Ibrahim Muya


At 9pm on March 11th, 2004, Ibrahim Muya peered out the window of his plane and gazed down on the rolling hills and rivers of Southwestern Pennsylvania. In this strange country, perhaps the only familiar feeling was his sense of being a foreigner. He had spent the last 12 years as a stranger—an outsider. In fact, he hadn’t lived in his home country of Somalia since 1992, when he was forced out by civil war. Instead, he had spent the last decade living in refugee camps in Kenya, marked as different by his Somali accent and his lack of Kenyan tribal affiliation. 

When he first arrived in Kenya, he had been sent to live in Dadabb, a refugee camp. Compared to other refugee camps, conditions in Dadabb were not so bad. There was good weather, employment, animals to hunt, and trees to use for shade. Nevertheless, Dadabb was beset by many of the critical problems experienced in other refugee camps: lack of education, poor security, and scarcity of nutritious food.

Schools in the camp were too expensive for most refugees to afford, so formal education was rare. 

The camps would provide food every two weeks, but the food consisted only of maize meal, white flour, and oil. There was no provision of sugar, tea, fruits or vegetables. Worse, security was almost non-existent. After 9 pm, refugees could not leave their blocks or they would almost undoubtedly be robbed. When women went into the forest to gather firewood for cooking, they would consistently be raped. Supply trucks were hijacked and the police did nothing to stop these crimes unless they were bribed. Because of this, justice was supplanted by the power of money.

Ibrahim married his wife, started his family of five, and passed a decade of life in this camp before he was transferred to Kakuma. Conditions in Kakuma were far worse than in Dadabb. There was no surrounding village economy and jobs were difficult to find and poorly-paid. Nighttime raids by heavily-armed Turkanas dispossessed refugees of their animals and personal belongings. Gathering firewood was even more challenging in this camp than in Dadabb. Local tribes controlled access to the bush, demanding payments for permission to gather fuel. Often, refugees would pay one group only to encounter another group that also demanded payment. Drought conditions in Kakuma did nothing to ease the pains of refugee life. 

But Ibrahim and his family chose to brave the conditions of Kakuma. He knew that he wanted to go to America, and this was the only camp processing US resettlements. He had heard that life in America is safe, that people are healthy, that everyone receives a good education, and, mistakenly, that everything is free. A couple of years in Kakuma was a heavy price, but America would be worth the cost.

Now, finally, they had arrived in Pittsburgh and life would be easier, prosperous, and rewarding.

It was not apparent how many obstacles were here waiting for them when the plane touched down on the runway.

As he stepped into the Pittsburgh airport, everything seemed so foreign to him: the smells, the people, the language, the food, and the Steeler jerseys. This was home now. These people were now his neighbors, this country his hope.

But home was very cold. And his luggage was lost. Now he had only the clothes on his back, twenty words of English he had picked up along the way, and the belief that he would find freedom, security and health in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

A caseworker took them to their home and briefly showed them around the one-bedroom apartment. Then the caseworker left—left them with no contacts, no money, no knowledge of what to do next, no guidance. Although they were given fruits and vegetables, they were not even able to cook because they did not know how to use a stove. 

Two days later, their fledgling life in Pittsburgh became even more complicated. Their electricity was shut off and they had no way to let anyone know about their problem. Living in constant darkness with nothing to eat, surviving only on the soda they had been given, they felt they would have been better off in Kakuma. This was not the America they had imagined.

After two days of living in these conditions, a representative from the Pittsburgh Refugee Center stopped by and, upon seeing how they were living, took them to Zanabu Musa’s house (the house of another Somali refugee family) so that they could stay there for a couple of days until the electricity came back on. 

Mama Yinka, the executive director of AJAPO stopped by the Musa’s house and, while there, met Ibrahim and his family. They were now connected with AJAPO.

From here, things became easier. The family attended English as a second language classes and they all began to adjust to their new life as Pittsburghers. After six months, Ibrahim began to ask for orientation and acculturation classes. For several weeks, refuges met every day from 9 am until 2 pm to learn about the Pittsburgh culture and how to live life prosperously in America. Mama Yinka provided transportation, meals, and volunteers for the training. Later, AJAPO also provided Ibrahim with leadership training that enabled him to create and lead a Somali Bantu community in Pittsburgh. The training also taught him how to organize and network within the community, and he was soon elected to serve on the board of advisors for the African Union in Allegheny County.

AJAPO’s immigration services have also aided him with green card and citizenship paperwork, welfare issues, employment and food stamps. 

According to Ibrahim, AJAPO provided very prompt, need-based services that enabled him and his family to adjust to his new life. AJAPO, rather than making Ibrahim dependent on their services, has enabled him to become independent and navigate American culture and bureaucracy on his own. He now has a deep understanding of Pittsburgh, the ability to find his way around the city, obtain a job and a lawyer, speak without a translator, fill out forms and applications, and understand the education and health systems. All of these tasks were seemingly-insurmountable obstacles before his time with AJAPO.

Their life in Pittsburgh is much happier now. For the past five years, Ibrahim has worked two jobs—one full-time and one part-time. His wife is also employed, and they have two cars and a very nice home. On his own time, Ibrahim has taught himself a wealth of computer skills and is particularly talented in wedding video editing. In addition, he has developed his own website and an online portfolio. In the future Ibrahim hopes to become a professional video editor with his own studio and a professional video camera.

Now, Ibrahim and his family have not only acculturated to Pittsburgh; they have become leaders in the community, vibrant contributors to Pittsburgh culture, examples of hope and healing. Best of all, they have become our neighbors.