'We Are Americans': Somali Refugee Family Reflects On Making A Life In The U.S.

Jul 5, 2019
Originally published on July 5, 2019 5:49 am

Facing persecution, violence, lack of health care and myriad other barriers to safety, millions of refugees leave home each year seeking a better life in a different country.

As of 2017, more than 2 million Somalis have been displaced, in one of the world's worst refugee crises, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Aden Batar, 52, was born in Baidoa, Somalia. After civil war broke out in 1990, staying in the country became virtually impossible for his young family.

"We had to flee our home due to heavy artillery fire," Aden says. "For the next two years, my family and I were in hiding, moving from place to place."

Aden's decision to leave Somalia was ultimately influenced by a family tragedy.

His eldest son, Mohamed, suffered injuries from a household accident involving boiled water when he was 2. Because of the war, Aden could not take him to a hospital for treatment. Mohamed died five days later.

Aden decided then to move to the U.S., where he became one of the first Somalis to resettle in the state of Utah.

"I didn't want anyone else to die," he says.

In a StoryCorps conversation with his son Jamal, 27, Aden remembers the difficulty of starting a new life.

"Life was very tough," Aden says. "Some days, I wasn't seeing you and your brother, because when I go to work, it's late in the afternoon, and I come home, you're all sleeping, and then, I'll go to school."

As Aden worked at a factory and studied, his son faced his own difficulties — adjusting to a new country. Jamal was 2 years old when his family arrived in Utah.

"It's always just a juggling act," Jamal says. "At school you're somebody, but then you come home and you're another person, because of those two distinct cultures, two distinct languages."

When America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, some of Jamal's classmates looked at him with scorn.

"I can remember — the day 9/11 happened, I was in fifth grade, and somebody threw a milk carton at me [and] said, 'You effing terrorist, what are you doing here?' " Jamal says.

In spite of the xenophobia and racism, the Batar family was determined to make a new life in the U.S.

In 2001, Aden became the director of Immigration and Refugee Resettlement at Catholic Community Services of Utah. It is the same organization that resettled him and his family 25 years ago.

After years of serving the community, Aden hopes to be treated the same as his neighbors.

"I lived in this community close to half of my life," Aden says to Jamal. "You were 2 years old when you came here. So, I want people to look at us as human beings, who went through a lot and survived."

To Aden, his identity is not just that of a refugee.

"We are Americans," he says, "and we're not going anywhere."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Von Diaz and Camila Kerwin.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. Aden Batar had just graduated law school when war broke out in Somalia in 1990. He and his young family were forced to flee to escape violence. They came to the United States and were among the first Somalis resettled in Utah.

Aden and his son Jamal came to StoryCorps to talk about those early days.

JAMAL BATAR: How did you get by when you first arrived?

ADEN BATAR: I got my first job in a factory - started at $4.25. That was the minimum wage back then, but I accepted because I wanted to work. Life was very tough. Some days, I wasn't seeing you and your brother because when I go to work it's, you know, late in the afternoon. And I come home, you're all sleeping. And then I'll go to school.

J BATAR: What were the toughest parts of adjusting to life in Utah?

A BATAR: The food was different, the weather - and you don't have friends. And also we didn't have a place to gather and pray.

J BATAR: Were you ever worried about me?

A BATAR: Always.

J BATAR: It's always just a juggling act. At school you're somebody. But then you come home, you're another person because of those two distinct cultures, two distinct languages. And I can remember, the day 9/11 happened, I was in fifth grade. And somebody threw a milk carton at me, said you f-ing terrorist, what are you doing here?

A BATAR: Are those things worse now?

J BATAR: I get a lot of questions, you know? Where you from? Oh, I'm from Utah. No, where are you really from?

A BATAR: I understand. I took a lot of crap, but we just need to look ahead.

J BATAR: Yeah. I've learned how to deal with it.

A BATAR: I lived in this community close to half of my life. You were 2 years old when you came here. So I want people to look at us as human beings who went through a lot and survived; that we're a part of them.

J BATAR: That we're American.

A BATAR: We are Americans. And we're not going anywhere.


INSKEEP: That was Aden Batar and his son Jamal. Aden is now director of Refugee Resettlement for Catholic Community Services of Utah, which was the same organization that resettled his family. Their interview will be archived along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.