Naima Abdullahi: From Refugee to Self-Reliance


June 6, 2014

Naima Abdullahi lives in suburban Atlanta and has worked for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as a caseworker for the last five years. Naima’s journey to the United States from Ethiopia took many turns. Her uncle had been killed in Ethiopia for his involvement in the Oromo movement. After this traumatizing experience, her parents took the family to Kenya as political refugees.

Growing up in Kenya, Naima and her three siblings could not tell anyone they were refugees. It became a family secret and they had a constant fear of being caught.

When Naima was 10 years old her family was resettled in San Jose, California, with the help of the IRC. Naima was initially the only one in her family who spoke English, so she became the family spokesperson. Naima took on a lot of responsibilities at a young age to guide her family through their early time in the United States. Eventually her family moved to Seattle and they all became U.S. citizens in 1996.

Naima Abdullahi, 36, with her son Teso, 14, outside their home in Atlanta, Georgia.

Naima Abdullahi, 36, with her son Teso, 14, outside their home in Atlanta, Georgia.

Naima talks about her work, helping individuals just like herself and her family those many frightened years ago.

“I enjoy working with my clients,” she said, “I see my parents and I see myself in them.” Naima plans to focus on women’s health and well-being to empower refugee women. She wants these women to have a voice and education. Her goal is to help refugee women learn to take care of themselves as their opportunities and their responsibilities grow in their new country.

“Because of being a refugee I understand life in a completely different way. I still remember where we were, where I started, the house where I lived.” She remembers their time in Nairobi. The family would go downtown each year and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) would give them vouchers for school uniforms and backpacks. They looked forward to that – those uniforms and backpacks were essential tools in their dreams of education and self-reliance. UNHCR registered the family and gave them refugee status so they no longer had to be secretive about their presence in Kenya. Naima’s father secured work with UNHCR as a contractor building schools, which gave the family a good income and some economic stability.

“Today on this end I have everything at my fingertips. I have opportunities, especially as a woman, which I wouldn’t have had. I can make things happen for myself, whether I make it or not is all up to me.”

Take Action Challenge

June 20 is World Refugee Day. Can you help UNHCR spread the word and tell the stories of women and men and children like Naima? Join their Thunderclap by signing up with your Twitter or Facebook profile to share a message on World refugee Day.


Photo credit: E.Hockstein/2013.


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