Strength in tradition

Muslim student who grew up in Kenya balances cultural adaptation and finds a supportive community at CMU that strengthens her faith.

For Halima Abdi, being Muslim and a refugee in America means living in two worlds. It means balancing cultural adaptation and tradition.

Each day, the Grand Rapids junior and native Kenyan can be seen around the campus of Central Michigan University conversing with friends, sometimes wearing modern clothes, and other times dressed traditionally.

Abdi’s experience is a portrait of a young American woman told through the eyes of a refugee who found safe harbor as a U.S. citizen, and chose CMU as the place that would make that experience more valuable.

Her family’s journey to America 14 years ago was wrought with hardships. She has overcome those challenges. Now, she is a junior studying interior design.

Abdi and her brother are the first in her family to attend a university.

Through it all, Abdi said she has learned the true meaning of oppression, and finds liberation in her mixture of new and old world values. She wears a hijab knowing others may not see it that way.

“I am not forced to wear the hijab. It does not oppress me,” said the Grand Rapids sophomore. “It empowers me.”

Abdi was born and raised traditionally for the first nine years of her life in the small village of Kakuma, Kenya. When she was young, her family was subjected to cruelty and violence.

Members of her family were slain by what she called corrupt countrymen. Poor environmental conditions added to that death toll. Abdi and her immediate family fled Kenya to seek a better life as the danger there was escalating.

The passage was not easy. Abdi and her loved ones lived in a refugee camp for nearly a year, sharing a small tent and few resources. They were granted access to the U.S. in 2004, landing in Grand Rapids.

Abdi said the biggest issue once inside America was the language barrier. Shortly after the move, Abdi was placed in intense English-language courses, which made it possible for her to be a translator for her family.

At nine years old, Abdi was making doctor’s appointments, explaining the process of getting a driver’s license to her parents and helping them secure jobs.

Abdi doesn’t take her opportunity to get a college education for granted. She is studying interior design while at CMU. Abdi said she loves her home in Grand Rapids and as a student in Mount Pleassant, but still relishes in her cultural traditions — she’s a current member of CMU’s African Student and Muslim Student associations.

“(Joining the Muslim Student Association) made me not lose my faith, and makes me feel like I’m not really alone,” Abdi said. “It showed me there are other people on campus like me, and I can talk to them and turn to them when I need it.”

While tensions flare around the nation over Muslim refugees in America, Abdi said she is thankful for her parents making the sacrifices to flee, she said.

“It’s always been about making (my parents) proud because they never had the chance to do these things,” Abdi said. “I’m trying to prove to them that whatever they did or the sacrifices they made was for the better.”


About Ben Solis

Ben Solis is the Managing Editor of Central Michigan Life. He has served as a city and university ...

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