Tag Archives: American Immigrant Lawyers Association

Stephanie D. Stephens

Kayse Jama

The Personal Is Political

Kayse Jama was born in Somalia into a nomadic family. He lived the nomad life until his older brother, who worked in the Education Ministry, brought him and one of his brothers to Mogadishu to live with him so they could get a formal education. Jama was eight, with the confidence engendered by his tribal culture, but still an outsider in the urban school environment. Even at eight, he knew the organizing strategy of turning the negative into a positive and turned his difference into a leadership role in school, chosen to lead the class while they waited for a teacher to come and, later, to lead the class poetry lessons, a skill enhanced by the oral tradition of tribal life.

His first deliberate political act was when he was in eleventh grade, leading a delegation of students to the Minister of Education’s office to demand more resources for the schools, schools who were losing teachers and resources to the civil war that was consuming the country–a tribal conflict over resources that was repeated throughout the developing world as colonial empires receded leaving behind artificial borders and governments. This was a bold act in a dictatorship. Before long, the civil war consumed the country and Jama, like many of his compatriots, fled seeking refuge abroad, eventually coming to the United States.

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Kayse Jama testifying to Portland City Council, February 2008

It was here where Jama came to understand the systemic nature of oppression in the US context. While he understood well the systemic oppression of hierarchical tribal conflicts that divided his country, in the US these oppressions were linked to historical injustices different than his own experience. Certainly, he was aware of gender oppression, but when he arrived in the United States as a poor, black refugee, the full weight of these interwoven oppressions landed on him. He was soon was back to his natural mode–organizing.

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