Spreading his story: Author Hamse Warfa speaks about immigrating to U.S., leadership

Sagal Abdirahman
Sagal Abdirahman, St. Louis Park High School

Everyone has a story that makes them unique. Some are filled with more hardship than others.

For Hamse Warfa, the author of “America Here I Come: A Somali Refugee’s Quest for Hope,” which was published in 2014, his story starts in Somalia.

Author Hamse (left) speaks to the crowd while being interviewed by ThreeSixty journalist Sagal Abdirahman on May 7 at a book signing event in Minneapolis. The event was hosted by Youthprise. 

Warfa was an average young boy in Mogadishu when civil war broke out and forced him and his family to flee. After three years in refugee camps in Kenya, he came with his family to the U.S. in 1994 and enrolled in school despite speaking little to no English.

Now, Warfa is an author, as well as a program officer for Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, a con­sultant and a presenter.. He also is working toward his doctorate in Public Administration at Hamline University in St. Paul.

In his book, Warfa writes about the obstacles he faced throughout his life and how he overcame them. He also writes about the importance of leadership, especially for youth.

On May 7, I interviewed Warfa at a book signing event in Minneapolis, hosted by Youthprise. More than 50 people attended to hear his story.

What motivated you to write a memoir?

I was inspired to write this book when my story was included in a book in 2010, published by a former Wall Street journalist who became an author. His interest was to combine stories from individuals who overcame adversities and have done what he calls “extraordinary things.” At the time when I was inter­viewed for the book, I had no idea how I was selected. I got an email asking if I could participate in a 10-minute interview to see if I could be a candidate for being in a book that would be published. Also, to my surprise, there was a genuine interest of money from diverse groups who were interested to learn about dif­ferent immigrant experiences. That really gave me enough momentum to start writing, and that eventually resulted in the making of this book.

I felt a responsibility to represent not just Somalis, not just Africans, but those who fled from violent situations, well. Many people come to this country for different reasons, some come for economic reasons because they want to get employed, which is absolutely a great thing to do. Many others come here because they were destroyed by war.

Tell us about your childhood memories in Somalia.

As many of you know, we often hear stories how Somalia had the first democratic government in Africa. The next country followed suit after thirty years. Somalia was the house of the African Union. For younger generations, and those who aren’t familiar with Somali stories, it is very difficult to believe in them because what they hear over the last twenty years is a different story. We have two generations of Somalis today. We have the few that are in the older generation who can relate to the country more. But many are second-generation Somalis, while I like to call myself “the 1.5 genera­tion” – those who had experiences in the country before the civil war and then came to this country and had the opportunity to go to high school and spend their teenage years here in America.

So my memories are that, I loved soccer and it was my passion. We call it futbol in Africa and most of the world. To say soccer was my passion is an understatement. I dreamed about soccer. There were a few times I left from school to go play soccer, only to be reprimanded by parents and teachers. So I remember a peaceful Somalia where we walked to school. I remember we wore the yellow shirts and khaki pants in my second-, third-, fourth-grade in Somalia, where life really felt like a never-ending paradise. Somalia has 70-degree all-year-round weather and it feels like you are almost on vacation 365 days a year. That is the life I remember before the civil war. ...

Coming to the U.S. as a young teenager, what were some chal­lenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

Before my family and I were spon­sored to come to the U.S., just before we flew to the U.S., my father passed away due to health reasons. That was a low moment in our life because it felt like the pillar of my family was no longer with us. So this uncertainty of what life would be without our father was the start of this new experience in life.

My family and I arrived in Denver, Colorado, on a freezing day. My mom and sister were asking each other … whether it was salt outside. Of course we had a different under­standing of what snow looked like. After a year of being there, my family and I decided to move. My mom asked, “Where is the closest place that does not snow?” So someone knew of this place called San Diego, where the weather is 70 degrees all year round. So we moved to San Diego, California.

One of the first challenges I of course encountered was the language barrier. It was extremely challenging. The only English words I knew were mostly picked up from the basket­ball courts and they were mostly trash (talk). It was (only) effective when I was trying to make a layup. So that really discouraged my pas­sion to continue school. So I found myself playing more basketball and spending more time on the court as a way of distracting myself from the real hard work of going to school. It wasn’t until an injury and motivation from my family that I got back to going to school. ...

In your book, you wrote, “America is the land of opportunity, but only to those who seize such opportunity.” What are some ways to seize oppor­tunities and what are some opportu­nities that might go unseized?

The education system. I am extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to go through the education system. That allowed me today to really find more of my strengths and find an opportunity to make a difference and contribute my two cents. If it was not for the quality education, I do not think I would be in the position to manage close to $180 million, to be able to be an advocate for my community ...

For the younger groups here, the value of outside classroom learning for yourself through community-sponsored trainings, workshops, internships during the summer. I had the fortune of getting an internship with a small nonprofit organiza­tion that works with East African refugees in San Diego. And at the time I had no clue what community nonprofit organizations are. There is no such thing as the nonprofit sector in Somalia. I had no clue that this was even a paid job. I thought this was kind of Mother Teresa-like, so you go and spend four or five hours just helping out your community and giving back, only to learn that this is a huge sector that really transforms communities. ...

(As for) opportunities that go unseized, I would say for the most part almost everyone is willing to sit down and speak with young people, but young people do not reach out to get help. But for young people to really reach out and ask for help, for most people whether it’s asking for guidance in what you want to major on in school, whether it’s your friend who has a problem and you’re look­ing for some help for him or her – sometimes it’s an unseized oppor­tunity when you do not reach out to professionals who really take the time from their busy schedule to help. ...

What have your experiences taught you about leadership and why is leadership so important to you?

When you Google the word “leader­ship,” you will get so many different definitions of leadership, so I want to be clear that I’m defining leadership broadly here. The mother who’s busy taking her children to school, and giving the time she would have spent on herself to either uplift herself through education, employment, sacrificing so much for her children. Those who are sacrificing for their community. Those who are spending countless hours are all in a leader­ship role. Leadership sometimes is transactional. For example, elected officials … it’s mostly transactional because we will vote for somebody to become an elected leader, but we expect something from them later, so it’s transactional. … Young people who take on initiative to clean the streets, to help their friends, those are to me leadership opportunities.

This is an edited transcript of the interview

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