in Memphis, she was soon introduced to Jamie Jones, who founded the organization in her name.

For Jones, Asha’s Refuge serves as a source of support for refugees once they stop receiving assistance from the state.

“Asha’s Refuge is here to fill in the gap after refugees come,” Jones said.  “The reason we exist is because there aren’t enough resources and things available for them, so they are already in a situation,” she said.

Farrah said that refugees are given 90 days of assistance from World Relief Memphis that helps with house rent and job placement, before they are expected to live independently.

However, two key areas affect refugees who settle in Memphis, Echols said: education and jobs.

Refugee employment has largely been based on the longtime established relationships Echols has built with community and business leaders in the Memphis area.

“Someone would call me, and say that they have a position available,” Echols said.  “Memphis is a place where you can find employment. It is not a livable wage, but it is employment.  Memphis is the distribution capital of the world, so they are placing them on jobs where they can be a part of an assembly line, and they don’t have to use language. But they can still make income.”

As a refugee himself, Farrah knows the cycle from experience. As a former university professor of ecological studies, Farrah found himself working a different job once he immigrated to the U.S.

“Back at home, I was a university instructor, but here I work in a warehouse,” Farrah said.  “My certificates are not considered here.  There is no one back in Somalia to verify my certificates.  Younger Somalis work in warehouses and do good, but I suffer.  I find it difficult to catch up at the age of 62.”

Farah further described the strain his new job has put on him as an older man.

“By the time I came here, I had to work physically. I never had to do that in my life,” he said.  “You are lifting heavy objects, and working in hot warehouses and standing eight hours.  Finally, I fell down and all my ribs were broken.  I’ve been out of work for three months without pay.  I don’t think I will be able to work physically anymore.”

Dr. Nabil Bayakly, 57: “To be called the Bible Belt, and Memphis is the bottom of the Bible Belt, we always challenge our Christian brothers and sisters… We say. ‘walk the walk, but don’t talk the talk.’ There are all types of nationalities here, so our community is very diverse. This is the best place to come and meet people of different nationalities because we are a free environment. Check your religion when you’re at the door before you come in, and everybody’s going to be happy. There are people in our society that are racist, for lack of a better terms. We challenge them to come and see that whatever ideas or concepts they have about us, do we really fit that definition that they’re used to? We really challenge them to come here. We’re not really Arabs, we’re not really foreigners, we’re not really African-Americans… we’re everybody. Whoever wants to think about us in one way or the other, we are different than they perceive, and we would love for them to come and talk to us so that they can see that we’re not really the bad, or terrorist, or criminal people that the news media may portray us.” 


Farrah said that there should be more options provided by the city for refugees besides warehouse jobs.

“Instead of just taking people only to warehouses, they could take them to other places,” he said. “There are so many other options like universities, research stations, and government organizations. Why only warehouses? There are so many places much better than that.”

Despite his struggles resettling in Memphis, Farrah still sees the positive in his move to the city.

“I like the environment here in Memphis, it is not much different from the climate we came from,” Farrah said.  The people are good, there are not bad people.  We see a lot of violence on T.V., but we never come across such problems because most of the times we are indoors.  We are missing a lot of socializing, but that’s our culture.  We go to work and come back home.”
Dennis Laumann, a professor of African History at the University of Memphis, said many refugees encounter some professional barriers once they arrive in a new country because of different professional criteria and licensing.

“Most Americans are unaware that most immigrants that they encounter were doing a different job back home and might be highly educated,” he said.  “You have to take a job that you didn’t train for or have the credentials for because you are in a new system.”

Even though refugees may face setbacks in their careers after coming to the United States, some believe that these challenges should be expected.

As an employee for the Valero gas station on Poplar Avenue and Dunlap Street, Shawn Besraga, 26, from Ethiopia, said that there are realistic expectations to be accounted for as far as refugee employment.

“I do believe that they [World Relief Memphis] provide fair opportunities for refugees,” he said. “As far as them working a career job, I think that [realistically] they do have to take a slower pace once they come here.”

Abir Alhamwi, 34: “I’m really new because I just came here as a refugee from Syria. When we (my family and I) came here, we only had $100 in our pocket. When we came to Memphis, the government put us in apartments over on Raleigh- LaGrange Road. We’ve been doing fine and my husband is working and I’ve been selling food. Memphis is a good place, but we get scared to go out because the area where we live is dangerous. You have to buy a car before you can go out.” 

Besraga does acknowledge the difficulties with refugees starting their careers over again.

“It is difficult though because they don’t have the opportunities to get a good job, and a lot of them have to pay money to go back to school, and it’s expensive,” he said.

In the case of Besraga, a profession where a considerable number of East Africans and Middle-Easterners have found employment is at gas stations around the city.

Besraga said that connections are the main way these people, including himself, were able to find employment.

“You find a lot of Arabs and Africans that work in gas stations and as taxi drivers because they know a lot of people who work in these professions and they ask these people for jobs. As a result, it provides opportunities for them to work in these areas.”

Jones said that one solution that will further help refugees is a basic education system for refugee adults.

“If they [refugees] are between 18-20 years old, they can’t go to school,” she said. “There needs to be a basic education system where these 40-year-old adults can go back to school and they need this five days a week.”

She further said that there are additional resources needed in order to sustain a basic education system.

“In order to do that, you need more staffing and utilities,” she said. “So the organization needs monthly giving. That’s one of our biggest struggles because people will give us stuff, but we do not receive enough funding. We need more of it to move the organization forward.”

Jones said that there is an ultimate goal with helping refugees who encounter obstacles with employment and education.

“We don’t want them [refugees] to have to stay on government assistance because I think that just keeps them down,” she said. “I think that they can climb above that. We just want to give them the skills and things they need to take their lives to the next levels.”


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