Arrow-right Camera


Hope Springs Eternal Somali Brothers Escape Poverty, Persecution For New Life In Spokane

Hope nearly died in the refugee camp.

A future didn’t seem possible for the Hassan brothers, five young men forced to flee their native Somalia.

They last saw their parents in 1992 amid the tumult of famine and civil war.

Ahmed Hassan, the second-oldest brother, watched gunmen shoot his wife to death for not giving up her necklace.

The brothers spent the next five years staving off starvation in a Kenyan refugee camp. Like the 3,800 others who lived there in straw and clay huts, they spent their days walking around, questioning the future and losing hope.

Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine themselves here - living in two Spokane apartments, frying pepper-covered chicken over a hot stove, shopping for fresh fruit and instant meals at a local grocery store.

Hope returned last month at Spokane International Airport.

The five brothers, along with Abdullahi Hassan’s wife and two children, arrived in Spokane with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Abdullahi Hassan’s family came a week before the four other brothers. They are the second group of Somalis to be relocated to the Spokane area.

“This is a nice city, a beautiful city,” said Abdulkadir Hassan, gazing at the storefronts along downtown’s Third Avenue. “I want to go to university, be an American citizen and stay in America forever.”

The shopping carts were full.

With hungry eyes, the six Somali adults maneuvered two grocery carts through the aisles of a local Rosauers store. They grabbed gallons of milk and loaves of bread. They stared in awe at the mounds of apples, onions and other fresh produce. They even poked through the soaps and shampoos, the peach-colored facial scrub packaged in clear plastic tubes.

Their previous lives - the bombings and death threats they had faced in Mogadishu, the squalor they had escaped in the refugee camps - seemed so far away.

“We lost so much time,” lamented Ahmed Hassan, 27. “Five years - all gone, wasted in the camps.”

The Hassans are among more than 900,000 Somali refugees who fled their homeland six years ago. They belong to several minority groups persecuted by the ruling class. Because their people have been victims of murder, rape and looting, the Hassans received permission to emigrate to the United States.

“There are thousands of people who want to come here,” said Linda Unseth, Western area director for World Relief, which sponsored the Hassan family. “But those who are chosen suffer from religious or political persecution. … (The Hassans) were fearful for their lives.”

World Relief, which is part of the National Association of Evangelicals, will help the Hassans during their first eight months in the United States.

Terri Zalevits, a Spokane native and World Relief volunteer, met the family at the airport three weeks ago and has since been their guardian.

She gave them used dishes, furniture and bikes. She helped them find an apartment. Besides teaching them about American culture, Zalevits drives them all over town and visits them practically every day.

“I want them to see the United States in a positive way,” said Zalevits, a mother of five who also teaches English to Cuban immigrants. “The United States was founded by refugees. When we forget that, we forget our roots.”

There already are signs of adjustment, such as the Country Homes magazine on the couch, the box of Cheerios on the kitchen counter. There’s also a book in the living room titled, “Ku Soo Dhawaada Dala Maseykauka,” Somali for “Welcome to the United States.”

Still, the transition hasn’t been easy.

It’s cold in Spokane, said the brothers, who never have seen snow. The temperature may be a balmy 80 degrees to area residents, but the Somalis still wear coats and jackets to stay warm.

Although four of the brothers can speak and understand some English, Abdullahi Hassan, his wife Asli Mohomed and their two children barely speak a word.

Last week, their 7-year-old son, Hassan Abdullahi Mohomed, accidentally got on a school bus after school at Willard Elementary. They found him crying at a bus stop. Now, the boy constantly wears a name tag with his name, address and Zalevits’ phone number.

“Everything here is different,” said his mother, Asli Mohomed, through an interpreter.

She, her husband and two children receive $700 a month plus $350 in food stamps from the state Department of Social and Health Services’ refugee assistance program. The other brothers still are completing their paperwork to get state aid.

DSHS addresses the checks in Asli Mohomed’s name. This came as a surprise to the men, they said. In most Muslim households, women do not go to banks to cash checks, said Abdulkadir Hassan.

“In Somalia, the men do everything,” he said. “Asli must stay in the house and take care of the babies. Here, she takes everything. We let her now, but it was hard.”

Asli Mohomed is a tall, dark-skinned woman with thick, dark lips and shy brown eyes. She’s 27 years old, six months pregnant and never has had a prenatal exam.

With her black veil and long, brown dress, she’s dressed like a Tridentine nun: Only her face and hands are exposed. She still looks to the men for advice and to translate for her, but she’s slowly coming into her own.

“I want to have an education,” Asli Mohomed said. “I can do any job.”

The walls are bare in the brothers’ apartment, a two-bedroom pad located near the one occupied by Abdullahi Hassan’s family.

They own few pieces of furniture: a folding table in the dining room, an old, flowery brown couch in the living room and a ‘70s black-and-white TV set that sits on a metal folding chair.

The two bedrooms each have two twin mattresses on the floor. There’s little privacy here, not enough space for them to walk around without bumping into one another.

While their living quarters are meager by American standards, the sparsely decorated apartment is the most they’ve had since the war.

“We feel so happy,” said Abdi Hassan, 22. “We feel free.”

Now their goals include education, a privilege they were denied in Somalia because they didn’t belong to the clan in charge. Although most of them attended elementary school, only Ahmed Hassan finished high school. He taught his brothers English in the refugee camps. They also learned to speak Swahili and Arabic.

In Spokane, they spoke of their dreams one afternoon over a meal of fried chicken, salad and spaghetti mixed with potatoes. They want college degrees, they said. They are determined to find good-paying jobs, maybe even open a Somalian restaurant here.

The brothers are grateful for every day they’ve spent away from the refugee camp. Imagine having nothing to do and little to eat, they said. That’s what life was like every day.

“Thank you, United States,” Abdulkadir Hassan said during the car ride to the grocery store. “Thank you, President Clinton. Thank you, Spokane.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos Graphic: Displaced Refugees