How Eyni Ali Found Her Voice in Colorado

Jake Holschuh

Do you feel guilty for judging me?
I do not blame you if you did
But it was not fair
I know life is not fair
But I hope for a fair chance in life.

— Eyni Ali

Eyni Ali woke up early on October 30. The eighteen-year-old didn’t want to risk being late for her U.S. citizenship exam. She’d even spent the night at her family’s Aurora apartment rather than her dorm room at the University of Colorado Denver; her nineteen-year-old sister, Dunia, was taking the test, too. With a third sister, Istar, driving, they arrived at the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services building in Centennial at 7:30 a.m., 45 minutes before the exam.

“I was expecting it to be my worst interview,” Eyni recalls.

The test began with an oath to tell the truth. After that, the interviewer asked Eyni if she would give up her loyalty to other countries and be loyal solely to America. She answered yes. He asked her to name the current governor of Colorado. “Hickenlooper,” she responded.

“Who was the first president of the United States?”

“George Washington,” Eyni answered.

The interviewer asked her to listen to a sentence and write it down, to determine whether she could understand and write English; this was followed by a simple reading question. Then the interviewer asked Eyni if she believed in the U.S. Constitution. Yes, she answered again.

The rest of the interview mostly revolved around biographical questions, and gave Eyni and the interviewer a chance to bond. “He used to take the light rail to and from CU Denver,” Eyni recalls. She uses the light rail on weekends to get from school to her family’s apartment.

By the time the exam was over, Eyni was sure she had passed: The interviewer told her she’d gotten every question right. Dunia had passed, too. That meant they would soon be sworn in as citizens, joining Istar and their brother, who had come here earlier, as official Americans.

Although the citizenship exam turned out to be easy for Eyni, it had not been easy getting to this point. The family had fled civil war in their home country of Somalia, landed in a refugee camp in Kenya, then gotten stuck in refugee purgatory in Nairobi for almost two years. Finally, in 2013, Eyni, three siblings and their mother made it to the United States.

As it turns out, they were lucky. When they arrived in Denver, the United States still had a reputation as a true refuge. Today, though, the administration of President Donald Trump has not only slashed the number of refugees allowed into this country, but has issued several versions of a Muslim travel ban that virtually locks out Somali nationals.
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The 2018 Refugee First Thanksgiving in Aurora.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
One of seven children, Eyni Ali was born in 2000 in a hospital in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

The country sits on the Horn of Africa, bordered by the Arabian Sea to the east, the Gulf of Aden to the north, and Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya on the other sides. Powerful empires once ruled this section of East Africa, controlling vast trade routes that linked the rest of the continent to the Middle East. Later, Somalia became one of the many prizes in the European scramble for Africa. In the nineteenth century, France, Italy and Great Britain carved Somalia into three protectorates. After decades of colonial rule, Italian and British Somalia declared their independence in 1960 and combined to form modern-day Somalia. French Somalia eventually became Djibouti.

Somalia created a democratic government and held a referendum on a new constitution, but this era lasted only a few years. In October 1969, an assassin killed Somalia’s president, Abdirashid Ali Shermarke. Six days later, the day after his funeral, the military launched a coup d’etat led by Major General Siad Barre, who ruled the country until 1991. Early in his reign, Barre implemented socialist reforms and rejected clan-based politics, albeit through dictatorial rule. But he also made some monumental missteps, invading Ethiopia and attempting to quell an internal rebellion through military force. In 1991, he fled the country.

After that, Somalia remained in the grips of civil war for years as foreign interventions by African and U.N. peacekeeping forces as well as the U.S. military ended in failure. Meanwhile, extremist groups like Al-Shabaab gained power and began terrorizing much of the country. Faced with a collapsing state structure and growing famine, many Somalis fled to neighboring Kenya.

Eyni’s mother remembers when Somalia attracted tourists from around the world with its beautiful beaches, luxurious hotels and a huge marketplace in Mogadishu. She also speaks fondly of some highlights of Barre’s reign: subsidized housing, efficient public transportation, free public education.

Eyni has two strong memories of her early years in Somalia. One Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, her elder siblings bought matching outfits for her and Dunia: a green-and-white dress with a hat, a purse and white shoes for Eyni, and a red-and-white dress, a hat, a purse and white shoes for Dunia. Eyni recalls praying in the mosque with her family and then taking the bus to her grandmother’s house. The family spent the whole day eating, since the grandmother was such a good cook. “It’s one of my favorite memories,” says Eyni.

