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My Odyssey: a moment
of triumph
By Abdisalam Garjeex

June 03, 2012

Nimo and Ilhan Garjeex's graduation
On Saturday, May 19th, my family and I attended the graduation ceremony for my two daughters, Ilhan and Nimo. It was held at Patriot center of George Mason University. Nimo was awarded a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Ilhan a Psychology degree – it was a day of joy and celebration not only for my family, but also for 20 thousand well-wishers and families who also attended the degree ceremony. My third daughter Faiza is now a junior in college and I greatly look forward to her graduation as well. When I reflect on the story of my life, these rare occasions are moments of triumph and nothing short of history in the making.

My life began half a century ago in a town in central Somalia. I was fifth in a family of 12 kids (8 boys & four girls). My parents were traditional, but valued modernity and the importance of education. We came from a good home and were well-schooled, even at the early years of our upbringing. When I was in Quranic and primary school, I dreamt that I would one day travel abroad and get a University education. One night, I sat at a playground by myself and looked at the sky and saw how large the universe was and realized the endless opportunities that were abound, which only require that one must work hard to reap the benefits.

At the age of fourteen, I left my family and moved to the capital city of Mogadishu aiming to enroll in a secondary school. Mogadishu was a delightful city and I was fascinated by the urban and cosmopolitan culture of the people of Xamar, but on the other hand, being the small-town boy I was, I would also feel home sick. After a short while, I was admitted to a boarding school run by the Mennonite Mission of Jowhar – this was the beginning of a life of struggle as well as innumerable opportunities for experience and growth. This institution was an elite school, attended by the children of the rich and high government officials. The missionaries first built this school at “Mahadday” and later moved to Jowhar – the four years I attended this school were some of my best of times. I learned multiculturalism and tolerance and made lasting friendships with my fellow classmates.

In search of Education

Garjeex

In 1981, my quest for education took me to State University of New York, at New Paltz. When I first arrived in this small town 31 years ago, four years after completing my Secondary education in Somalia of which two years were spent in Odessa (Ukraine-former Soviet Union at the black sea) for military academy and the other two years employed as civil servant by the defunct Somali Airlines – both endeavors ended prematurely for reasons beyond my control. My military officer’s training in Soviet Union ended in 1977, when Somalia severed both political and military relations with Russia for the Ogaden war and the leaders of the communist Russia expelled us from their country. My subsequent attempt with Somali Airlines was also terminated after inept and hostile management forced me to quit and leave the country. This time, getting a university education in America was another struggle I didn’t want to squander.

After two setbacks, I began my pursuit for higher education and in doing so; I traveled and adventured to Germany without resource and assistance but with the noble intention of enrolling at a university. A previous trip to Germany in 1979 provided me ample information about ways of obtaining scholarship. The German authority has provided numerous scholarships under the Somali-Ethiopia war refugees program. Six months later my luck would run out in Germany and I consequently set my sights on the USA, with few thousand dollars collected from my families’ last saving and a student visa. I was on my way to New Paltz, New York, not knowing that a group of fellow Somalis had already been living and studying at the University. It took me three days before connecting with a fellow Somali – I was welcomed and offered to share an apartment with two of them.

I associate many historic but also tragic events with my arrival to United States that year – some of the events I still remember were the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, the Turkish gunman Ali Agca attempted to take the life of late John Paul II, and the death of Bob Marley, the king of reggae.

At the end of my second semester, I ran out of all resources and began to suffer the economic hardships of those times. AT some point, I didn’t have anything to eat, let alone pay tuition, room and board. The USA was in a deep recession, the worst since the great depression. We were unable to find work and if we found any, we were paid $3 an hour for hard labor. For help we had nowhere to go. By the time I decided to leave the school, an Ethiopian friend took me to New York City and introduced to me a program that made me qualified for financial aid and loans.

I survived the next three years and in 1984, after completing my bachelor’s degree, I went back to Somalia and stayed there until the beginning of the civil war. Before the war, I was a director of the tax department – Ministry of Finance – Revenue section. As tax administrator, I fulfilled the role of a national coordinator for technical assistance and cooperation with international organizations.

Fleeing from Somalia

On a Tuesday morning, I had to abruptly abandon my house after digging a hole in my front yard, burying few of my precious items. I had hoped to return soon and thought the war would quickly be over. In search of a safe place, I headed south with my wife and two children, carrying one of the children on my shoulders. After spending three harrowing days in a friend's house with the fighting all over town, we decided to flee the city to a Southwest Somali town situated at the border crossing between Kenya and Somalia. We left our house and car to my uncle, who was determined to stay and protect his family and properties. It was sad to learn later, that a day after I left, my uncle was taken away by gunmen and was never seen again. He was presumably killed.

In this hot, sandy town, a relative offered us a shelter made of mud and tree branches. I stayed there until fighting broke out between local feuding clans. One day, an artillery shell hit the house and split it into two when members of the family were looking for cover. We all ran to different directions not knowing that we left behind the children, one of them an infant. People were running toward the border of Kenya against a hail of bullets coming from Kenyan soldiers. I could see half a dozen people falling on the ground shot and bleeding to death.

That same day, I hired a truck transporting goats to Nairobi from a trader who promised me to take us there safely for the cost of four times more than the normal price. By this time, I was the head of 20 extended family members, including brothers, sisters, cousins and their children. Throughout the journey, the five male adults were placed at the back of the truck with the goats. The unpaved road was full of mud and bandits. For every town we passed, we walked miles around to avoid command posts. While walking in the bush, we were threatened by lions and surrounded by local tribesmen in the area with machetes who called the Kenyan police. We were detained in a mosquito infested jail and malaria almost killed my younger daughter. In the middle of the journey, my wife lost our unborn child and my sister gave birth prematurely to a baby girl.

