Somali Resettlement in the United States: Background information when reading Somewhere in the Unknown World

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Somewhere in the Unknown World

A Collective Refugee Memoir

by Kao Kalia Yang

Somewhere in the Unknown World by Kao Kalia Yang X
Somewhere in the Unknown World by Kao Kalia Yang
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    Nov 2020, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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Somali Resettlement in the United States

This article relates to Somewhere in the Unknown World

Print Review

Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Minneapolis Amid ongoing civil war, more than a million Somalis have fled their homeland in recent decades and now live somewhere else. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), Kenya is host to the largest number of Somali refugees, with 256,186, followed by Yemen with 250,500 and Ethiopia with 192,082. Many Somali refugees have settled in the United States; the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement states that the country admitted 90,000 refugees from Somalia between 2001 and 2015. By current estimates, the total Somali diaspora population in the U.S. is as high as 150,000.

The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota is often referred to as "Little Mogadishu." Everywhere you look there is Somali culture, visible in the area's mosques, restaurants, stores and housing. On the surface, the neighborhood is a rebirth, a safe place for resettled refugees who fled political violence. But beneath, trauma issues remain.

Like many other refugee groups, Somalis have endured pre-migration, migration and resettlement stress. All are traumatizing and create lingering psychological effects. During pre-migration, political violence frays all remnants of an ordinary and safe life as panic and fear of death become normalized. Migration often introduces a new living circumstance: refugee camps. After resettlement, families have to create a home in an adopted country.

For refugees, the stress of dealing with the specifics of work, income, housing and citizenship can be overwhelming. Not to mention the added difficulties of raising young children throughout the process. English is a difficult language to learn and the history exam for U.S. citizenship can be challenging. For those struggling through the mental landscape of a different country who cannot manage citizenship requirements, fear of social welfare being cut off weighs heavily on the mind.

Psychiatric illnesses are common within resettlement populations. Among Somalis in Minnesota, PTSD and depression are more prevalent in women, while many men suffer from forms of psychosis. 80% of Somali men under 30 who were evaluated in a clinic in Minneapolis in 2013 presented with psychosis-related disorders. Risk factors and possible causes for these illnesses include childhood head injury, malnutrition and dependence on khat, a leafy amphetamine-like plant. Another factor in psychological distress is the strong currents of shame that haunt some Somali refugee men who made the decision to flee instead of adhering to clan expectations of male loyalty and protection. These psychological issues may also contribute to intra-community violence; in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Somali gangs have warred with one another for years.

Five years old when civil war changed her life, Ifrah Mansour has undergone and witnessed the trauma of resettlement. "My parents were amazing and strong enough that they created a sense of safety," says Mansour, now a playwright and visual artist in the Twin Cities, in an interview with Middle East Eye. Her play How to Have Fun in a Civil War illustrates how childhood can continue even as a violent campaign is tearing away all forms of a normal life and demonstrates resiliency within a traumatized refugee population. "Refugees truly understand what it means to find yourself in the middle of nowhere and make a shelter with nothing," she says.

Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis, by Fibonacci Blue (CC BY 2.0)

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Valerie Morales

This article relates to Somewhere in the Unknown World. It first ran in the November 18, 2020 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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