She also remembers a time when she and her friends shook a tree to get the fruit hanging from its branches. They stashed the fallen fruit in their scarves and enjoyed it the rest of the day.

But after Eyni shares those happy memories, she tenses up when asked why she and her family left Somalia. “A close family member of mine was killed,” she finally says, adding that her mother was shot in a separate incident but survived, though she still has trouble walking.

After the shootings, Eyni, her mother and several siblings fled Somalia in 2006 and found refuge where hundreds of thousands of other Somalis had started life anew: Kenya.

Dadaab, a town located just over an hour’s drive from the Somali border, hosts four refugee camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. At the Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Eyni and her siblings were all assigned January 1 birthdays: They’d arrived in Kenya without papers.

Eyni started school in the camp’s U.N.-funded school. Education was important to her mother; not having gone to school herself, she wanted to make sure that her daughters took advantage of all opportunities. The first few years, Eyni was taught in Somali, which is typically written using the Latin alphabet but is closer in pronunciation to Arabic. During her last years in the camp, she was taught in English. At night she’d study by candlelight, because the family’s home in the camp had no electricity.

“I was fascinated by the snow, especially when touching it for the first time.”

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In 2009, the family received the long-awaited notice that they would be resettling in the United States. In 2011, they left Dadaab and traveled to Nairobi to get their visas. Although they were told the process typically takes only a few weeks, they ended up being there for more than a year and a half. Eyni missed approximately two school years: half of fifth grade, all of sixth grade, and more than half of seventh grade. Instead of being in school, she had to sit around the family’s Nairobi apartment, rarely venturing outside because of the stringent curfews put in place for Somalis living there.

The wait in Nairobi felt never-ending. But finally, in February 2013, Eyni’s family learned that they would soon be leaving for the U.S., with Colorado as their final destination.

On February 25, 2013, Eyni, her sisters Dunia and Istar and their mother boarded a plane that took them from Nairobi to Dubai. From there they flew to New York, where they spent the night in a hotel. Around 11 a.m. on February 28, they landed at Denver International Airport. A staff member from Lutheran Family Services, one of three organizations in the state that helps resettle refugees, picked up the family at the airport.

There was snow on the ground, left over from a storm that had passed through two days before. “Mom was freezing,” remembers Eyni. “I was fascinated by the snow, especially when touching it for the first time.”
Mogadishu has moderate weather, alternating between rain and sunshine, she says. The refugee camp in Kenya was a bit hotter, but not unbearable. And while Nairobi can get cold, its lowest temperatures don’t come close to Colorado’s.

The Lutheran Family Services staffer took the family to their new home, an Aurora apartment not far from the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. LFS had stocked it with furniture, mattresses for each family member, and groceries. A Somali family living nearby brought over soup and bread for the new arrivals, and they all ate together.

“I liked the smell of the apartment on the first night,” Eyni says. “New, fresh and clean. Sense is a strong thing for memory. That smell reminds me of a fresh new beginning.”
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Ricardo Gambetta manages Aurora’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs.
Jake Holschuh
The Denver area has a long history of welcoming refugees. In fact, 85 percent of the refugees who are resettled in Colorado wind up in metro Denver, according to the Colorado Refugee Services Program, the state government arm for refugee issues.

For example, Sum Nguyen, an officer in the South Vietnamese military, fled with his family after Communists took over their country. After a lengthy journey from Vietnam to the Philippines and then Guam, they ended up at Camp Pendleton in California with other Vietnamese refugees. They came to Denver in September 1975, moving into a duplex next to City Park.

The non-English-speaking children all entered the public schools; Nguyen went from working as a career military officer to being employed as a roofer and then as a Walgreens cashier. Although the first year was painful, the family was soon thriving. Nguyen earned his undergraduate degree and moved out of low-wage jobs into the electronics industry; he later earned a graduate degree, as well. Now retired, he and his wife live in Aurora.

In the ’80s, Vietnamese refugees often settled in southwest Denver, as evidenced by the great Vietnamese restaurants in that part of town, according to Kit Taintor, state refugee coordinator at the Colorado Refugee Services Program. They were followed by refugees from what is now the former Soviet Union, who ended up resettling mainly in Lakewood and southeast Denver.

Other immigrants flocked to other towns. Peter Lee emigrated to Colorado in 1988 after serving in the South Korean army; he and his sister came together from Korea and moved in with their parents, who already lived in Aurora. “Housing and rent were reasonably cheap, and the bus was right there,” he remembers. “Aurora has been very generous in taking care of the immigrant population. It has welcomed all this diversity.”

