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Searching for Belonging

Somali Migration and Adjustment Across Three Countries
April 10, 2018

Portrait of Cawo Abdi

Portrait of Cawo Abdi
Photo by Lisa Miller, CLA Photographer

Jannah is a Somali word meaning eden—a place of sanctuary, acceptance, and belonging that many Somali refugees and migrants imagine when leaving their country in hopes of a better life. When the civil war in Somalia began in 1991, millions of citizens were forced to leave as refugees while others were displaced across the country. 

As Associate Professor Cawo Abdi describes, “It’s not easy to move your family and yourself miles away. Challenges do not necessarily end with the entry to the desired destination. Oftentimes,  Abdi continues, “there are unforeseen challenges that you have to confront on the other side.” 

For many Somali migrants, the adjustment to life in a new country has not been easy, but they remain hopeful that they will create a new home for themselves despite being thousands of miles away from the familiarity of their homeland. 

A Comparative Analysis of Experience

Abdi has done extensive research on the displacement of Somali people and their adjustment to living in different countries around the world. She wanted to study how migration experiences for Somali migrants differed across three different countries: the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, and United States. 

“How can an Islamic country like the United Arab Emirates help [Somali migrants] with the challenges that arise post-migration? What does it mean to be an African? Or what does it mean to come to the US, that has a rigid binary of black and white and a history of slavery?”

Her findings to these questions have been assembled into her book, Elusive Jannah: The Somali Diaspora and a Borderless Muslim Identity. She emphasizes that, “Each [country] has its own migration policies, religious traditions, racial structures, identities, and political interests.” 

Abdi traveled to each of the three countries and conducted interviews, hosted focus groups, and observed Somali migrants interacting in settings such as malls, mosques, and community centers. She asked migrants about their employment, economic challenges, legal status, education, and their meanings of home. By conducting comparative research, Abdi was able to define similarities and differences in refugee adjustment.

Diverse Adjustment Experiences for Migrants

“Each country ended up being its own kind of complex ecosystem,” Abdi says. 

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abdi found that migrants felt a sense of belonging simply because they were living in a Muslim country. Somali refugees could hear their call to prayers daily and felt welcomed by the Islamic community. They also discussed uncertainty. The UAE only allows for renewable temporary visas, meaning that their ability to stay in the country could be revoked at any time. Migrants were torn between loving their new home and also feeling insecure about their ability to stay. 

South African immigrants tell a different story. With a history of strict apartheid until 1994, the sentiments of racism are still ingrained in South African culture today. However, Somali refugees don’t have the same concept of what it means to be black or white, because their country consisted mainly of people who looked like them. “Somalis are being caught in the historical tensions of the apartheid,” Abdi describes. Somali refugees experience extreme levels of violence, and many Somalis  have been killed over the last two decades. Thus, most migrants see living in South Africa as a transitional place; they don’t want to settle down because they lack a feeling of belonging and safety. 

As for the United States, Somali immigrants feel more physically safe and stable because most can gain citizenship within five to seven years of living in the country. However, they do express “a sense of insecurity due to their religious marginalization, the policies of the US government and homeland security, and media portrayal,” Abdi says. The post 9/11 War on Terror has caused the community to feel under siege, destabilizing their sense of security. 

Abdi argues that the rise of right-wing politics and the normalization of Islamophobic rhetoric has also had a negative psychological impact on Somali immigrants. “Somalis escaped from [a country in] conflict but still feel a sense of insecurity. That insecurity doesn't have to be someone with a gun coming into your house, but it is the insecurity of [worrying] if your children will feel safe in school because they have a different name, skin tone, or religion.” 

Bringing it Home

Abdi emphasizes that the experience of Somali migrants can not be generalized to fit one story. Her research demonstrates that the context of reception largely dictates migrant adjustment and sense of belonging. Tying together her research from the three countries, Abdi concludes that all “refugee and immigrant families want to succeed. They want to work hard. They want to grow and learn and expand their horizons. They want security and safety—politically, economically, and socially.”

In recognition of her exemplary scholarship, Professor Abdi was recently selected by the College of Liberal Arts as their nominee for the President’s Community-Engaged Scholar award, a prestigious honor bestowed onto faculty that are committed to serving the wider community by bridging public and professional engagement. As one of the leading scholars on Somali migration and diaspora in the world, Abdi’s ground-breaking research continues to benefit individuals and communities across nations, where newcomers can find a home and host societies can feel enriched.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.