CHEYENNE — While Wyoming might be the only state in the country without an official refugee resettlement program, that doesn’t mean there aren’t former refugees living in the Cowboy State.
There are dozens, perhaps even several hundred, former refugees living in the Capital City alone.
Many of these people, like Abdirashid Noor, are from the war-torn east African nation of Somalia.
Noor, 32, and many other members of the Somali expat community here immigrated to the United States by way of refugee camps in countries that border Somalia, such as Kenya.
Somalia is a majority-Muslim nation of about 10 million people located on the Horn of Africa.
The capital of the country is Mogadishu, a city best known to Americans as the site of the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993.
Somalis, who are the dominant ethnic group in the country, speak a language called Somali and share a common culture and religion.
The vast majority of Somalis, about 85 percent, are Sunni Muslims.
In the 19th century, portions of the country were colonized by the British, Italians and French. The country was unified and achieved independence in 1960.
That unity, however, was short lived.
“There are no Somali families that have come to the United States who have not lost family members in the civil war,” Noor said.
“Two of my uncles were killed in front of my mother. She was helpless. She was standing in front of them watching, and she couldn’t help,” Noor said. “That is the worst thing.”
The Somali Civil War is an ongoing conflict that has raged since the country’s central government was overthrown in 1991 by a coalition of clan-based rebel groups, according to information from the United Nations Operation in Somalia.
Infighting among these groups eventually drew intervention from the United Nations in the mid-1990s.
There was a temporary lull in the conflict during this time. But fighting escalated again around the turn of the century as militant Islamist groups began targeting peace-keeping forces, as well as civilians, in the country.
Upwards of 500,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the civil war, and millions more have been displaced, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program.
Many Somalis who escaped the fighting, including Noor, found themselves in refugee camps in Kenya.
“The soldiers were trying to kill everyone. They were aiming for men, but if they didn’t find men, they would kill children and the ladies, rape them, torture them to get the information on where the men are,” Noor said.
“Luckily, my dad and my uncle left (the country) two days before the soldiers came to our house. They heard some rumors that people were coming and killing,” he said.
Noor, who was a child when the civil war broke out, soon followed suit and left Somalia along with his mother, siblings and several uncles.
“There were no vehicles, so we had to walk all the way from Somalia to Kenya,” Noor said. “Some people died on the way because there wasn’t enough water. They couldn’t get food. Some of them were eaten by animals. It was a horrible experience.
“Once we got to the border, the men that were guarding it wouldn’t let many people in unless you had money to bribe the guards. We had to stay at the border for like a month. We were just sleeping outside.”
Eventually, Noor and his family were admitted into Kenya and placed in a refugee camp.
“In the refugee camp, life is hard,” Noor said. “It’s 100 degrees all the time.
“It’s so congested, and you are not allowed out of the camp. People fight for space; people fight for work. It was survival of the fittest.”
It was in this teeming camp of 120,000 refugees that Noor went to school, learned English and became a Somali-English translator.
Noor’s life changed forever in 2007 when he was accepted into the University of Northern Colorado.
Noor came to Greeley, Colorado, to study accounting at UNC. As fate would have it, when he arrived, he found that the city was home to a growing Somali community.
Unlike Noor, the majority of Somalis in Greeley did not come to attend the university -n they came to work in a nearby meat packing facility operated by the Brazilian meat-processing company JBS.
“When people come into this country and they don’t know the language, they have a lot of issues getting jobs,” Noor said.
“If you can’t communicate with other people and you can’t understand what other people are saying, they aren’t going to hire you.
“So the only area where people from east Africa or Somalia get hired is JBS or another meat plant. They don’t require communication skills as long as you can do the work,” he said.
Because jobs at the meat plant are typically low-paying, many of the Somali employees in Greeley rely on government subsidized housing programs like Section 8.
As the Somali population in Greeley grew, so did the waiting lists for programs like Section 8.
Colette West, co-executive director of the Global Refugee Center in Greeley, said the waiting list for housing subsidies in Colorado can be as long as three years.
Noor and many others in Greeley’s Somali community began looking north to Cheyenne for affordable housing options.
Mike Stanfield, executive director of the Cheyenne Housing Authority, said, “Some folks (in Colorado) found out the waiting list (for subsidized housing programs) was still open (in Cheyenne) and they came up here and applied.”
According to Noor, many of the people in Cheyenne’s Somali community commute to Greeley to work in the meat plant. Others, he said, have taken jobs here in places like the Wal-Mart Distribution Center west of town.
Noor and his wife, who worked at the Greeley meat plant, moved to Cheyenne with their newborn son last year.
Need for services
“The people of Cheyenne are the most welcoming,” Noor said. “The problem is they don’t know anything about us. They are willing to help, but they don’t know where to begin.”
In places like Greeley, where Somali communities have existed for years, there is a system in place to help new immigrants gain access to services and educational programs. But because the Somali community here is newer, those services are sometimes harder to find in Cheyenne.
“They are going to need help navigating all the systems,” West said. “It’s very hard when you don’t speak the language.”
Paul Flesher, director of the University of Wyoming’s Religious Studies Department, said immigrants who come to the United States with different religious and cultural backgrounds are often hesitant to reach out for help.
“People don’t want to have public pressure. They don’t want to be singled out. There are still tensions that exist here over issues like 9-11,” Flesher said.
“But the biggest problems are often not cultural or religious differences. They are language barrier problems.”
“The biggest problem is getting interpreters,” he said. “For us to be able to assimilate, we first have to find a way to break the language barrier.”
Enter Gretchen Carlson.
Carlson, along with teachers from Laramie County School District 1 and members of the Cheyenne Evangelical Free Church, have taken it upon themselves to help break the language barrier.
Carlson’s group holds English classes for the city’s Somali community every Tuesday at Sunrise Elementary.
“These are some of the warmest, friendliest people I’ve met,” Carlson said. “They are so hungry to learn, and they are trying so hard.”
The hope is that with these new language skills, the members of the Somali community will be able to find better-paying jobs outside of the meat packing plants.
“One of our students has kind of a mantra she likes to say: ‘Bad English, bad jobs. Good English, good jobs,’” Carlson said.
And as the city’s Somali population grows, so will the need for services.
“There is definitely a need for services,” Carlson said. “These people aren’t going away.”
West said, “Having a place similar to (Greeley’s Global Refugee Center) would a great thing for Cheyenne. The more you can work on building community relationships, the better off everyone will be.”
Noor, who works part time as a translator with GRC, agreed. But, he said, “I know that it might take a lot of time. It needs a lot of energy. It needs a lot of resources.”