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Hear My Story: Yusuf

Stories of tragedy, courage, and hope reborn: these are the voices of the refugees served by Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri.   Learn more about the refugee experience from those who have lived it first hand.

What is your name?

Yusuf

Can you tell us about where you’re from?

I’m originally from Mogadishu, Somalia.

Where were you living before you came to the United States?

I fled from Somalia to Ethiopia. I was resettled from Ethiopia to the United States. 

What was life like before coming to the US?

In Somalia, it used to be a good life with family and everybody, but later on, it became a hard life because of the war. That’s what made me run from Somalia to Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, the life was good, it was a very safe place, but you still have the name of a refugee. You can’t get the rights of Ethiopian citizens. Again, that’s what resettlement to the USA gave us; we have a chance to become US citizens. 

Did you come to the US with family?

No, I came by myself.

How old were you when you came to the US?

I was 27 years old. 

What was your first impression of Columbia?

Life is totally, very different. We used to walk everywhere and take a public bus, something like that. Here, you have to drive. That’s something you have to learn very fast here. To get your job done and your education, you have to have a car and drive. That’s something very, very different from my home country. 

What surprised you most about life here?

Now, there’s technology you can use to check the place before you go—images, videos, all of those things—but when I was coming, we didn’t have all those facilities. You know where you’re going, but you don’t know what it looks like, you don’t know how the people are. You just go there. So I had a picture in my mind, but actually it was close. What I saw here and the picture in my mind was pretty close.

I saw a lot of people complaining a lot, because they think they’re still in transit to go to the US and wondering why they’re in Columbia, but it’s like, no, this is the USA. Some of the refugees that come are like, “No, where’s the big buildings?” And we have to say, “No, we don’t have big buildings here.”

What was the hardest thing to learn about life here?

Actually, I spoke English when I came here. I don’t really have anything to mention that was hard for me, because I feel like life was hard when I was in Ethiopia, and so when I came here, it was easy. 

What do you think of Columbia now?

Columbia is a good place. I do have a lot of friends around the USA. Everyone would like to move and be neighbors because that’s how it used to be in Somalia and Ethiopia, but I started here, and I said, “This is the type of city I like.” 

Back in Somalia, I was born in a small city. We used to have farms, all of those things. I like that. I’m always happy when I go to the Amish country. I like those kinds of empty places. Just hear the sounds. I like Columbia because all of those things, and the number of people is not that crazy. Columbia is a college town, and all of those things just make me like Columbia more.  

My nephews call me and ask, “Uncle, how’s the train?” and I tell them, “No, there’s no train, it’s just similar to Ethiopia. We don’t have all of those things.”

What is your favorite thing about Columbia or the US?

Playing soccer and education. When I get a little time, I go to Cosmo Park. I have friends and we play soccer together.

How do you feel about the community here?

The community here has good people. I’m very familiar with the people downtown and I’ve never met someone crazy or rude, something like that. They are good people, welcoming to new people. They like to listen, even if you are speaking broken English or some kind of accent. They’re not used to hearing that, but still they welcome you. The people are good.

How has Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS) helped during your transition to life in the US?

When you are in the refugee camp in a country, a war zone, you will get in contact with UNHCR. We have contact with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the agency that brings refugees here. Both agencies are doing a great job because they like to mentor the right person to the right country and especially to the right town. I feel they are amazing; it’s a crazy job they are doing. They see if you speak English, if you have some different language. They will say, “Oh, this guy is good to go to that town because it has a school, all of the things he can figure out.” Or they’ll say, “Let’s take him to Minneapolis or somewhere else where a lot of Somalians can help him over there.” That’s how they do it. That’s why you don’t know where you’re going, but they place you where it fits you and you can live easier.

When I got here, RIS provided all the housing stuff, furniture and everything—rent, utilities—up to a certain month, until you get a job and can be self-sufficient and you can take care of your life. They will help you get a driver’s license, learn how to drive. They will help you enroll in schools, all of the things, the same things I’m doing now. I got help with all of the things. I got a job from Walmart; I used to work night shift for a year and half, and then I got hired here at RIS. 