Taintor points to a number of reasons that specific places attract immigrants and refugees: affordability, proximity to jobs, transportation. Beyond the economic reasons, refugees are also able to transition more smoothly when they are near people from their home country. Refugee resettlement agencies consider all of these factors when trying to secure a first home for newly arriving refugees.
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Peter Lee moved from Korea to Aurora in 1988.
Jake Holschuh
Over the past decade, Aurora has become the state's major resettlement destination for a wide range of refugee communities, including Somalis. As a result, Colorado’s third most populous city is its most diverse. The city has stretched to accommodate these new residents. “We are one of only ten cities in the country that have an immigrant integration plan and make a very strong commitment to address immigrant integration on the local level,” says Ricardo Gambetta, manager of Aurora’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs.

Gambetta and colleague Minsoo Song implemented the plan in 2016. It’s designed to engage with the immigrant and refugee communities through a variety of different outreach programs, then focus on creating economic opportunities for everyone in the city. “For us, everything is about economics,” explains Gambetta.

When refugees arrive in the U.S., they qualify for a variety of benefits, such as food stamps. But the goal of refugee resettlement agencies is to get clients working and make them self-sufficient within the first few months of their arrival. Refugees often jump at the first job that is offered to them, which is usually low-paying.

“If you’re trying to support a family, those jobs aren’t going to be your ticket to financial self-sufficiency,” says Alexandria Wise, executive director of Aurora-based Community Enterprise Development Services (CEDS Finance), which partners with the city to help refugees who want to open small businesses. “Entrepreneurship is a fast track to achieve that.”

These loans don’t just benefit the refugees receiving them. Colorado’s investment in refugees has had a huge economic impact. For every $1 of assistance received, $1.68 is generated in output, according to a recent Colorado Department of Human Services report on the fiscal impact of refugees. Refugees starting small businesses also create jobs and give back by paying taxes.

Denver-based journalist Helen Thorpe spent a year in an English as a Second Language class at South High School before writing about what she’d observed in a book called The Newcomers. Thorpe became close with some of the parents of the refugee students in the class, and saw them grapple with accepting certain jobs that they felt were beneath them. “The main obstacle for landing better jobs is the lack of English,” she notes. “While kids have the luxury of being in school, parents have to jump into the workforce right away, even without the English skills.”

In Colorado, working-age refugees find their first jobs within eighty days on average. “That’s both an indicator of the strong economy and the high cost of living, which creates an urgency,” says Taintor.

Eyni’s sister Istar, who’s 26, took a job with a rental-car service at Denver International Airport. She is the breadwinner of the family.

“The most common question is: ‘Am I going to get deported?’”

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As Aurora’s diversity has expanded, so has the number of languages spoken in its schools. In 1986, there were 39 languages used in Aurora Public Schools. Today the school system has students from over 130 countries speaking more than 160 languages. Just as finding the right job can be tough for their parents, the transition at school can be hard for students used to very different facilities. Aurora schools try to address these cultural gaps from the start.

Since the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year, the Aurora Public Schools Welcome Center has invited newly arrived refugee and immigrant families with school-age children to its office for orientation meetings. With the help of an interpreter, Welcome Center staffers talk with parents about how the public schools work and get to know students’ personal and academic backgrounds.

“Parents come to the meeting with questions like, ‘How can my kid graduate?’ or ‘How will my kid learn English?’ We never want to leave the parent out. Parent engagement is key,” says Silvia Tamminen, coordinator for the center.

The center assesses students’ skills in math and literacy in their native languages to figure out grade placement. It then provides a backpack with school supplies and winter boots and a coat, if needed. Parents can come in for follow-up visits, and also learn about the college admissions process.

Individual schools have taken the mission further. At Crawford Elementary School, community liaison Kate Garvin organizes monthly meetings so that parents of refugee and immigrant students can learn more about the public school system and how they can help their kids thrive.

Three Somali parents, some with multiple children at Crawford, attended one of these Parents in Action workshops with Garvin last month. Garvin spoke with them about the importance of reading to their children. “You can always just look at pictures and make up stories,” she told them. “It doesn’t even matter what’s written in the book. Just to have fun with it and make it a part of your night is what we’re trying to get done.”

Farduus Ahmed, a community navigator with the Colorado African Organization, served as interpreter for Garvin and the Somali parents at that meeting. She translated as Garvin told parents that chronic absences are a problem nationwide in public schools. Although refugee children have the highest attendance rates at Crawford, she still took ten minutes to explain the difference between excused and unexcused absences, something that can be confusing for non-Americans.

