Ilhan Ali said if there was one word to describe herself, it would be “blessed.” The senior human rights major spoke about her experiences as a refugee fleeing from her home in war-torn Somalia to the U.S. as part of the Multicultural Center and International Student Affairs’ (MCISA) International Education Week.
The event, My St. Louis Story — Immigrants and Refugees in St. Louis, was held at 12 p.m. on Nov. 17 in the Sunnen Lounge at Webster University. Ali was part of a panel of four students, with one
representative from Iraq, Bosnia and Nigeria.
Ali was born in the Somali capitol, Mogadishu, and is the eldest of four siblings.
“My family lived in a duplex with my grandparents,” Ali said. “My father was a veterinarian and my grandfather was in radio.”
When Ali was three years old, the Somali civil war broke out. Her family lost everything.
“My parents were only able to save their wedding photos,” Ali said.
For months they went from house to house, trying to find food and a place to sleep. They knew, though, they could not stay there for long. She and her family took shelter in a university. They stayed there for over a year.
“It was the only place where there was running water,” Ali said.
The United Nations provided food for the people staying in the university.
“My family would try to sell the food and save up the money,” Ali said.
Her family soon took a bus to the border of Kenya. When they got to the border, Ali said the border patrol would not let people cross because of the war. The rebels at the border attacked her family.
“It was a miracle we survived,” she said.
Ali and her family were eventually able to move to Kenya. While there, they stayed in a refugee camp where Ali’s uncle was a head doctor.
“In the camp, we lived in a mud hut and we slept on the floor,” Ali said. “There were people that were emotionally ill and had no hope for the future.”
Ali said the best thing children had in the refugee camp was imagination.
“We had no toys to play with, so we would make toys out of coat hangers and milk cartons,” she said.
While in the camp, Ali’s father worked for a Catholic charity as a translator; he spoke Somali, Arabic, English and Italian.
“It was also the job that helped my family get out of Kenya just before the camp closed down,” Ali said.
In 1996, Ali and her family moved to Portland, Maine. She was seven years old. Ali said Maine was very different, because she had never seen snow.
“The challenge that I had in America was that I didn’t understand the language,” Ali said. “On my first day of school, I felt as if I was taken away from my family.”
However, Ali said she quickly learned the language by taking English courses.
Ali said her family became accustomed to their new environment and was content. However, after Sept. 11, Ali said people discriminated against her family.
“Back then, it was hard being black and Muslim,” Ali said. “In 2002, the mayor sent a letter to the Somali community asking us to leave.”
Ali said the mayor sent them an apology letter and the tension eased.
Ali graduated from Portland High School in 2007, and came to Webster University that fall.
“I looked online and when I saw they had a human rights major, I knew I wanted to come here,” Ali said.
Ali plans to graduate Webster in May.
“My goal is to help other refuges, especially children,” Ali said. “I believe that every child should have a good education.”
Her main goal is to go back to Somalia and make a difference in the country.
“I just can’t sit and do nothing,” Ali said. “I can’t let another 20 years of civil war go on. I want to make an impact on my country.”
Her message to all people back in Somalia is to never give up and be hopeful.