Kenyan Refugees Escape Hunger, Foster Brotherhood In Utica

Their lives were always consistently inconsistent – until they finally settled in Utica, New York, in 2007, three years after arriving to the U.S. as refugees.

Abdi, Yusuf and Ibrahim Maalim stared out of their apartment window in Buffalo, New York, and watched with amazement as snowflakes rocked back and forth in the brisk air, landing delicately on the busy road below. They weren’t expecting a weather-caused school delay or anticipating a winter holiday.

It was just their first time seeing snow.

“We were like – ‘what’s this?’” Yusuf said. “It’s … snow. I didn’t know what it was – but it was cold.”

The three brothers and their mother experienced enough change for a lifetime in merely 24 hours. The cars, paved roads and people looked much different in Buffalo than they did in Kenya, but the notion of having to adjust to an unfamiliar environment wasn’t new.

Their lives were always consistently inconsistent – until they finally settled in Utica, New York, in 2007, three years after arriving to the U.S. as refugees.

An Inescapable Horror

Following the Somalian Revolution, which lasted from 1986 to 1992, the nation entered a state of what seemed like never-ending armed conflict. Siad Barre, a Somalian dictator, had been overthrown, causing a descent into cataclysm in the form of a civil war that left 31 American soldiers dead. Peacekeepers from the United Nations withdrew from Somalia, calling upon surrounding African leaders to restore order in the land – a task that, to this day, has yet to be fulfilled.

Abdi, Yusuf and Ibrahim’s parents were among the 300,000 Somalis, 80 percent of whom were women and children, who fled across the 800-mile border to Kenya in the early 1990s.

It was a move made purely for the sake of survival.

Pregnant with Abdi in 1993 – the eldest of the three – the boys’ mother had been told by the Somali military that if she were to give birth to a baby boy, the child would have to be killed.

Fearing for their lives, the boys’ parents escaped to the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya and were allowed to enter Hagadera, one of the four camps in the compound. It was away from violence, but it was anything besides idyllic. Hunger was a cause for desperation for Abdi, as it currently is for three million Kenyans.

An aerial picture shows a section of the Hagadera camp in Dadaab near the Kenya-Somalia border
Dadaab refugee camp is home to nearly 250,000 people. The boys stayed at Hagadera, one of the four camps in Dadaab, which is pictured above. (Photo by Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

Abdi, born in the Kenyan refugee camp, remembers searching for food and not being able to find any. His mother sewed clothing and sold rugs in the community. If no one bought the rugs she made, she wouldn’t have enough money to purchase food, leaving Abdi by her side – hungry and tugging at her dress.

Ranked 145th out of 188 countries, Kenya’s rate of human development – a criteria created by the UN that measures people’s quality of life based on factors outside of economics, such as mean years of schooling and life expectancy – is alarmingly low.

The interactive graph below shows the differences in human development index between 188 countries. Kenya, the boys’ country of origin, is near the end of the graph. Hover over the line to see the differences. (Source: United Nations Development Programme)


“You’d end up sleeping without food or looking for it,” Abdi said. “And if you couldn’t find it, you’d end up having no food at all. My mom did her best to find food for us – to feed us. But she had no help. Unless you were experienced with a trade, you couldn’t survive. You can’t read or write.”

Searching for Direction

The mother, eight-months pregnant with two boys already by her side, drove more than 21 hours to Kakuma in 2001, moving further west away from what used to be home.

Her husband had married three other women and her interest in leaving Africa altogether started to grow. Polygamy is legal in Kenya and was applauded by a leading women’s group after it became lawfully acceptable in 2014.

The mother and the boys had spent three years in Kakuma, Kenya while she applied for refugee status in other countries. They were interviewed several times by an international board and had to pass examinations – and when they did, they were questioned by the committee and looked at by doctors again.

In 2004, the family – the mother and the boys – were approved by the board and sponsored by the U.S.

Then came the embellished ideas of the U.S.

“We were hyped – we were coming to America,” Yusuf remembers thinking.

The mother and the boys were told that America would be utopic – that the American school teachers would stuff the boys’ bookbags with money during lunch break and that free food would be a simple phone call away.

Yusuf and Ibrahim (Photo provided by Yusuf Maalim)

“They were filling us with literal lies. Man, room service isn’t free,” Yusuf said chuckling. “I was hoping the teacher would take my bag and put some money in it, but it didn’t happen.”

Nothing was as easy as people told them it would be.

When they got to the airport in Kenya, the mom stood and watched people go to their gates to depart. She looked outside and saw people walk on and off planes. Yusuf began to cry – and so did the mom. An airport employee approached the mother, took the papers out of her hand and pointed them in the right direction. They were one minute away from being late to their gate.

“I was scared,” Abdi said. “The airplane – it was my first time ever getting on one. It was tough. I thought I was going to die. It was too fast.”

Early View into America

Abdi, 12 at the time, Yusuf, 9, and Ibrahim, 3, clung to their mother at Buffalo Niagara International Airport on the last day of fall as she searched for anything that resembled familiarity. They would officially join the 102,000 total refugees coming from Kenya to the U.S., about 10,200 of whom are originally from Somalia, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

The boys’ mother heard a familiar sound – a caseworker from a resettlement agency in Buffalo had spoken their language loud enough for the family to hear it in the airport. They felt safe and he took them to their apartment, which was stocked with food, Yusuf remembered.