Hassan Ali, who has two daughters and a son enrolled at Crawford, helped Garvin and Ahmed clarify this point with one of the other parents. Earlier, Ali had struggled to understand the different types of absences, and he understood the confusion of the other parent. “When you come to the country, it’s a whole new system, and that takes time to adjust to because of the language barriers,” he says. “Navigating the system takes a lot of time.”
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Eyni Ali at her high school graduation.
Max Primo
When refugees arrive in the U.S. and are eligible for K-12 education, they move into the public school system almost immediately. For Eyni, that meant enrolling at Aurora’s East Middle School in April 2013, at the end of seventh grade, despite having missed the equivalent of two academic years.

She was thirteen, and the transition was not smooth, even though other refugees tried to help.

“They tried to comfort us,” says Eyni, recalling the Somali neighbors who brought over food on her family’s first night in the U.S. “But with the Somali youth, it got very hard for me. Some of the youth...I felt like we were different.”

And if she felt different from fellow Somalis, other students were a mystery altogether. “There weren’t a lot of Muslim kids at my middle school,” she says.

An incident in eighth grade still stands out as particularly painful. “One girl pulled my scarf. I looked at her, but didn’t know how to react to it,” Eyni admits. She tried to figure out why the other student had yanked her hijab hard enough that it had partially come off her head. “But no matter how many times I thought about it, I couldn’t justify it.”

According to Thorpe, this type of harassment is quite common for female Muslim refugees. “Unfortunately, the head scarf is just a serious magnet for all of the American fear and distrust,” she says. “Any young woman that I know who wears a head scarf has also been targeted at some point.”

The harassment wasn’t limited to making fun of Eyni’s clothing. Other kids also mocked her struggles to speak English. “In class, when I used to try to participate, some kids would laugh at my accent or try to imitate me and would giggle,” Eyni says. This affected her confidence and made her reluctant to participate in class.

Finding a friend helped. Honey Zin, a Burmese refugee, arrived in Aurora with her family not long after Eyni settled there. Originally from Myanmar, her family had fled their home country and lived in Malaysia before being resettled in Colorado.

Zin lived near Eyni, and they attended eighth grade together. “Honey was really shy, and so was I. But we are not shy around each other,” Eyni says. After school, the two would play outside together. Although neither spoke the other’s native language and their English was halting, that didn’t stop their budding friendship. “We spoke in broken English and with gestures,” Zin remembers now. “We couldn’t explain things deeply in English, but we understood each other.”

“We couldn’t explain things deeply in English, but we understood each other.”

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Feelings of social isolation are common for refugee students. “It’s a mixture of not having the English skills and just an immense cultural adjustment,” Thorpe explains. “During that phase, when they don’t understand what’s happening to them and they can’t communicate easily, they can feel really lonely.”

There are barriers beyond language. Eyni had studied at a school in Kenya that had no electricity, let alone computers. When she moved to the U.S., suddenly she was faced with Smart Boards and projectors.

Ahmed, who interpreted at the November meeting at Crawford, also came to the U.S. as a Somali refugee; she’s currently pursuing her master’s of social work degree at the University of Denver. But she empathizes with those still finding their place. “The transition is really difficult,” she says. “There’s racism and bullying. And people struggle not knowing the language.”

Eyni’s lack of confidence in her English-speaking ability kept her quiet at school for years. While in Kenya, she’d had no problem speaking up. But her experiences with bullying here damaged her confidence. “Self-doubt is my biggest enemy,” she says.

Without the confidence to speak up in class, she became deathly afraid of public speaking. That may have been one of the reasons she took to writing poetry. While at Hinkley High School, Eyni started expressing herself through English-language poems. She shared her experiences of being bullied and harassed in middle school in poetry, and wrote about struggling with her identity as she transitioned into a new culture.

During Eyni’s sophomore year, her Honors English teacher, Tara Farr, who happened to be the coach of the school’s speech and debate team, read one of Eyni’s submissions for a poetry assignment. “It would be really cool if you joined the team,” she told Eyni. But Eyni hesitated. It wasn’t until Farr put a comment on Eyni’s report card, again encouraging her to join the team, that she made the decision to join at the start of her junior year. “I saw so much potential in her,” Farr says.

