The Land of Dirigo and Bakshish

In 1991 Somalia’s government collapsed: in 1992 came drought and famine.  Things have not improved since then.  Today over 1 million Somalis have been driven from their homes.  Many have found their way to Kenyas’s Daadab refugee complex, a sprawling encampment along the Kenya/Somali border.  In late 1997 Hamdia Ahmed was born along her mother’s 370-mile trek to Daadab.

I attended school and helped my mom with chores. I played with my friends from school. We didn’t have playgrounds like the ones in the U.S., so we basically played with dirt and made dolls out of sticks.

Besides these few good memories, living in a refugee camp was not easy. My family experienced so many traumatic things in the camp. My mom was physically assaulted when she was protecting my sister from a man. I remember seeing blood pouring down my mother’s face, and my older sister and cousin rushing her to the hospital. It was a scary scene to witness, but I couldn’t fully understand the situation because I was so young.

One night, we were sleeping outside the house because it was really hot inside. While we were asleep, a man decided to break into our little fence and hold a knife to my mother’s stomach. I was sleeping next to my mother and it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced. I woke up screaming after I heard my mother scream. The man ran away because the neighbors started running to our house to check on us. I am so thankful we didn’t get hurt.

In 2005 Hamdia’s family came to America.  Today they live in Maine, along with several thousand of their fellow Somalis. Generations of oppression  continue to resonate through their community.  A 2016 report by the Minnesota State Demographic Center found nearly 57 percent of Somalis live in poverty while 26 percent live in near-poverty.  In June 2018 Emmanuel Nkurunziza, a 17 year-old Somali, killed Donald Giusti with a rock during a riot. Soon after his arrest Nkurunziza assaulted a fellow prisoner.

But where other refugees have failed Hamdia has triumphed against overwhelming odds.  The seven-year old girl whose dreams were bigger than her squalid refugee camp has become a strikingly beautiful young woman and the first hijab-wearing Miss Maine USA contestant.  And while working on her modeling career Hamdia also found the time to get a Political Science degree and advocate for displaced peoples worldwide.  By any standard Hamdia Ahmed is a refugee success story.  Born to an uprooted family and raised amongst uprooted people, she has made a new and better life in her adopted land.  Yet despite these victories Hamdia seems remarkably unhappy in her new home.

During the 2017 Miss Maine USA race, controversy arose over some now-deleted Tweets on Hamdia’s Twitter account.  While these were scrupulously ignored outside the conservative sphere, it is hard to avoid wondering if Hamdia might have placed higher had she not been carrying this kind of baggage:

“Your ancestors stole this land from Native Americans, and then enslaved a whole race.”

“I don’t trust white people. The system is literally always on their side no matter what they do to people of color.”

(On July 3, 2017): “F**k the 4th. F**k the flag. F**k the national anthem.”

On September 14, 2018 Hamdia was ill-treated and religiously abused by a Muslim-hating Starbucks clerk.  As Dustin Wlodkowski reported, Hamdia:

…asked the employee helping her to check the alcohol content of vanilla flavoring that might be in her order.  Many Muslims, like Ahmed, abstain from alcohol.

Ahmed says … the barista serving her laughed and rolled her eyes, a reaction that came as a shock because she says this has never happened before…

Ahmed says this was her first time in a Starbucks since an incident earlier this year at a Philadelphia Starbucks where two black men were arrested.  That prompted apologies from the company’s CEO, numerous company policy changes and a nationwide store shutdown for bias training.

Ahmed told us she boycotted Starbucks before the changes happened, which made what she told us occurred Friday even more frustrating and left her with a feeling nothing had improved.

Reached for comment, Starbucks replied “We truly appreciated Ms. Ahmed bringing her experience to our attention. We have expressed our sincere apologies and will do a full investigation.”  While she pronounced their corporate-speak “adequate,” Hamdia promised to keep sharing this story in hopes of promoting a wider dialogue.  While she later deleted many of the threads offering wider dialogue, a few were archived:

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On the morning of October 15, 2018, Hamdia once again came face-to-face with Islamophobia, this time at her local Dunkin Donuts.  As she recounted it on Twitter:

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According to the New York Post.

“I don’t want to hear it!” the employee shot back. “I’m done with it. You can leave, or I will call the cops!”

“Really?” Ahmed said, clearly shocked.

Ahmed, who was behind the wheel, then told the woman she would come into the store to speak to the manager in person.  Inside the store, more words were exchanged and an employee called Ahmed a “b—h,” she told the outlet.

Cops were called, and after speaking to both parties, they slapped Ahmed with a year-long “no trespass notice” for yelling at employees and creating a disturbance, according to the report.

After a protest outside their store, the franchise owner apologized and rescinded the no trespass order.  This would seem a victory, yet even some of Hamdia’s supporters expressed skepticism.

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Things were relatively quiet until August 10, when Hamdia engaged with a mentally disturbed White woman who called her “nigger.”  Hamdia caught the encounter on video, shared it to her Twitter feed, and later made the Daily Dot for her courage.  Yet despite the inflammatory content this garnered comparatively little national attention.  Perhaps the N-Word drove away fashion and human interest editors.   Perhaps crazy ladies ranting don’t draw the same eyeballs as corporate racism stories.  Or perhaps there is a fine line between exposure and overexposure.

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For guilty White people Hamdia serves as house dominatrix in a virtual absolution scene that Ta-Nehsi Coates might envy.  To White-appearing radicals wishing to educate their fellow White people, sassy brown friends who speak Woke Lingo are priceless.  For them Hamdia says “authenticity” the way Aunt Jemima symbolizes “pancakes.” She proves they are Good White People Standing in Solidarity with the Oppressed.  But, as Hamdia is learning, this routine has limits both on its appeal and its shelf life.

Somalis could be hard to get along with. It was not that they were puritanical Muslims; they were Muslims but few were puritanical. More important was a kind of ruthlessness which perhaps resulted from their harsh environment. The greatest Western scholar on Somalia listed, among Somali attributes, deeply-ingrained suspicion and open contempt for others. Mogadishu was a place where kids came up to a foreigner with hands out for bakshish and threw stones at him as he walked away. Some Americans and Somalis became good friends but all in all it was not a place where many of my staff felt at ease.

Peter Bridges, “Safirka: The Envoy in Somalia

It would be easy enough to accuse Hamdia of ingratitude and disloyalty to a country which has treated her more kindly than her birth land ever did.  I might instead blame cultural misunderstandings and exposure to cultural Marxism.  I might not like Hamdia’s behavior very much — and I’m pretty certain she will never like anything about me — but I certainly respect her.  She is dedicated to her Family, her Folk and her Faith: she has earned everything she has won.  If Islamic, Christian and Enlightenment beliefs are to inform each other in America, people like Hamdia Ahmed will be the ones who make it happen.  But that will only happen when she is able to see us as concerned fellow citizens rather than implacable enemies.


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