Can you describe your role in RIS?

I am a case manager generally, but how we work here, it’s not like you do everything totally by yourself. We work as a team. For example, if the immigration team needs help, we work with them. Mostly I help with the furniture—furniture donations, delivery. My title is case manager, but we have a lot of other things we do. 

What is the most rewarding part of serving with RIS?

Helping people, that’s what keeps me working here; I love this kind of job. This is kind of hereditary. My dad, my family, they like to help the people. When you help the people, usually you will see how that help was a benefit to that person. The same thing here, I’m happy when I see one of the refugees I got from the airport, showed him everything, when I see that he’s graduated from school, he’s driving around town, or he’s helping some people, some new people. When I see all of those things, I’m very happy. 

What are some of the challenges?

When the people are coming here, it depends where they’re coming from. When they’re going through orientation, for example, they’ll tell them, “RIS will help you get a car.” Sometimes they’ll have friends in different states. As you know, the United States, each state has its own rules. Missouri’s rules are not the same rules as Illinois, and it’s not the same rules as New York. So for example, someone from Florida can call a refugee here and say, “Yeah, when I came, I got this, I got this, I got this. Did RIS give these things to you?” And our clients will say, “No.” On a different day, you’ll see the client is mad. They’ll say, “You guys are not doing this, you’re not doing that, I have to get that.” So that’s a little bit challenging. 

What are a few things you’ve learned during your time here?

I learned to be more patient because it’s the first time our clients are coming to the USA. From a third country to a first country, there’s a big, big difference. Some people can’t handle that. Whatever they’re saying, it’s not technical, it’s emotional. I learned to be patient a lot, because one day you will see this person realize whatever the person said in the moment was wrong, and he’ll say, “I’m sorry, I was new at the time. I did not realize life would be like this,” and he will apologize. That’s the experience you get from the job to be patient.

What would you like others to know about what you do, and about those we serve?

We do case management. Most of what I do is case management. Getting whatever they need. For example, if we get a single person, when he comes, I have to satisfy all the requirements our agency requires us to do, such as taking him to hospitals, getting him social security, food stamps, a car, teaching him how to drive, show him the community, all of those things. Getting him assistance with education, health, jobs, immigration. As a case manager, we have to assist them, show them all the different people who work here and what we can do for them. That’s mostly what we do, although it’s not like we do only this, this, this. There’s a lot of things it’s out of requirement, but if we have time, we’ll do it.

For example, for me, I don’t work Saturdays and Sundays here, but sometimes, when refugees need help, I go and take them to the grocery store to go shopping there with my car. That’s out of humanity. This person doesn’t have anyone. Time off the job was Friday, today’s Saturday, he needs his food, what can you do? That’s how I always think about it. The two hours or one hour you give someone, it’ll help a lot. It can be fun, he’ll do his shopping, and you can also do your shopping at that time. 

Everything is about serving someone new to the USA, showing them all the different ways to start their new future. All of those things including education, driving, shopping, health. All of those things, it’s the responsibility of the case manager. We’re not doing that forever. If a certain time passes, we call the person, and we go, “Hey, we show you that, we show you this, including cultural orientation to the USA, and now is your time to start your life. Still, if you need help, you will not be the top priority, because we need to help the new refugees. We are helping them, but still, if we have time we will help you or you can call us, and we will give you an idea of what you need to do.” 

What is your greatest accomplishment?

I’m working now and self-sufficient. I’m taking care of my life completely, plus taking care of my family life. They are in Somalia and Ethiopia, but they are happy because they will get everything they need in life because of me, so I’m proud of that, when I see my family living a good level of life. They have everything I have here, so I’m proud of that.

What is your dream for the future?

My dream is to be a rich person. I have a nickname, Yuu-Yuu Company. Everyone calls me that. My dream goal is to open a company called the Yuu-Yuu Company. 

