Said and his wife Hodan are from Somalia, a society made up of hundreds of different clans. They enjoyed relative peace in their country after British and Italian troops withdrew and created the Somali Republic. Then civil war broke out in 1991, splitting the country along clan lines. Both Said and Hodan, who did not yet know each other, were trapped in strongholds of rival clans.
As violence increased and hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed, Said and Hodan became increasingly fearful for their lives. They knew their families’ lives were at risk based simply on the clan they were born into. Each made their way into the neighboring country of Djibouti, though Hodan was forced to say goodbye to her daughter in Somalia. It was in a Djibouti refugee camp that Said and Hodan met and eventually married.
As a couple, they began a new life in Djibouti, working hard at low-wage jobs, restricted to a small area of the city, and unable to ever become citizens. Later, they started a family. They didn’t want their plight to be their children’s fate, so when they learned refugee children could never enroll in school they had no choice but to apply to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for relocation to a third country. After 17 years in Djibouti, they were selected to be resettled in the U.S.
They arrived in Chicago in November 2012. Although the month was warm by Chicago standards, to the family of six sub-Saharan Africans, it was bitterly cold. Said arrived dressed in a t-shirt. “I froze,” he said.
They vividly remember the – literally – warm welcome they received from RefugeeOne. Their case manager was at the airport with winter coats, gloves and hats. He drove them to their apartment which Hodan recalls as being “huge”; her fear was they were going to be crowded into a very small living space. Both parents smiled as they remembered arriving at the apartment and finding a warm meal ready for them after all the hours on the plane and passing through customs.
It was here that they faced their first challenges as refugees. In Djibouti, there are very few multi-level buildings and these were restricted to the wealthiest parts of the city. They needed to learn to work the elevator, the gas oven, the hot and cold running water and the dishwasher.
Their neighborhood, too, was strange. “It was a totally new mix of people we’d never seen before,” said Hodan. While they were familiar with Americans and Europeans, they had never lived alongside Asians, Hispanics or “men with long hair, ponytails, and braids.”
As they settled in, they were brought to the RefugeeOne office where they started English classes, enrolled in RefugeeOne’s Employment program, and accessed other in-house services to help the entire family adjust to life in the U.S. Hodan’s language skills, along with her work experience in Djibouti, led to her first job cleaning hotel rooms and brought an important early income for the family. RefugeeOne helped Said find work as a dishwasher soon after. Their children were enrolled in the RefugeeOne Youth Program, participating in the after-school program and receiving home tutoring.
“I want to say ‘thank you’ to the Americans who assisted us and thank you to the American government for bringing us here,” said Said. “I hope to buy our own home and send all my children to university.” Hodan added, “When we become citizens, I also want ask the United States to help my daughter in Somalia come to Chicago and live with our family.” The biggest dream for the future was voiced by their oldest girl, Muna. “I don’t want to be a doctor or teacher when I grow up. I want to work at RefugeeOne and help new refugee families in Chicago.”
When asked if he would ever return to his home country of Burma (Myanmar), Molto’s answer is a definite “No” and his expression emphasizes that clearly. His eyes are filled with fear and resentment when he points to an indentation on his skull above his left eye and describes the horrible beatings he received by policemen in Burma.
Molto Salim Bin Sultan and his wife, Aminah Binti Aliahmada, lived a relatively normal life in Burma until the day when rebel forces came to recruit soldiers, including Molto. Fearing for his life, Molto made the difficult decision with his family to leave their belongings, their home, and their community in search of safety. For almost four years, they walked through the difficult terrain of Burma, experiencing a nomadic lifestyle filled with hunger, dehydration, and violent attacks from the police. It was during this time that Molto was the victim of the attack that caused him to leave Burma and vow never to return.
The family arrived illegally in Malaysia where they found themselves without any opportunities. Their children could not attend school and they could not work legally. The only work they could find were occasional, unauthorized construction jobs for Molto and seamstress work for Aminah. But this work could barely provide for them and their children. Their situation in Malaysia proved even more difficult with the police closely monitoring and harassing them. They were constantly asked to produce legal documents which they did not possess and had to pay bribes of $50-$100 to avoid being taken to jail. After eight years of these hardships, the family finally obtained permission to reside in Malaysia legally, but for the next 22 years the family still had no opportunities for education or employment.
After 30 years of living in Malaysia, Molto, Aminah, and their youngest son Muhamad were accepted to be resettled in America. In August 2013, they arrived in Chicago. Today, they are thankful for how their lives are progressing and they have hope for the future. The family appreciates how RefugeeOne has helped them learn English, secure housing, and find employment, assisting them on their path to realizing their American Dream of one day owning a home, car, and sending their youngest child to college.
While their future seems bright, they continue to think of family members--sons, daughters, and grandchildren-- that were left behind. They hope that someday soon their whole family will be together again.