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From Somalia to Kenya, From Michigan to Missouri: Abdi Tarey Finds His Place as a New American

Jennifer Moore

In 1991, civil war broke out in Somalia. It’s a relatively young country, with only 59 years of independence since British rule. At the time, Abdi Tarey was five years old. His father was in the military and things became very dangerous for his family.

“And my mom said, ‘We have to run to Kenya because so many people has been killed.’ And there was chaos and escalation. The government was fighting. The people were saying that the need to overthrow the president. And then, there was too much killing and looting,” said Tarey.

Now in his 30s, Tarey’s journey to America has been a long one. Once across the Somali/Kenyan border, he would spend about 20 years in a refugee camp. Life was hard in the camp. With a corrupt Kenyan government and no jobs, Tarey says it was terrible. The bright spot in the camp was the education provided to the refugees.

“The kids are learning under the system operated by UNICEF, United Nations and the government of Kenya. That’s where I’ve learned this English,” said Tarey.

Tarey’s opportunity to get out of the refugee camp came in his mid-20s.

“In 2012, the government of the United States say they need to take some refugees to America and the president was Barack Obama,” said Tarey.

So, he made his way to America.

“I was settled to Michigan – Lansing, Michigan – where I was staying for eight months,” said Tarey.

There, he received assistance with medical care and food stamps. But in Michigan, the job market wasn’t supportive of the influx of new residents. Tarey got a call from some friends living in Noel, Missouri; they suggested he join them there to work at Tyson Foods.

He accepted the offer and made the move. Things have gone well for him there, he says.

“I like the job, I like working with my friends, I like…although it is chicken, it is like, uh, people say it’s difficult. People like us, it is not difficult,” said Tarey.

Tarey works on the processing line, cutting up chickens, doing about four or five different cuts as the chickens move down the line. He tells me that by the time they are done, the chicken is exactly what you would purchase in the grocery store.

When Tarey was still in Kenya, he worked for UNICEF, earning less than $100 per month. With his job at Tyson, he’s now earning over $700 a week. It’s turned his life around.

“I’ve got a beautiful car and I rent this house. So, I’m just comfortable with doing what I want for myself and for my people,” said Tarey.

Tarey sends money to his family who are still back in the refugee camp. He’s glad to be able to help them through the opportunities he’s been afforded with here in the United States.  

Credit Jessica Balisle / KSMU
Abdi Tarey in front of the African Grocery Store in Noel, MO

He officially became a U.S. citizen on November 28, 2018 in Kansas City. He says it was the best day of his life.

“That was the happiest day of my life, ‘cause it was like my birthday,” said Tarey.

Today, Tarey is looking forward to the next presidential election – the first he will be able to vote in.

“I registered to vote. I’m gonna vote this time. Gonna vote for the people – the person I think can help this country,” said Tarey.

Life in Noel has been good for Tarey. He enjoys playing soccer, but at the time of our interview during Ramadan, he was abstaining from the sport. As a practicing Muslim, Tarey doesn’t play sports or listen to music, or eat all day during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. He spends his free time reading the Quran and praying.

In downtown Noel, there is a small mosque and the African Grocery Store. The store, which Tarey and his friends affectionately call the Somali Store, is much more than your typical grocery store. Here, you can purchase goods from Africa and the Middle East. When Tarey talks about the store, his eyes light up.

“That’s where the Somalis, my people, meet and communicate,” said Tarey.

Tarey gave me a tour of the store.

He takes me to the back where there is a small window into a kitchen were you can get an array of Somali 

Credit Jessica Balisle / KSMU
Somali sambusa and mango juice at the African Grocery Store in Noel, MO

food. A woman in traditional Islamic dress takes our order. Tarey orders sambusa, Somali pastries filled with meat, peppers and onions.

Since it was during Ramadan, Tarey did not eat with me, but sat with me while I enjoyed this delicious treat in the back dining room of the Somali Store. An older man was eating a meal at our table. Tarey told me the man was sick, which gave him an exception to the fasting during daylight rule.

After my sambusa, we take a tour through the rest of the shop. It’s an array of exotic food and colorful clothing. Fancy perfume bottles line shelves behind the register. An entire section is dedicated to incense and candles. There’s another for shoes, blankets, curtains. I meet Eric Hudson, who helps operate the store.

“If you come to America with nothing, you can buy everything in the store that you need to set up your house with to be able to live, including beds, furniture. ‘Course, you see all the pots and pans and food and other stuff,” said Hudson.

Hudson tells me that many immigrants in the community don’t have cars and the African Grocery Store is easy for a lot of people to walk to. In addition to African and Middle Eastern goods, daily household items are also available, like laundry detergent and paper towels.

When I ask Tarey about how he feels to be an American citizen, he has mixed feelings.

“It’s an amazing country. I would like to bring my people here, but the immigration policy, which is coming under Donald Trump’s no good for us;” said Tarey.

He also is upset by the gun violence in the U.S. Coming from the Kenyan refugee camp, he thought that was something he had left behind.

“That’s one problem I have in this country. When they have gun violence, I am always shocked. Uh, that breaks my heart. I cannot kiddies and people killed,” said Tarey.

But he tells me this country still serves as the best hope for many of the Somali refugees fleeing a homeland of constant crisis.

“And the only hope they had was America. Y’know, European countries don’t take much,” said Tarey.

When I say goodbye to Tarey at the African Grocery Store, he has friends gathering to meet up before they go to work at Tyson. They will be on their way at 4:00 and work into the night until 2 or 3 am.

Jessica Gray Balisle, a Springfield native, grew up listening to KSMU. When she's not wrangling operations and compliance issues, she co-hosts live music show Studio Live and produces arts and culture stories. Jessica plays bass in local band the Hook Knives. She and her husband Todd live with their two cats, Ellie and Jean-Ralphio, and way too many house plants.
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