I came from Somalia and Ethiopia, and a lot of poor people live there. I want to get that company, not because of myself, but because everybody needs help. I like to help the people. I always think about getting a lot of money, and starting with the homeless of Columbia, I want to give everybody something so they can be happy for at least one month. That’s the reason I would choose to be a businessman, to get a lot of money to help others.

What would the company be for?

I’ve thought about it for a long time. I know women control the world, number one. Number two, I know women like beauty, so I know women will not buy food if she didn’t buy her make-up, so I want to open a cosmetics company.

What is your favorite thing about your home country?

Community. For example, there’ll be four or five houses in the neighborhood, and they know everyone. They’ll even know their relatives and where they live. You have at least ten people around your age, and you guys can play together. All the older people like my mom, my dad—my dad, he also knows all the dads of the neighborhood. They meet together in my house. Tomorrow they meet together in another house. They drink coffee and tea together, you know. It’s a very blissful, happy life. Very, very close. It’s like one family.

Sometimes now I send money to all of them. I can’t send them money every month, but I take turns because they are part of my family. We used to be only neighbors. We were born in the same place and grew up in the same place, but now we’re part of a family. Some of the families are so close, that you don’t even knock on the door. You go there and you sleep. If you’re hungry and you see food, you eat it. You don’t ask anybody. I remember my friend used to come to my house and take my shirt. I already did it in the laundry and it was clean for me to wear, and he came and he took it before I came out of the bathroom. I said, “What happened to my shirt?” My mom said, “Yeah, your friend came and took it.” I cannot complain.

What do you miss the most from your home country?

Family. I live here by myself, so it’s not good. It’s good though, because if all of us lived together back home, life would be difficult, it would be very hard, but now, I’m making their life easier because I work and send them money every month. I miss them, but still we have happiness because we all have a good life. I have What’sApp, so they’re connected to me every minute.

Are there any family or cultural traditions you keep?

The food. The food we make back home, we still make it here. We go shopping for food in Kansas City because they have a larger Somalian community there. 

What does being American mean to you?

America is the land of immigrants and opportunity. Legally, if you’re an American citizen, it doesn’t matter if you are white or black, it doesn’t matter if you are Islamic or Christian or Buddhist, doesn’t matter if you came here six years ago or you’ve been here forever. That’s what we can get only from the US. That’s how I describe the USA.

What does being a refugee mean to you?

A refugee is someone seeking a life, and there’s a problem from his mother country. He’s seeking a safe new life, and wants to give his kids a life. That’s what makes him run from his country because he doesn’t know where to go, and the only place he can go is a neighboring country. For example, Eritrean refugees, they can go to Ethiopia or Djibouti because they have a border. Somalia, for example, Somalian refugees can go to Ethiopia and Kenya because they have a border. That’s the closest place they can be safe and live. So yeah, a refugee is someone who needs help.

What does World Refugee Day mean to you?

World Refugee Day is the day everyone in the world shows that refugees have rights, to show others how their life is, what hope they have for the future. For example, we have world World Refugee Day here in Columbia, but the World Refugee Day we have in the refugee camps, they celebrate a lot because they say, “This is our day.” Here, you only see the refugees come and celebrate, but over there you will see everybody’s celebrating. It’s like a national holiday, so it’s a very big thing that refugees have.

Do you feel like there are misconceptions about being a refugee?

Yes, that’s what causes the conflict between some cities and the refugees. When you don’t know something about refugees, it’s very hard to describe. For example, some people don’t see a refugee for his life and don’t know the meaning of refugees. It’s very hard to understand what a refugee is. That’s what sometimes happens. It’s not all the time. Refugees are people in need; they’re not people who want to do something bad, want to do something illegal in the USA. If you don’t know where you are going, someone else is deciding where you go and what you’re doing, that’s the life of a refugee. 

Do you feel like there are misconceptions about your home country?