Once they got to the apartment, the mom, with no prior experience using a stove, wanted to make the boys food – so she cooked rice.

“I don’t know how my mom knew how to use the stove, but she managed it,” Yusuf said laughing.

After they ate, the boys went to bed with full stomachs – something they hadn’t felt in seemingly forever.

“In Africa, the struggle is food,” Abdi said. “In America, you’d hear on the news – ‘there are great opportunities. You can become whatever you want to become. It all depends on you and how hard you’re willing to work to get to where you want to get.’”

The interactive map below shows the prevalence of undernourishment from 1990 to 2015.

Two months after settling in Buffalo, learning the Centro bus system and how to navigate their urban surroundings, the mother called her husband in Africa who told her that he had family in Amarillo, Texas. The mom wanted to regain a sense of closeness, but had no intention of moving back to Kenya. So she packed up her belongings, put on the boys’ Converse sneakers and scheduled a flight to Texas to be close to her extended family.

And once they got to Amarillo, the family almost immediately left, moving to Omaha, Nebraska, with the rest of their family, who, unbeknownst to them, planned on moving  a month after arriving to Texas.

The boys’ nomadic life finally halted in Texas and Yusuf began fourth grade – and kindergarten, first, second and third jammed in one year. The ESL students had to relearn everything, from the orders of the months and the alphabet to the regular fourth-grade coursework.

“It was hard, but I managed,” Yusuf said. “The teacher never put me on the spot. Whenever we took turns reading, I’d say to myself, ‘please don’t pick me.’ I wasn’t comfortable, but ESL helped me – I felt like I belonged there.”

Feeling jealous of the other kids who read out loud in class without much trouble, Yusuf dedicated himself to school, learned how to read, played tennis after school and joined programs.

By the time he learned how to read, Yusuf had attended fourth grade in three different schools in three different states.

Ms. Gamboa, though, his last fourth grade teacher in Utica, left an impression on Yusuf. She encouraged his classmates to help him and highlighted his strengths, especially when the class practiced multiplication, a subject Yusuf loved to study.

But back in the house, when Yusuf and his brothers were finally gaining confidence after three years in Omaha, the mother felt herself drift apart from her extended family. Her sister, the boys’ aunt, called from Utica.

She decided it was time to move again.

Settling in Utica

Yusuf and his classmates from Omaha exchanged emails when he arrived in Utica in 2007. He missed them – the first friends he made in the U.S. – and longed for Omaha. Utica was different – there were more boarded-up buildings and less things to do after school.

But the foundation was set for Yusuf – and his new classmates at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Utica noticed his sparkling personality.

Yusuf stands outside of a store in Utica, New York (Photo provided by Yusuf Maalim)

Kia Gary, a popular classmate, introduced Yusuf to her friends, who then introduced him to their friends.

As Yusuf’s social circle grew and his confidence with it, Abdi was a few classrooms away in ESL, still struggling to learn English, and, worse, worrying about the New York State Regents Exam, which disallowed translators from helping students.

“It was tough, not knowing English at that age,” Abdi said.

“I’d sit with the other kids and get weird looks. I didn’t know what they were saying. I didn’t learn it right away. I graduated [middle school] and had no idea.”

Abdi found that his ESL teachers at Proctor High School had zeroed in on the aspects of the language he didn’t quite understand, and by the time he was a sophomore, English was clicking.

Both Abdi, now 24, and Yusuf, 21, attended Mohawk Valley Community College after high school and played collegiate soccer. Neither necessarily “feel” like refugees, but became more proudful to be refugees after Somalia was listed as one of the countries on Donald Trump’s travel ban.

“He thinks these countries are filled with terrorists,” Yusuf said. “That’s wrong.”

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Abdi said. “Try to see things from your own eyes – don’t believe what people just tell you.”

Ibrahim, 16, doesn’t remember much about the family’s first move from Kenya, but considers his mother to be an example of what most refugees are – hard-working, disciplined people attempting to improve their livelihoods.

“I don’t think it’s okay to stop people from coming here and improving their lives,” Ibrahim said. “I think about how much different my life would’ve been if we couldn’t come here. I wouldn’t know how to speak English, I would’ve been married by now and my priorities would’ve changed.”

Ibrahim remembers his mother, alone, working to support him and his brothers. He doesn’t ask his older brothers what life was like in Kenya, but understands the sacrifice his mother made for them.

“My mom taught me how to work hard – gave me a work ethic,” Ibrahim said. “And my brothers set great examples for me.”

When his mother, who works at Chobani, needs help understanding something, Ibrahim is the first to volunteer, often tagging along for doctor visits, reading mail and translating whenever it’s needed.

Abdi, a dietary aid, is an avid XBOX gamer and feels just as American as any of his neighbors. But his culture and religion are more important to him than it’s ever been and he intends to pass the respect that’s taught in Kenya to his 4-year-old daughter Sumuya.

Abdi holds his daughter Sumuya (Photo by Ben Mehic)

“It’s important [to maintain the culture],” Abdi said. “This is my second home. My first home is something I’ll always remember.

Something I’ll keep forever. I want to tell these stories to my kids and grandkids, who will hopefully visit [Kenya] someday. It’s going to be different for them. They were born here and I was born there, so it’s going to be different. They will never see the struggles we dealt with, so I’m thankful. There’s always something you can remember.”

Ben Mehic is a senior at Utica College. He can be reached at

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