Halima Abdalla


When Halima was only four years old, war forced her from her home in Somalia into Dadabb, the same refugee camp Ibrahim had lived in. In Dadabb, she received her schooling, finishing fifth grade (which is known as the standard five in Kenya). For Halima, the lack of food, employment opportunity, and safety became normalized and familiar. It was difficult to even remember life without these shortages, life that wasn’t defined by the struggle to survive. 

Fear and hunger were the building blocks of life in these camps.  Refugees were beaten by the police if they did not follow the rules. But the situation only worsened when Halima was transferred to Kakuma. No food, no jobs, no firewood, no electricity, no gas, no water, no peace. Nothing. Even the small rations of food they received from UNHCR had to be sold in order to bribe the surrounding tribes to allow them to gather firewood. 

In September 2005, at the age of 17, Halima resettled in Pittsburgh with her young child and began attending public high school. The American children were not at all welcoming. Halima remembers when other students would throw chewed food at her, push her on the steps, cover their noses during gym as if she smelled, make fun of her clothing, insult her, and use foul language. Sometimes the other children would even attack her when she was carrying her baby. 

In order to raise awareness of the bullying of refugee children, Halima and some of her Somali friends wrote a play, performed at Frick, demonstrating how they came to America seeking peace and found persecution instead. Newspapers picked up on the story and the school principal and teachers began to join the effort to end the bullying. 

But bullying was not the only problem Halima experienced in Pittsburgh. Growing up in a refugee camp, Halima was not given opportunities to learn marketable skills or norms for employment, so finding a job is difficult. When she came, she didn’t speak any English, all of the buildings looked the same, and transportation was confusing. Bills had to be paid on-time; American companies did not accept pleas for patience and understanding. Finding childcare was also an arduous process for Halima. In Africa, children could be left under the supervision of older children, but in America, this was against the law and could result in intervention by social workers.

Despite the problems, Halima says life is certainly safer and better in America. Two of her brothers have graduated high school and because of the Pittsburgh Promise, which offers funding for higher education to graduates of Pittsburgh public schools, they are able to take classes at the Community College of Allegheny County. Schooling has certainly been a struggle for them. Because they came with little understanding of the English language and their mathematical education was stunted by life in a refugee camp, they need a private tutor to help them keep up in their classes. Without guidance about which classes they should take and what they are ready for, Halima’s brothers find scheduling classes difficult. Because the struggle to flourish in higher education is not specific to Halima’s family but is shared by most refugees, AJAPO hopes in the future to formalize support for Somali students at CCAC. 

AJAPO has aided Halima and her family by helping them to find housing in the city where they could take advantage of the Pittsburgh Promise Program, and through developing acculturation and coping skills. 

Although Halima still has many hurdles to overcome in her life as a Pittsburgher, AJAPO is helping her to develop the skills and abilities she needs to confront these hurdles. Her willingness to highlight the problems of refugees in Pittsburgh, particularly bullying of refugee children, encourages other refugees and immigrants to raise their voices too, and make their concerns heard, an objective shared by the board and staff of AJAPO.