It took us two weeks to reach Nairobi and after our arrival, we were allowed to stay as fleeing refugees. The future hope of peace was getting bleaker every day and war was raging in every corner of Somalia. There was no place to stay and nowhere to return. The only option left was to seek a safe sanctuary anywhere we could find.

I began to think over the future, hoping against hope that war will stop and clans and communities will reconcile and eventually bring to an end the life in the Diaspora. Three million people were displaced and half a million lost their lives; to this day, the war has never stopped. Twenty years later, some of my family members still suffer the trauma and the mental scars of the war. 

Fortunately, with my immediate family, I was granted asylum in the Netherlands and after spending a year in a reception center and 5 years residing in the Dutch city of Groningen, the US government offered to resettle us in America through a diversity visa program that every year allows about 100,000 families and individuals from different parts of the world to settle in the United States of America.  

Now in a safe environment, I realize that I have also a responsibility towards my new adopted land. I have to be a productive citizen and be able to look after the wellbeing of my family. As an IT specialist, employed by SRA International and former Federal Government employee at the Department of treasury,  currently residing in Ashburn – Virginia, (30 miles west of Washington, DC), I’m grateful to this country for having provided me an ample opportunity for good career, decent living, safe environment  and the ability to send three of my children to college. Every morning, on my way to work, I ponder of my long journey from Somalia to America.

Life as single father

Twelve years ago, a tragedy touched my family; my wife became incapacitated with illness and had abandoned the children, my mother in-law who helped us raise the children died after fighting a long battle with kidney cancer. The otherwise shared roleof parenting children between the ages of two and twelve years old suddenly shifted to my sole responsibility. At the time, the family stayed back in the Netherlands while I was relocated to Racine, Wisconsin for work. Before I fully witnessed the magnitude of the crisis, I thought only a short 10 day visit would be enough to resolve any problem. The situation was dire, I didn't know where to start and genuinely believed I would not be able to take care of the children by myself and contemplated to split them up amongst family willing to take them in. The 10-day visit changed to a year and a half. The first three months were so excruciating; I suffered anxiety, exhaustion and sleepless nights and could hardly accomplish the basic chores such as cooking and cleaning.  Every day in the morning, I would have to walk the children to different schools and around mid-day bring them back for their one hour lunch and repeating the process of walking them back to school and walking them back for the end of the school day. It was quite exhausting.

Thankfully, I came to terms with the reality of it all and in 2002, finally made a decision to come back to United States with the family and resettle in Wisconsin to continue to seek employment with the same company that I left a year and half ago. My sister in England offered to take in the two youngest children, a boy and girl while I’d move with the three older daughters to the U.S. In Racine, Wisconsin, I could not secure employment and finally decided to move to northern Virginia, an area that I was familiar with. Two years later, I brought all the children together in Ashburn, Virginia. It was a momentous task to look after the children and at same time be the only breadwinner. The oldest one, the 12 year daughter had to play the role of mother while I was away at work. Some days she had to stay home to look after if one of her younger siblings is ill and could not go to school. Other than that, we went everywhere together and I would become known as the single father raising five children (we became a bit a phenomenon especially when doing groceries together on the weekends). Very recently, an American lady saw me doing the groceries by myself with no kids in tow and asked where my girls were. I smiled, and told her that my daughters were “all grown up” now and no longer wanted to be seen walking with their dad; they are now too “cool” for that. Today, we have been blessed and I’m thankful to god we are doing fine in all aspects of life. 

Returning to a peaceful Mogadishu is a fading hope

Mogadishu has been devastated by destruction and anarchy for the last two decades. Enough blood has been shed in the streets – It will never regain its splendor. Even with ongoing transition to full governance, the chances of better days are slim to none. This memorial weekend, my family and I have spent a three day retreat in Hampton, Va, a town near the Atlantic coast (Virginia Beach). While walking on the beach, I could not help but grow nostalgic about the beautiful life that once existed back home. The Mogadishu I knew is the one that sheltered all people of all walks of life – it offered each and everyone a unique satisfaction and experience. I remember fondly when I’d peacefully stroll down the center of town near Hotel Shabelle and Savoy center. A Friday at Lido beach among hundreds of swimmers was always relaxing and at night going to the one of the many movie theaters was a delightful way to end the evening. How could one not grow nostalgic, while remembering an afternoon spent at the Konis Stadium, watching the day’s match?

Mogadishu in the 60 s
Mogadishu in the 60s

In the late seventies, I was an employee at Somali Airlines working at the commercial offices in the lower level of Hotel shabeele, my office, a beautifully furnished and air conditioned. The building was frequented by businessmen, government officials, expatriates, diplomats, and other travelers, those were the glory days. Now the beautiful buildings are only empty shells, no longer frequented by Somalia’s finest, but haunted by the memories of what was. No doubt, those were interesting times, and I know I only wish that peace may sweep across the shores of the  Horn of Africa, so that one day our children’s generation will get to taste the sweet nectar of what life in Somalia was, so they’ll have burning and inextinguishable memories of their land as well.

Abdisalam Garjeex
Ashburn – Virginia (USA)
E-mail:- amabdulle@hotmail.com

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