As Eyni’s worked on her speech and debate skills, gaining confidence as a member of the team, her written poetry evolved into slam poetry — and her progress was remarkable. She went from the painfully shy girl who could barely speak in class to a rock-star poet and public speaker.
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Eyni and her sister Dunia are happy their mother prioritized their education.
Max Primo
By her senior year, others had begun to notice Eyni’s knack for public speaking. She was invited to join the Colorado Refugee Speakers Bureau, a program co-created by various refugee leaders, including Ahmed. The goal of the bureau is to “empower refugees to create a strong, compelling and positive narrative for refugee resettlement in Colorado.” Today Eyni travels across the state sharing her story, helping reframe the narrative around refugees.

The bureau was formed at a particularly important time. While Eyni was finishing high school, the Trump administration was making life hard for all refugees, but particularly Somalis. Just days after Trump took office, he signed an executive order suspending entry into the U.S. for Somali nationals. Today that travel ban prevents Somali nationals from obtaining immigrant visas, something that has kept many Somalis now residing in the U.S. from reuniting with family members.

From 1980 to 2017, Colorado welcomed 59,910 refugees and refugee-eligible individuals, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services; over 4,600 of those refugees were Somalis. In 2016, the U.S. accepted 84,994 refugees. In 2018, that number dropped to 22,491, as resettling as a refugee in the U.S. is much more challenging than it used to be.

Harry Budisidharta, executive director of the Asian Pacific Development Center in Aurora, says that whenever the federal government makes a major announcement about immigration policy, such as the travel ban, he and his team offer a public workshop to help educate those who might be affected. “Those workshops are always well attended,” he says. “The most common question is: ‘Am I going to get deported?’”

“My story motivates me when I see where I was before and where I am now.”

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Since Eyni, her mother, two sisters and brother were already legally residing in the U.S. before Trump came into office, they are safe here. But they have had to watch the continued suffering of their fellow Somalis across the globe.

They’ve also suffered through fear-mongering in this country, which is why Eyni wants those who regard immigrants and refugees with skepticism or worse to know one important thing: “We’re not kicking you out. We’re just working hard,” she says. “We’re trying to live a better life.”

Eyni is helping other young Somalis in this country to live better lives, too. In her last two years of high school, she mentored young Somalis at Crawford Elementary School. She also helped Hinkley High School staff solve disputes involving Somalis through restorative justice.

Eyni’s sister Dunia hopes to become a social worker and go back to Somalia when it’s safe, so that she can give back to her home country. Eyni’s mother isn’t sure that she ever wants to go back, “especially when I see all of these explosions,” she says.

On October 14, 2017, a large truck pulled up in front of a hotel in Mogadishu. The truck may have been headed toward the airport, but authorities became suspicious. As security agents approached the vehicle, the driver detonated the truck, blowing up a massive quantity of explosive material. The blast struck a nearby fuel tanker, resulting in a gigantic explosion that knocked down blocks of buildings. At least 587 people died and over 300 were injured in the attack, which is now classified as the sixth-deadliest terrorist attack in modern history.
Somalis refer to it as their 9/11.

Eyni and her family watched the news coverage of the attack from afar, tears streaming down their faces. According to Eyni’s sister Istar, one of the most tragic aspects of the incident was that it was caused not by a foreign foe, but from within the country. “It’s so sad that we’re fighting against each other,” she says.
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courtesy Eyni Ali
The day after Eyni’s citizenship exam, the sun is out and she’s sitting outside the student center on the CU Denver campus, feeling cheerful.

A psychology major, she works nonstop, alternating between her coursework, requirements for her honors program, and her work as a henna body artist. Her tuition, room and board are fully covered by a range of scholarships. Once she completes her studies, she plans to help others deal with many of the challenges that she herself went through.

But she also dreams of eventually opening a henna business with Dunia. “There are not many henna artists in Colorado,” she explains, “and for those that exist, it’s expensive.”

She’s come a long way since she arrived in the U.S. five years ago. “My story motivates me when I see where I was before and where I am now,” Eyni says.

It wasn’t so long ago that she felt she couldn’t defend herself when a girl harassed her for wearing a hijab. Now she tells the story about how, while waiting for a ride a few weeks ago, a fellow classmate asked her and another veiled woman why they wore head scarves. The exchange was completely the opposite of what had happened in middle school: The classmate was genuinely curious, and others gathered around to listen.

“Thank you for answering my question,” the classmate said after Eyni explained the reason for covering their hair.

Responded Eyni: “Thank you for asking.”

I will continue this journey
I will see with my eyes
And then I will be seen by others
Not as a color
Not as a country
But as a girl named Eyni who
Is worth another glance.

— Eyni Ali