Editor's note: The essay below, a tale of triumph and tragedy, was written by SCA Pittsburgh member Siraji Hassan for his graduation from SCA's Leadership in the Environment Advancement Program (LEAP), a conservation program for youth in poverty. Siraji’s presentation won an award that evening and his story may well win your heart.
Being an American means a lot to me because my people, the Somali-Bantu, have experienced many hardships. I once lived in a refugee camp, called Kakuma, and now I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I didn’t go to school in Kakuma, Now I attend Allderdice High School. I didn’t have a job in Kakuma, Now I work at the Student Conservation Association (SCA). It was hard for my family to make a living and we struggled for food. Now that my dad and I have jobs, we can support my family. Many of my friends here have gotten their citizenship and very soon, my parents will be taking their test. When I become a citizen, I will be able to get my U.S. passport and have the opportunity to return to Kenya. However, this time it will be different.
Siraji during an SCA Earth Day Pittsburgh event.
I left Kenya a refugee and I am returning as a Somali-American. And I am very proud of that. I will be able to see family members that I was sadly forced to leave behind.
One night in Somalia, I remember all the parents were sitting together. One man came to us and we all had to leave the country. He told us that there was going to be a big war, and that we had to leave as soon as possible. He said there were going to be bombs and shooting and we were going to be in danger.
When the bombs started exploding, my mother took me on her back, grabbed my brother and my sister, and left our house. My other brother was still there, but my mother returned to get him later. When she found him, our house had been destroyed. My mom grabbed all of us, and started running to safety. We later found other Somali Bantu families that were doing the same thing: Somali-Bantu walking, fleeing for their safety. Many people died walking. People starved, died of thirst, or were eaten by animals.
Siraji with fellow SCA LEAP members in Pittsburgh. Siraji is top row, far right.
For three days, we all walked through the jungles and the deserts. By the last night, many people had died. We took as many people as we could along the way. When we started running out of water, we were forced to drink urine for us to survive. That last day, we finally saw a car driving through the desert, which was there to help the Somalis get across the border. They couldn’t drive us, but they told us to keep walking, and that we were close to Kakuma. On the third day, we reached the refugee camp and my mother started crying. The next several days we spent in the hospital. We were given ration cards for food and were given a house that we would live in for the next eight years. Finally, we received notice for an interview to come to the United States and my mother told me the story I just told.
This is why I am proud to be an American. Many of the Somali-Bantu know this story well, and experienced many of the same things my family and I did. But I can proudly say that I am here, and will soon call myself an American.