The knowledge of being a cross-traveller
By Cesilia Faustina
Photography by Cesilia Faustina
“Being a minority in the US and not facing any form of discrimination is unheard of. Everyone has that one discrimination story; my experience was in Columbus when I was 18.”
The impacts of traveling and cross-country settlements create a different perspective on how you view life and yourself, according to one African-American residing in Jordan.
This Ethiopian national saw that though challenges would always appear everywhere, it was important to capitalize on your personal strengths.
“This experience has taught me; you know how everybody says traveling really teaches you about yourself? That self-discovery is really the skills and quality that are special to you,” he said.
“You don’t realize that until you’re in really difficult situations.
“That’s when you discover that special quality or skill and capitalize on it.”
Yusuf Ahmed is a 22-year-old East African local living in America. Arriving and residing in Ohio when he was 9.5 years old after leaving his home in Kenya; Yusuf explained the experiences he gained as a constant traveler.
“I left from the age of 5 until 9.5; so for four years I was in Kenya, but I was born in Ethiopia and I was there until I was 5,”
“When I was 5, my family sought asylum in Kenya and we lived there for four years and in 2004, that was when my family was resettled in the US.”
“The idea of a refugeehood is living in a camp and this is a very misery constructed, this very hyper-romanticized; you know, like ‘this poor soul, let me pour my money into you,’ he said.
“However, that’s not the experience I went through; I remember living in Nairobi – which is a megacity of almost 3 million people. It’s a very big city and well-developed.
“I lived in an Ethiopian community and it was very fun, I think I had a happy childhood.
“Then, I remembered coming to Ohio and thinking ‘we literally are moving from the city into a farm, what did we sign up for?’
“It was just hard growing up in Ohio because of the language barrier. I studied English in Kenya for a year or two and it wasn’t substantial, so when I was in fifth grade, I would just speak in Oromo.”
According to the Pew Research Center, America sheltered around 2.1 million African refugees in 2015, with increasing numbers throughout the years – a majority coming from Nigeria and Ethiopia.
Yusuf stated his hardships in growing up in a society he was not familiar with.
Being in America
“I was this very stubborn hyper-confident 10 years old that was very ‘oh, you don’t speak Oromo, I don’t speak your language too.’ So because of that, I was bullied,” he said.
“The process of just learning a language is difficult because kids would often times tell you to say inappropriate things to teachers.”
“Being a minority in the US and not facing any form of discrimination is unheard of,” Yusuf explained.
“Everyone has that one discrimination story; my experience was in Columbus when I was 18. I was working for this organisation called Working America – so it was a very progressive organisation that fought for corporate accountability, human rights, and all of these cool liberal ideals; so my job was fundraising.
“I went door-to-door to different neighbourhoods in Columbus and basically sign them up to be members of the organisation and fundraise.
“This day we were working in a very white neighbourhood, it’s called Upper-Arlington and it was this super wealthy – but this part wasn’t even that wealthy, it was just a working class part of Arlington.
“I was walking around and nobody was opening their doors. It was a very slow day because I couldn’t meet my fundraising quota and my membership quota because people weren’t even giving me the opportunity to talk to them.
“I was walking on the sidewalk and this lady that was walking towards me and as I’m walking with her with my clipboard and pen in my hand and a huge smile on my face, all of a sudden she freezes as if there’s a lion standing in front of her.
“So she crosses the street as fast as she can and I was just like ‘awkward, let me just focus on the doors I have to knock,’ and she was standing with another white lady and they started talking, so I just started walking and I went to the next door and knocked on the door and this drunk guy answers the door.
“This was the year Obama was running for president, so I think it was 2012 – and he was just ‘I don’t need any of your liberal propaganda. Let me ask you a question brother, are you voting for Obama because you’re black?’ and I was ‘no, I’m not voting for Obama because he’s black, I’m actually voting for him because of his stances on education, the labour market, as well as human rights’ and he was like ‘bullshit, you’re voting for him because you’re black, because you’re not educated on anything else beyond race relations, on actual policies that affect you.’
“He was getting very aggressive, so I left. The lady is still there and she’s on the phone now and I was shaking inside because it was very very uncomfortable and a few minutes later, the cops come – and the cop was black so I was ‘ok, let’s do this.’
“He said they always did this when they see black people in their neighbourhood and that this is not anything that’s not normal. He told me to just follow the procedures and he took down my name and asked what I was doing.
“He told me to stop doing it and that I was going to face more troubles and so I called the manager and we were done.
“I was 18 years old; that was such a scar.”
The Ethiopian said he was very grateful though for the experience he went through and had the pleasure of facing these conflicts during childhood rather than in early adulthood.
“That was challenging, but as a young person, it’s just a process of growing up; from that, you learn so much,” he said.
“So I feel very lucky that I moved to the US when I was 10 or 11 rather than 15 or 18 in the mental teenagehood or early adulthood.”
A perspective through different eyes
“In the US it’s difficult because America is a very difficult society. For new immigrants, everybody would prefer the US because there are so many opportunities to advance as a person – there are resources to help you, it’s a great place to live, it’s literally a land of opportunities. However, it’s also a very difficult land of opportunities that has a shit ton of challenges for you to access those resources.”
Yusuf expressed his appreciation of having gone through three different stages of lives.
“Most of my life had been spent in the US – most of my life that involves preference and choice were in the US,” he said.
“In Kenya, it was more go-with-the-flow and in Ethiopia, I have very little memories.
“In Kenya, I really enjoyed it though and it was nice being in your own community – people who speak the same language, people who look like you, and you don’t have to worry about discrimination.
“In the US it’s difficult because America is a very difficult society.
