Refugee

A Somali-American confronts discrimination at home and in Africa

Challenging anti-immigrant prejudice is not easy. But sometimes it’s required.

by Sahra Ahmed Mar 10th · 7 min read

Challenging anti-immigrant prejudice is not easy. But sometimes it's required.

It all started with a lipstick—a red lipstick with slight hints of purple, a Bobbi Brown lipstick, Crimson 16. I bought it at a store in the Polaris mall from a very friendly young woman, Kayla. Soon after, I received a card in the mail from Kayla thanking me for my purchase. The gesture caught me by surprise and touched me; I could not even remember sharing my address with her.

Dear Sahra,

You are going to love your new lip color.

Come back soon so we can have some more fun;

I enjoyed your company.

A few weeks later, I was in a Columbus coffee shop reviewing my notes for a class on culturally relevant and humanizing pedagogy. Just before a scheduled meeting with my professor, I dashed into the restroom to refresh my lipstick. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an older woman with blond hair staring at me.

As I was drying my hands, she approached me. “I didn’t know you were allowed to wear makeup.”

“Excuse me?” I said, although I’d heard her quite well. She repeated her comment.

“Of course I may wear makeup,” I replied. “Anybody can, if the person wishes to do so.”

She pointed to my hijab. “So, why do you have that thing on your head?”

“Because I choose to wear it.” I tried to keep my voice calm as the Quran’s teachings of tolerance and acceptance flashed through my head.

“Well, you’re in America now and should dress like an American. Otherwise, go back to where you came from.” She slammed the bathroom door, inches from my face.

I ran after her and said, loud enough for others to hear, “Excuse me, ma’am, you’re being very rude to me.”

“Shut up!” she shouted. “Don’t you tell me how to talk—I’m an American, and you’re not.”

Later, after I’d reported the incident to the manager, who declined to take action although my account was backed up by an employee who had overheard part of the conversation in the restroom, the woman approached me again. “Feel free to ask me about my makeup,” she said, in a friendlier voice.

“Makeup is not the issue,” I said. “I’m upset about you telling me I don’t belong in this country. If I don’t belong here, can you please tell me where, exactly, I do belong? Where would you want me to go?”

Although I grew up in Kenya, I was never considered a Kenyan because of my Somali heritage. And because of my Kenyan upbringing, Somalis have never considered me a real Somali but a sijui—a know-nothing from Kenya.

One day at my high school in Kenya, our headmistress, Mrs. M, made the usual announcements at the morning assembly: exams that were coming up, field trips that were in the works and stellar student achievements that we should emulate. Then she brought up her dislike for the recently arrived Somali students who, she felt, were not following the school rules. Apparently, there had been an incident. “I wish they could go back to their country,” she said. “We don’t want them at our school, and we certainly don’t want them in our country.”

I was stunned to hear these words from a woman I liked and admired. I could not believe that she—a Kenyan of Indian descent and a person in an authoritative position—could be so prejudiced.

Later that day, while we were being inspected to make sure our polished shoes were free of blemishes and our school uniforms perfectly ironed, I decided to speak up. “Mrs. M,” I said, my voice shaking, “I don’t agree with what you said about Somali students. I mean, you could have said that there were some girls who were not obeying school rules and were having attendance issues, instead of implicating all Somali students.” I took a deep breath and continued, “I am Somali, and I follow the rules. In fact, most of the Somali students in our school had nothing to do with this incident. And by the way, in the past, you have always said that we are all Kenyans.”

Mrs. M. stared at me, her expression unreadable, before telling me to return to class.

I came to the United States with my family when I was 17 years old—first to the Boston area and later, after college, to Columbus. Initially, I believed America to be the ultimate role model—the land of the free and the brave, the melting pot of all melting pots. But even here, issues of belonging and identity continued to be a part of my life.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was called into work early at my job as a public service representative at Boston’s Logan International Airport. My subway ride to the airport was surreal; most people were rushing to get out of the city. Upon arrival I asked my supervisor if I could be excused from working in the terminals. I suspected my presence might trigger feelings of resentment and anger, so I asked to work the airport phone lines instead of the counter and provide assistance in that manner. And as I had feared, as soon as people picked up on my accent, they asked about my identity; someone actually did tell me then that I should go back to where I was from.

For weeks after the attacks, my family and friends pleaded with me not to wear my hijab, or to tie it around the back of my head in order to blend better. They felt it was safer for me to look more American rather than draw attention to my otherness. While I took their concerns seriously, I could not go against who I was; I needed to stay true to my faith, and the hijab is an integral part of my identity—discarding it was not an option.

Recently, at my son’s soccer game, I wandered away from the sideline where parents were watching in the direction of the area designated for coaches and players. As soon as I realized my mistake, I turned around to walk back. Visibly alarmed, a Somali woman approached me and shouted in Somali: “You are not allowed to go back there.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” I responded in English.

“Well,” she snapped, “if you were a true Somali, you’d speak in your language.”

A legacy of Sept. 11 is the realization that some people will always doubt my allegiance to this country. The way I look does not exactly invite acceptance in the way fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes say, “I belong here.” Despite my sense of growing anti-Muslim sentiment, I have persisted and kept going with every frown, sneer and look of distrust. Sadly, our current president’s use of racist tropes, such as “they should go back to where they came from,” and his derogatory comments about immigrants, trigger the prejudice that flared after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even though we were all affected by the tragedy.

The coffee shop incident took place on the same day President Trump rescinded DACA, the program that provides protection from deportation and offers legal employment to undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children. Before I left the shop, I heard the woman telling the manager that “if there’s one thing wrong with this country, it’s giving these people all these rights.”

Arriving late for my appointment with my professor—held at a different coffee shop—I apologized and told him what had happened. My wound was still fresh, so the tears began to flow again. My professor told me to be strong. He assured me that for every person who felt this way about me, there were countless others who wanted me to be here.

Then a lady approached us. I was not sure how much of my story she had overheard, but she gave me a big hug, kissed my cheek and told me that I was loved and belonged here in this country no matter what other people might say.

When I did finally return to the coffee shop, I was informed that the woman will not be allowed back. It was a hollow victory, and I have found another place to drink my coffee. I still do take pride in having had the courage to speak up to my high school principal in Kenya, and to the woman in the coffee shop.

These days, I choose to focus on the few minutes I spent with Kayla at the makeup counter trying on various shades of lipstick and receiving her thank you card afterward. Every morning when I put on my Bobbi Brown lipstick, I think about Kayla and not the coffee shop woman whose bias compelled her to malign my character. We need to speak up against the injustices of the world—standing on the sidelines will only erode our sense of community and our shared humanity.

last updated: 2020-03-10@22:03