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Safia Suleiman

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Safia Suleiman was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. During the Somali Civil War, she left Somalia and went to Kenya with her grandmother and family. She came to Minnesota in 1997. She is now a senior at the University of Minnesota studying psychology, business, and marketing.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Please contact Immigration History Research Center staff for permissions not covered by this Creative Commons license.

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Safia Suleiman Transcription

One question that I struggle to answer is about identity. What is your identity, Safia? It’s not that I necessarily not know what my identity is but it’s a little bit harder for me to define it. I constantly feel like people want a clear-cut answer when in reality it isn’t.

I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia and came to the United States of America on August 18, 1997. In Somalia, I am every inch American. My walk, talk, and dress all reeks of America. When I speak my native tongue, I am a poser. My accent is so thick that at times my grandparents don’t understand me. Nevertheless in America, I am an immigrant. My lack of accent makes people assume that I was born here. I eat and breathe America. However until recently, I wasn’t even a citizen. I now have a piece of paper that declares me as one. Then we would come to the conclusion that I am Somalia-American, but again I would disagree. Starting from kindergarten to 5th grade I went to a predominantly African American charter school. I learned about Sojourner Truth way before I learned about George Washington. I learned about the Civil Rights Movement way before the Civil War. I memorized the Black National Anthem (Lift Every Voice and Sing) then the actual National Anthem (Star Spangled Banner). I would say that I am black. The people I learned about looked just like me. The peers at school mirrored my appearance except for the simple fact of that I had a scarf on my head. Then I knew it wasn’t culture that separated us, but religion. So, could I not identify myself with them? If I would have my choice of a box to check off, I would choose Black/Somali-American. Then some would say, “Isn’t that the same as Black/African-American?” No, because being African-American is defined as being from an African decent. I am not African descent but African.

The complication does not stop there. My family dynamic is beyond difficult to explain and still today I am trying to find my place. So, the story goes like this: once upon a time, a long time ago, my 16 year-old mother met my father who wasn’t much older than her. She was so taken by him that she thought she was in love. Love conquers all, right? They ran away together to get married. At the time in Somalia, this--surprisingly--was a common thing. But my grandfather was appalled, enraged, and disappointed. My mother’s side of the family was working middle class and they could afford education for my mother. My mother was considered fortunate because she didn’t have to choose marriage in order to survive. To make matters worse, she was at the top of her class. She was only supposed to choose marriage when there were no other options to choose from.

After a year, my mother and father came back with a kid in tow—my older brother. Every fairytale must come to end and this one did when my mother wanted out of this marriage. She decided that being black and blue wasn’t a fitting color. My biological father was abusive and my mother wasn’t having anymore ]of it]. Sadly a woman can’t divorce her husband if there is a possibility of her being pregnant. And she was pregnant, with me. So here is a divorced 18 year-old girl with two kids. What is she going to do? Since Somalis are a collective society, the elders came together to “fix” the situation. The elders deliberated and came up with a solution that my mother was not happy about. They thought it would be best that my older brother stayed with his father and that I should stay with my mother. Problem solved, right? Nope, not exactly. On a bigger scale, at the time Somalia was going through a civil war. Since the 1990’s many innocent people have been victims in this war and still are today. The result of this civil war has been starvation, chaos, and feuds between tribes. A lot of Somalis have immigrated to the United States for a fresh start and my family did too. As my mother sought to escape her husband we looked to escape the civil war.

Coming to America was a very difficult process. There are numerous ways to coming to America but one way is through a lottery. Luckily my family was able to secure a spot on this ticket to a “better” world. Except for one person. My mother. My grandmother took custody of me and raised me as her own. She was the only mother I knew until I was 18. She was considered Hooyo (Somali word for caregiver) and the only Hooyo that I needed. I knew I had a mother who gave birth to me but it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to give up the comfort and familiarity of my grandmother, so out of choice, I didn’t want to get to know my biological parents.

While grandmother was raising me, my biological mother remarried and had more children. I met these siblings of mine in the spring of my sophomore year of high school. I automatically became the oldest sister to four strangers. In late 2013, my biological mother finally came to the United States with an additional two children in tow. When she arrived she gave birth to my youngest sibling. Ironically her birthday is three days after mine. So look at this—her oldest daughter who was the first to migrate to the United States and her youngest daughter being her first natural-born American. Isn’t that something?

My immigrant story has shaped my identity and I continue to figure out who I am and where I belong to the people around me.