Accidental American

"I didn't know what asylum meant, but I felt it had to be better than war."

Ifrah Jimale never forgets her perilous journey from Somalia to Minnesota

Ifrah Jimale. Photo by Eva Studena.

Ifrah Jimale. Photo by Eva Studena.


Eleven-year-old Ifrah Jimale was left home alone-for six months.

The young Somali girl was one of 10 children in a family of farmers. After her parents separated, her mother took the older and much younger children to Mogadishu to look for work, leaving Jimale in their village of 200 to take care of the livestock.

Thinking back to her time alone when American girls the same age would be just starting sixth grade, Jimale called the experience “bizarre. I was left by myself in the family house. Now that I’m here, I see it from a different perspective. You don’t leave an 11-year-old alone like that, but there, everybody treats you like an adult from the get-go.

“When I got hungry, I would sell one of the goats or cows or trade for food,” she said, but after six months, Jimale had enough of the solitary life. “One morning I just closed the door of the house and set off for the big city … to find my mom.”

Jimale arranged to catch a ride to Mogadishu with a young man who had come home to the village to visit his family. She paid her fare in goats, hopped in the car and never looked back. But she had no idea how big a city Mogadishu is (the United Nations estimates its population at more than 1 million).

“I just remember being shocked by all the houses,” Jimale said. “”In the village … we all lived in huts.” Finally the young man located an aunt of Jimale’s, whom she had never met, and dropped her off with her mother’s sister. “My mom came the next night to get me,” Jimale said. “I thought she was going to kill me for leaving the goats, but she never said a word about it.” Though she was now reunited with her family, her perilous adventures had just begun.

When civil war broke out in 1994, Jimale and her family began moving from town to town to get away from the bloodshed. At one point, they were in a city for just one week before it was attacked. “At the last minute, the people defending the roads [leading into the city] left. Everybody panicked. Everybody ran. Mothers ran. Grandmothers ran.” Thirteen-year-old Jimale, holding her 9-month-old nephew, got separated from the rest of her family.

“Here I was with this baby. I had no milk, nothing. So I walked toward the mountains. I thought, ‘I can feel safe there.’ We were halfway there, when I saw this kid all by himself crying. Should I stop and help him? As I get closer, he looks familiar. It was my 8-year-old brother! I still wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t stopped,” she said pensively. She managed to care for herself, her brother and the baby for three weeks. And then one day, in the distance, they saw a woman walking toward them. “It was my sister! My little nephew’s mom! She had been looking for us for the 21 days we had been gone.”

The family was reunited, but after the experience of losing two of her youngest children and a grandchild for three weeks, Jimale’s mother despaired of ever again living in peace in Somalia. She moved her family to Kenya, where they lived the poverty-stricken existence of refugees for the next several years.

Jimale’s mother worked tirelessly to get her children off the continent of Africa to safety. “She wanted us to have educations, better lives,” Jimale said. When it was her turn in 1998, Jimale’s mom gave her a passport, illegal documents and $900, and sent her off to London where an aunt would meet her at the airport. To this day, Jimale doesn’t know what happened, but she wound up in Cincinnati where she was detained. According to her documents, she was an English-speaking American; in actuality, not only did she not speak, write or read English, she was illiterate in her own language, as well. “In my family,” she explained, “the boys went to school, the girls worked at home.”  

Months later, Jimale told an immigration judge in broken English, “I don’t know what laws I was breaking. I just want to live.’ They said, ‘Oh, you’re seeking asylum.’ I said yes. I didn’t know what asylum meant, but I felt it had to be better than war,” she said with a self-deprecating grin.

After working as a nanny for a couple of years, Jimale ended up in Minneapolis, where she registered as a freshman at Roosevelt High School, her first-ever academic experience. There, she caught the eye of a caring counselor, Lisa Johnson, who took her into her heart and home. Under the Johnson family’s loving care, Jimale learned quickly. She soaked up knowledge, devoured Harry Potter books and graduated in the usual four years.

Today Jimale, 28, is a senior at the University of St. Thomas, double majoring in journalism and peace and justice studies. She continued to live with the Johnsons for her first three years as a college student, and had a difficult time leaving the nest. The Johnsons “love me and I love them,” she said. “I just moved into an apartment of my own.”

Jimale stays in touch with her family, talking to her mom in Kenya once a month. Her siblings are scattered all over the globe. She visited three brothers in Europe in 2005. If Somalia ever sees peace, Jimale would like to go back for an extended visit and see her birthplace from a different perspective. “It would be interesting to go back today after being here. I feel like I’m a completely different person. I am so glad to be in the United States, free of the societal beliefs and restrictions placed on women [in Somalia.]”

When she stops to think about it, Jimale is amazed by the twists and turns her life has taken, and she is profoundly grateful for the chance at a college education. She decided on journalism because she had been a member of her high school newspaper staff, where she was encouraged by Twin Cities journalist Dave Nimmer. She arrived at her decision on peace and justice studies because she wants to help others.

Still, Jimale doesn’t see herself settling in any one place when she graduates in May 2008. She wants to work in the arena of human rights, wherever that might take her.

But never, ever does she forget the route that brought her here.