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Meet Said Abiyow of Somali Bantu Association of America

Today we’d like to introduce you to Said Abiyow.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I was born and spent my early years in Somalia during the 1990’s, a time of civil war and the accompanying atrocities. Life for all Somalians was changed during this time, but for my tribe the repercussions were especially violent. My ancestors were slaves brought from Mozambique and Tanzania in the late 19th century. The apparent crime of my heritage meant I would be relegated to the lowest status jobs, denied an education, and prohibited from marrying someone from a different tribe. This distinct separation of Somali Bantus meant that as our country fragmented into warring tribes, we found far more enemies than friends. Very early in my life, I watched with my mother as the rest of our nine-member family was shot and killed. Given the circumstances, we fled, like many other Somalis and Somali Bantu. My mother carried me from Somalia to Kenya without food or water to reach the nearest refugee camp. The journey, lasting about a week and a half, nearly killed us both. Yet, my mother was able to bring us to the relative safety and care of the refugee camp.

Much of my life was lead there, but I was eventually able to qualify to attend the University of Kenya. This education was part of what allowed me to bring my wife, children, and mother with me to the United States.

The journey to the U.S., however, was not all that was expected for my mother. Once removed from the setting of trauma, she began experiencing severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her struggle and my intense need to help her—as well as others like her—lead me to create a program that supported refugee women experiencing PTSD. From here, the Somali Bantu Association of America (SBAOA) was born. While we began as a women-focused program, our services today include employment, education, translation services, English as a second language (ESL) and youth. My mother was able to overcome her struggles, was the first Somali Bantu woman to start her own business in City Heights, and continues to support the SBAOA and the greater community we serve.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
My path has been far from smooth. Some of the greatest challenges I faced included significant racial and ethnic prejudice within the refugee camps. While I was an ambitious student who received high marks, I was often not allowed to move onto the next grade due to quotas on the maximum number of Somali Bantu allowed per class, sudden changes in rules, or other surprise road blocks. This was an expression of the deep ethnic prejudice that persisted in the camp. Refugees were not highly regarded by Kenyans and the influx of Somali refugees at the time made us a particularly vilified group. Being Somali Bantu, we were again relegated to the lowest social order within the refugee camp. My difficulties in the classroom were just one of the manifestations of this prejudice. While my progress was slow, I was persistent and eventually received some of the highest possible scores on my college entrance exams. This allowed me to receive an education from the University of Kenya.

While this was not the only significant struggle along my journey, it was one of the most formative. Not only were my achievements unexpected, in the eyes of many people, they were unacceptable. For no more reason than my ancestry, forces and people beyond my control had constantly tried to keep me from succeeding. Everything in my life—my family, the SBAOA, my education—I owe to the strength of those that helped me along the way and my own unwillingness to allow the triviality of my birthrights (or lack thereof) dictate my life.

Somali Bantu Association of America – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
The Somali Bantu Association of America (SBAOA) advocates on behalf of the Somali Bantu, and other similarly disadvantaged refugees and immigrants, for access to professional and educational resources so that families can make a successful cultural, economic, and social transition to life in the United States. We work with populations that are especially vulnerable to linguistic and cultural barriers to their success. For example, our in-house translation services allow us to translate 84 languages, including many regional dialects or lesser known languages that government and area organizations are either unaware of or lack translators with these particular language skills.

In particular, these translation services have been used to assist in hundreds of medical visits, removing a significant barrier to healthcare for those without proficient English skills.

In the past year, the SBAOA has seen a significant increase in our ability to provide for employment, linguistic, and community needs.

Employment services offered include employment workshops, interview training, and assistance preparing job applications and resumes.

Cross-cultural communication is facilitated by the SBAOA via outreach with local hospitals, police, and schools to provide the external community with greater understanding of the refugee and immigrant population. For example, many teachers in the U.S. consider a lack of eye contact disrespectful, but in a refugee or immigrant student’s culture it may actually be disrespectful to look a person of authority in the eye. Similar cultural misunderstandings greatly impede the ability of refugees and immigrants to succeed. Likewise, the SBAOA reinforces community bonds within the refugee community by offering workshops and support groups that address issues (e.g. involved parenting for fathers, mental illness, support for women) in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner.

In an effort to overcome the lack of formal education experienced by most of our participants, the SBAOA also helps youth integrate successfully into the education system and offers ESL classes for adults. Youth programming and education is of particular emphasis for the SBAOA in the coming year, as youth within this community have experienced particularly difficult educational, cultural, and psychological disharmony in their new home. Similar difficulties have been correlated with behavior issues, violence, and increased likelihood of participation in illegal activities (e.g. gang involvement, drug use, jail time) within other populations facing similar difficulties. Without an emphasis on this subset of the population, they will continue to have depressed outcomes and face untold difficulties with little to no specialized support.

These are just handful of our initiatives, but exemplify the core of our work at the SBAOA.

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
My personal definition of success has come to mean many different things over my life. At some points, just surviving was measured as a success. At other points, grades and test scores were my success measure. Today, I look around my life and see a very different kind of success. I see my family and the life we have built together across nations and oceans despite some of the most disadvantaged circumstances imaginable. I look at the organization I helped found and watch each day as beneficiaries grow their skills and confidence.

These new measures of success are much more intangible than my old measures. However, I know their weight based on the mixed emotions I feel even now as I think about them. On the one hand, the kind of pride that makes your chest swell; on the other, the sort of fear that turns your stomach into a pit. I have had many things to lose in my life, but to have come so far and know the responsibility associated with the successes around me entails the bitter and the sweet.

In the end, my success has been measured not by degrees or money. It is measured by feelings: the intangible surge in your lungs as you look at a person or think back upon your experiences. It is as much a reminder of your accomplishments as the responsibility they entail, yet you wouldn’t give that feeling up for the world. Because nothing else compares.

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