Growing up Somalian in America


A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

Growing up Somalian in America is a walking contradiction. Both cultures are constantly at odds jockeying for which one drives my life.

I came from a loving Muslim family. My family came here from Kenya in 1996. I was five years old at the time, and we came here to escape the dangerous climate of our home country. On the airplane ride to America, I remember eating my first Payday candy bar. It was so good I had to have another one. I felt like our lives were going to be good, just like that candy bar.

My family and I got off the plane with nothing more than hope and the knowledge of the Quran. For the first six months here in America, all I learned was the Quran, which was all the knowledge my family believed I needed.

Then school happened. This was where I was introduced to Western culture, the music, the American education system, and the American ideology. All of these things were contradictory to what my family taught me at home.

My family is highly educated in the teachings of the Quran, and in our homeland that means we would have been also wealthy, but not in America. In America my family is considered ignorant because they don’t know the American education system and the American culture, which also means we grow up in poverty, bad neighborhoods and underfunded schools, and are placed in an inferior social class.

I began to struggle in school. I could not understand the tutors and teachers, and they could not understand me. I then became disinterested in school and eventually dropped out.

Now I was beginning to learn quickly that my Somalian ways and beliefs did not work in America, so for my survival I had to adjust and drop some of my Somalian beliefs and pick up more American ways. I started to dress differently, hanging out with other Somalians who were going through the same thing.

We started a gang so we can have something to call our own. This began to strain the relationship with my family. They tried to fix me with the Quran, but by that time the American candy bar tasted so good.

This led me to an American prison with a sentence of 98 months. It all happened so fast. One minute I was free and the next I was cuffed in chains on my way to the American plantation (prison). Here I was further exposed to the American way.

I was told I had a drug and criminal problem, which was true and I take full responsibility for all I did. But my drug and criminal problems were just symptoms of my confusing flu called growing up Somalian in America.

I began to realize all of this when I began connecting with the brothers from the B.R.I.D.G.E., at the BRIDGE groups I learned the importance of self-identity, the power of relationships, the duty of leadership, and the power of writing.

Minnesota has one of the largest Somalian communities in America, and in the State of Minnesota some of the largest racial disparities in the country. But the Somalian community is suffering.

A lot of Somalian youth reach a fork in the road where they are left with two decisions: Either completely assimilate to the American system or hold on to their Somalian beliefs. Many wonderful Somalians have been successful, but in the year 2015 it is an uphill battle. Other Somalian youth decide to join extremist groups to find a place where they belong. I believe that is also a symptom of the growing-up-Somalian-in-America flu.

So if there is any Somalian youth out there who feels like “I’m Somalian in America and I can never be successful, and “schools ain’t for me” attitude, and the jobs won’t hire me,” this article is for you. It is my call to action as well for the Somalian leaders and Somalian youth to come together and think about solutions.

My name is Zakaria Wayso, and I am part of the BRIDGE partnership with Voices for Racial Justice. We have a lot going on in the Somalian community. You are needed and welcome. Contact us.

Peace Be With You.

Zakaria Wayso is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to To learn more about the organization’s work, visit