Jeilani Salim Abdalla’s journey from Somali refugee to American citizen began 14 years ago, shortly after militiamen invaded his home, shot and killed his son, and kidnapped his daughter.
Two days after finding his 20-year-old son dead and daughter gone, the former businessman fled with the rest of his family to Kenya, surviving a perilous 15-day ocean voyage on a small, overcrowded boat.
After living several years in a Kenyan refugee camp, his family secured a U.S. sponsor and arrived in this country in 1997. With help from Neighborhood House in Seattle, Jeilani started English classes and the process towards citizenship.
But his journey, after overcoming so many hardships, was looking more and more like a dead-end. Almost a year and a half after he applied, he was still waiting for an interview with immigration authorities.
Inquiring about the delay, he was told his file had been transferred to a “special research facility” in Washington D.C., for a likely “name check.”
Jeilani and those who advocated on his behalf believe that, in the post 9/11 climate of heightened national security, his application was held up because of his Islamic-sounding name.
“I am a legal permanent resident. …I work, pay my taxes, and obey the laws in my new country,” he said in an October 2005 appeal letter to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. “I feel my application was given special attention due to my name and my ethnicity. I believe this is unjust and unfair.”
Mary Turla, the English as a Second Language teacher at Neighborhood House who helped him contact Cantwell, says Jeilani would come to class toting his answering machine in a plastic bag when he had a message from the senator’s office.
“Maria,” he would say, addressing his teacher, “there’s a message from Maria.”
Jeilani believes that his application for citizenship would never have been processed without help from Neighborhood House and Cantwell’s intervention.
He rattles off the date he became a citizen with automatic ease, as if it’s his birth date: March 15, 2006.
He celebrated by bringing a cake to Neighborhood House’s Park Lake site in White Center and sharing it with other ESL students, Neighborhood House staff, friends and family.
His reasons for coming to the United States are common to many who fled the violence in his homeland: peace, justice and a chance at a better life. His children, including the daughter who had been kidnapped and later returned, are all attending school here and doing well.
Meanwhile, Jeilani is thrilled to finally be able to vote and make plans for the future. He’s saving money with the goal of starting a grocery and goods store catering to East African refugees living in this country.
“I forgot all the pain during waiting,” he said through a translator. “Now that I’ve passed this obstacle, my life and future are bright.”