The things that brought us to be refugees are political problems, not religion, because all the people have the same religion. It’s about political problems, which comes from foreign countries. It’s very hard to understand because you will see two people are best friends today, enemies tomorrow, and they will go back to being friends again the next day. So that’s what makes it crazy. Yesterday, you’ll see someone was happy, and then today he’s your enemy and wants to kill you, and you don’t know the reason. You have to run and be a refugee. 

We don’t have a big, strong government, and our country has resources. We have only 15 million people, so each country needs to protect their resources, but Somalia is not a strong country, they cannot protect their resources, so they will keep breaking like that.

For example, today you are a leader of one of the states and you make $2 million every month. How about if someone gives you $1 billion every day? That’s what’s going on.

What do you want the community to know about your home country or culture?

Somalian people are good people as I believe and as I see. You will meet a lot of different nationalities and they will tell you the same. Somalian people, they will give you money and they won’t eat that day. For example, if someone has their meal for today, his lunch, and he sees that you have nothing, he will give you his meal and he will be hungry. Somalian people, they won’t judge you about where you’re from, what you’re doing, what kind of religion; they like to help all people, but the only thing we have that interferes are the politics between us, and that’s with the leaders.

For example, most of the fight is between tribes; this tribe and this tribe, they fight, and the troops of this tribe, and the troops of this tribe, they are like family. They eat together every day. When the fighting starts, they run toward each other and start fighting, and when the fight ends and the leaders are gone, they’ll come to each other and say “I’m sorry, did I hit you today? I’m sorry, my brother. I’m sorry. They told me to shoot at you, but I don’t need to do that.” Mentally, you can tell that it’s foreign countries influencing these things, but the people, they love each other. They love all the communities around the world. When you see somewhere that has a bigger Somalian community, you can tell they do have a lot of different things that make you happy.

For example, in Minneapolis, we have a lot of Somali people. In Kansas City, it’s the same. If I go there now and say, “I’m a Somali person, I don’t have anything,” they’ll give me somewhere to live, somewhere to eat. They’ll find a lot of things for me. They will not ask, “Where are you from originally?” They will not ask you. When I say I’m in need, they’ll give. Some will say, “No, we have to know this,” but most people will say, “No, he’s our brother.”

What do you want the community to know about refugees?

Refugees, such as the people who come to the USA, come to get their life, their education and a future that they will pass on to others. For example, I came here to get a better life. After a year, I started giving back to the other refugees. I hope the people I’m bringing in now, after two or three years, they will start working with us and help other people. Some of the workers here, most of us, we came here as refugees. We know how the refugee life is and we know how the process was. In general, for refugees, they’re someone doing new things.

What would you tell yourself when you first arrived in Columbia?

Be very patient. You like to help the people, like to learn. 

I am the type of person who cannot be silent for one hour. When I hear someone say, “Oh, I spent all day yesterday in my room or in my house,” I go, “No way, did you talk on the phone? That’s not possible.” I cannot spend one hour just by myself; if I’m not with someone, I have to call, and I have to talk on the phone. So I’m someone who likes to be inside a community. One of the reasons I ran as a refugee was because my mom said, “You have to run.” I was not able to stay at home when the war was starting. For example, I would say, “Mom, I have to go play soccer. I have to go see the outside.” My mom would say, “No, the city is not safe, please stay home.” So for two days, I left, and when I saw my mom, she was crying, and she said, “No, you cannot stay here. You like to go outside, but the outside now is not the same it used to be. You have to go.” 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

​In 2018 I married my wife in Ethiopia and I adopted her son and we had a baby boy. It pains me every day that they are still in Ethiopia and I am here without them. My greatest wish is for my wife and kids to reunite with me in Columbia so our family can be together and I can hug my kids every day. It’s not enough to see my family on the phone.

This kind of job is not an easy job that everybody can do. You will see a lot of different people, different cultures, different nationalities, different religions. Everybody believes something, everybody needs something, everybody is different from other people. To have all of those people in one place finishing what they need, it’s a very hard job unless you are very patient and very helpful. I’ve learned from that over the years.