When Abdihakim “Hakim” Abdi arrived in the United States a little more than two years ago, he found himself in an unenviable position.
He knew few people, having spent the previous 20 years as a Somali living in Ethiopia. And with limited English — and no car — he never left his apartment, save for the occasional walk to a nearby McDonald’s and a trip to a dime store to buy a handful of books that would provide the extent of his entertainment during those first few days.
“I had no money, no contacts, nobody to talk to,” said Abdi, now 26, who had arrived in the U.S. as part of a federal refugee resettlement program. “My ears were just glued to the door waiting for a caseworker or someone that cared about me.”
By the following Monday, however, things had changed drastically. Hearing of his arrival, fellow Somali transplants — some he knew from back home, some he didn’t — began to show up with clothes and blankets, with food and money. Within weeks, a couple of friends invited him to move into their apartment. And when he landed a job at a sporting goods supplier, someone else drove him to and from work five days a week, even though the friend lived in Lenexa and Abdi was in Kansas City’s Northeast area.
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It is this sense of closeness and support that, for Kansas City’s Somali community, has made the tragic death of a 15-year-old boy earlier this month so difficult to understand.
The specifics are grim. Shortly after helping to lead the evening prayers at the mosque at 1340 Admiral Blvd., Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein was hit by a speeding Chevrolet Blazer reportedly driven by Ahmed H. Aden, 34, a fellow Somali from Kansas City.
According to court records, Aden later told authorities that he had hit the boy on purpose but had mistaken him for one of a group of men who had threatened him.
In an interview earlier this month with The Associated Press, Aden’s mother, Hawo Abdullahi of Minneapolis, denied that the death was a hate crime — an FBI investigation seeks to determine whether it was — and insisted that her son struggled with mental illness.
But while the incident brought attention to local Somalis, it represented a jarring aberration in what is a close-knit group willing to go to extreme lengths to help its own.
Tracking the number of local Somali transplants with any kind of confidence can be difficult. In the 2000 census, the last that sought such data, there were 456 people of Somalian ancestry living in Kansas City — though, as Steve Weitkamp, director of refugee programs for the Jewish Vocational Service of Kansas City, joked recently, “I think there’s more than that in my lobby right now.”
Somali refugees began arriving in Kansas City in the early 1990s, around the time civil war erupted in their homeland and many were forced to flee.
Violence among warlords and militias became commonplace. Terrorist attacks and famine resulted in civilian deaths, and Somalia was widely considered one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Today, many Somalis arrive through the U.S. refugee admissions program. Once handled by the Don Bosco Center, the local program has since been taken over by the Jewish Vocational Service, which during the past fiscal year resettled 483 refugees — with the largest percentage being Somali. Despite the lack of concrete numbers, many estimate the current Somali population in the Kansas City area to be about 5,000.
Among the services provided by the program are temporary housing, medical screening, help with food stamps and Medicaid, and community and employment education.
But it’s often the assistance from fellow Somalis — rides, places to stay, attaining jobs — that truly helps a new arrival become comfortable.
As much as anything, the Somali culture is one of assistance, and that has carried over to America, where pockets of Somalis have formed in cities like Minneapolis, Seattle, San Diego and Columbus, Ohio.
In Kansas City, where the availability of jobs, manageable weather and modest cost of living have drawn members of the community, the Northeast area has established itself as a hub for the group.
Jabaland Grill, a small, Somali-owned restaurant on East Independence Avenue, is a gathering place for local Somalis. On Olive Street, a few blocks away, there’s a strip mall affectionately referred to as the “Somali Mall,” where you’ll find a collection of small Somali businesses, including a cramped but bustling restaurant where community members gather throughout the day to sip tea and discuss the day’s news.
The Somali Center of Kansas City, at 1340 Admiral Blvd., is stationed within blocks of many of the Somali-owned businesses and across the street from the Jabaland Grill.
The low-slung building serves as a place for local Somalis to both socialize and worship in the mosque. Stop by at just about any hour and you’ll probably find a cluster of Somalis inside. The men worship on the mosque’s main floor. Downstairs, there is a separate worship area for women. The center also provides classes for Somali children, some aimed at teaching them how best to acclimate to American life.
Realistically, it takes a month to become comfortable and a year to become independent, said Ali Abdi, assistant director of the center and its mosque.
But Somalis have developed a reputation, at least locally, as a bold group, not afraid to immerse themselves quickly into American life. Some have felt confident enough to start their own businesses. Others commute miles to small towns in Missouri and Kansas, drawn to the job availability and decent wages in meatpacking plants.
There is a significant Somali population in the small Missouri town of Noel, for instance, where a Tyson Foods plant provides the comforting prospect of steady work.
And while problems have occasionally surfaced as Somalis have settled into smaller towns — the tires on more than a dozen cars belonging to Somali workers were slashed in Noel not long ago, according to a National Public Radio story, and some members of the Somali community said they felt unwanted in the town — Kansas City has provided plenty of acceptance.
“Somalis, to me, have distinguished themselves as refugees in that they seem to have a boldness that other refugee populations have not evidenced,” said Weitkamp. “It’s not unusual for young Somalis to travel quite a ways away from where the family is based for employment.”
Added Ali Abdi, “The (refugee resettlement) agents like Somalis because they’re less work.”
Much of this self-reliance is cultural, carried over from Somalia.
According to Mohamed Nur, director of operations at Della Lamb — a nonprofit organization that helps low-income families, including refugees and immigrants — Somalis possess some general traits. They boast a strong desire to work, don’t want handouts and strive to become as self-sufficient as possible as quickly as possible.
They come, in other words, in search of some version of the American dream.
And in many ways, they’ve found it.
Over time, Somali refugees have moved to the suburbs, seen children go off to college, begun promising careers.
“We have people who are doctors, engineers, teachers,” said Abdul Bakar, who has spent the past 10 years working with refugees in America.
And this is why news of the recent death has so shaken this community. After growing comfortable in America, they have now been forced to confront their past.
“It’s really reminded people of this shadow part of their history, where they have seen their loved ones and their friends targeted or killed,” said Hakim Abdi.
On a recent morning inside the Somali mall on Olive, he sat off to the side of where clusters of other Somalis were chatting.
Like many in the community, he had felt personally affected by the death.
A week or two before, while with some family members who had recently arrived in America, he’d had a chance encounter with the boy’s father.
Noticing the unfamiliar faces, Hakim Abdi said, the father came over to introduce himself, striking up a conversation near the Somali mall.
“He walked up and said, ‘Hey guys, how are you doing? I haven’t seen you guys,’” said Abdi. “And then finally he introduced his boy, the young boy. He said, ‘This is my boy.’”