“For new immigrants, everybody would prefer the US because there are so many opportunities to advance as a person; there are resources to help you, it’s a great place to live. It’s literally a land of opportunities, but it’s also a very difficult land of opportunities that has a shit ton of challenges for you to access those resources.
“It’s easier to live in Africa but from my personal experience, I’m glad I grew up in the US just because there’s so much as a result.”
The African-American saw great influences through his travels – not only from living in the US but also through his experience in Amman and other countries.
Jordan and the Balkans
“I studied abroad in Jordan two years ago and after studying here, I really enjoyed the experience,” he said.
“I wanted to come back to practice Arabic and also look for work – to work with refugees in the development sector.
“Before I came to Jordan though, I was traveling to the Balkans and I was in Bulgaria, Bosnia, and after my program ended, I was in Azerbaijan.
“After that – before I came to Jordan – I had three weeks, so I traveled.
“In Albania, I was in a shit hole. I lost my phone, which was where everything was. That was the set button for my travels, so I had no phone and no way to communicate to the outside world.
“So I ended up going to a hostel bar and there was this concert going on; I was awkwardly lounging around, anxiety-stricken and I were just terrified that of what had happened.
“I just decided that I needed to settle down, maybe grab a beer and maybe meet people.
“There was this Siberian band playing and I was still awkwardly standing there alone, and I was ‘ok, I can talk to people’ and just use my personal qualities and tried it out.
“Instead of just standing there, I talked to people and we became really good friends in just an hour of chilling and drinking.
“So for the next few days, in Albania, we linked up and they showed me around and I felt like I learned about the place on a deeper level – despite not having my phone and a GPS, Facebook, or anything, it was a very successful trip.
“So yeah, capitalize on your personal qualities and look for what makes you unique.”
Past and future endeavors
“This period, this is probably the biggest challenge because it is the transition period. It sort of dictates the path I’ll walk. This is the only period I’m on a new slate – I’m on a fresh ground – and I can do anything and it’s challenging. Not as easy as I thought it would be.”
Another positive aspect from Yusuf’s travels was that he was able to become closer with his culture and origins, inspiring him to create a social network for his ethnic group in Africa, the Oromo ethnic group.
“I’m not heading it anymore, but it was a friend and me who found it,” he said.
“It’s called OromosConnect. So my ethnicity in Ethiopia is called Oromo, we’re a part of the Oromo ethnic group.
“There’s a lot of Oromo’s in the diaspora who are either refugees or political asylee or just immigrants elsewhere.
“There’s over 80,000 Oromo’s in the US, 50,000 in Canada and UK, Australia – so all over the world.
“This is a SnapChat project, the account is called OromosConnect, so a different person from the diaspora hosts. So today it would be Yusuf from Amman, then tomorrow Hani from Canada, the next day Batu from Minnesota.
“Now we have over 7000 followers. We have hosts from Australia, India, Brazil, UK, Canada, and US – so many states in the US.”
The Oromo ethnic group amounts to 25 million – which is around 35 percent of Ethiopia’s population.
“As a new African immigrant, you slowly start to blend into the mainstream African-American culture and I think it’s really important to hold on to your linguistic and cultural heritage,” he said.
“So I and other millennials are into social media and connecting with other people, but I couldn’t find other Oromo’s I could relate to.
“I think for me it’s important to find that in between. So we started it, we made an Instagram account and posted different things and more people started to add it and there were talks about it.
“It grew bigger and bigger to the extent that we had a media license at the Oromo soccer convention in Minnesota – which is the biggest diaspora event in the world, so that was really cool, but it’s still going.”
As for now, Yusuf felt he had overstayed his time in Jordan and would like to start a new adventure.
“I’m not really looking for a job anymore – let’s say this journey has ended, this period of being in Amman has ended – just because it’s quite difficult,”
“It’s exhausting and a lot and there’s just so much happening. I feel that I just need to go home and reenergize.”
Yusuf said he would like to be able to work within the development sector and one day creates his own NGO.
“I’m looking for a job in the development field, working with refugees – project manager, communications, or fundraising,” he said.
“I have experience in a wide variety of things, but it’s all wasta (واسطة) – connections and I don’t have any.”
“I want to deal with an organisation that has so much impact but also on an upper small level, just because the bureaucratic system might get tiring.
“I see myself maybe creating my own NGO that focuses on refugees; but then again, within the refugeehood, there are intersectionalities.
“There are queer refugees, there are black refugees, and refugees with disabilities, and even though organisations like UNHCR do look at situations that are most vulnerable, often times those that are vulnerable don’t get the opportunity to register and be a part of the process – they don’t even get the opportunity to be at the door.
“So having a platform that is very specific is important.”
“I think a specific type of NGO would be for East African refugees, just because of my upbringing,” Yusuf explained.
“There are a lot of crisis in the hon of Africa and there’s not much attention that goes through – a lot of the attention goes to the Middle East.
“I think having a network or organisations that specifically focuses on African refugees elsewhere – East African refugees in Amman or elsewhere from like Yemen, Turkey, and more are very important.”
Even though Yusuf learned a lot, he did state that his journey came with many challenges, however, he was grateful for everything that had happened.
“This period, this is probably the biggest challenge because it is the transition period,” he said.
“It sort of dictates the path I’ll walk.
“This is the only period I’m on a new slate – I’m on a fresh ground – and I can do anything and it’s challenging.
“Not as easy as I thought it would be.”
Yusuf Ahmed is a 22-year-old African-American that is currently based in Jordan. Originally from Ethiopia, he and his family were refugees in Kenya before finally coming to the US. He was the co-founder of a SnapChat project, creating an online social media community from people of the Oromo ethnic group called OromosConnect. This project is available via SnapChat and Instagram. He is now looking to travel and discover more of what’s to come.