Why Seattle refugees don’t trust local government

Hamza Warsame’s sister Ikram confronts Seattle Police Department Captain Paul McDonaugh, during a march demanding more information about Warsame's death. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo)
Hamza Warsame’s sister Ikram confronts Seattle Police Department Captain Paul McDonaugh, during a march demanding more information about Warsame’s death. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo)

When hundreds of East Africans gathered last Thursday at memorial rally for Hamza Warsame, at least one member of the community was notably absent.

Uncertainty around the circumstances of the Somali American high school student’s apparent death from a fall has brought national media attention — and those who gathered on Capitol Hill last week to celebrate his life vented their frustrations about how the police have handled the investigation.

So where was Habtamu Abdi, the Ethiopian-American businessman who hired last summer as the city’s first ever civilian liaison between the police department and the East African community?

Abdi’s position is meant to foster relationships and trust between city and these communities. So I was surprised that neither he, nor any other city or police officials were present in this moment of tumult to convey the city’s position to the restless crowd. 

When I contacted Abdi and asked about his absence, he assured me that he was working behind the scenes and that Warsame’s parents specifically asked him for privacy.

“To clarify, there is no such thing as the liaison’s office, I’m one person, part and parcel of the community-out-reach program,” he said. “I have no office.”

Abdi isn’t the only East African employed by the city to improve relations with their community.

A few weeks ago, I also got the opportunity to sit down with Mohammed Sheikh Hassan, who does community outreach for the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA)

“I try to bridge between the city and the community,” said Hassan describing his position, which takes community concerns to the city and vice-versa, and to make sure community perspectives are factored into policy.

In addition to the ever-expanding OIRA, there’s also a State Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, and a state refugee advisory council, a city Immigrant and Refugee Commission, as well as more than thirty refugee servicing agencies. Just this July King County convened a Task Force to further advise on how to help immigrants access services.

It may not be for lack of effort. But given all these resources devoted to helping and communicating with refugee communities, why is their relationship with local government apparently so strained? Why the continued outcry against the police and the city?

Community members gather at Seattle Central College to mourn the death of Hamza Warsame. (Photo by Jama Abdirahman)
Community members gather at Seattle Central College to mourn the death of Hamza Warsame. (Photo by Jama Abdirahman)

The truth is, local governments face a few key challenges in engaging refugee communities:

Connecting Seattle refugees with existing services

At a recent meeting of the SPD’s Muslim, Arab and Sikh advisory committee, Halima, a mother of six who has children in the criminal justice system, complained that she was unable to get the right information or help from leaders.

“I can’t use Internet, and don’t know how to get the help,” she said.

After the meeting, I approached her to seek clarity of her statements.  She angrily replied, speaking first in Somali and then in Oromo, that she has been unable to get anyone from the city to respond to her pleading calls.

When I asked Abdi about the woman later, he said he was sure her calls hadn’t come to him.

“If someone calls me, and leaves me a voice mail, then I make sure I respond…” he said. “My number is on the city website… If anyone feels that I’m not up to my job they can file a complaint with the Professional Accountability Office.”

The mother’s frustration reminded me of Jamal Ahmed’s recent essay about the absence of city leaders at the funeral of Abubakar Abdi, a twenty year old recently murdered South Seattle.

When I met Hassan, I asked about the anger toward the city expressed in Jamal’s story, as a case-in-point.

“Abubakar had only been here [in Seattle] for a few months when he was murdered. So it was hard to get religious and community leaders,” Hassan said.

Abubakar Abdi, was shot and killed on in South Seattle in October. (Photo courtesy the Abdi family)
Abubakar Abdi, was shot and killed on in South Seattle in October. (Photo courtesy the Abdi family)

But I was surprised to learn that he had actually been involved in helping coordinate the burial.  According to Joaquin Uy, Ethnic Media and Communications Specialist for OIRA, who sat in on our meeting, even though the tragedy touched Hassan’s specific Somali community, the assistance he provided was beyond his official capacity, which is to serve all immigrant and refugee communities in the city of Seattle.

So do most immigrants and refugees actually know about all of these officials ready to help them?

Of the five non-profits serving immigrants and refugee communities I visited for this article, none had any posting of or phone number of the Office of immigrant and Refugee Affairs. Only a hand-full of employees seemed to recognize the names for example, of Mohamed Sheikh Hassan. And when they did, most didn’t seem to understand his office’s capacity.

There are at least thirty active nonprofit organizations (including mosques and churches) claiming to specifically serve East Africans in King County. There are at least Twenty six community centers operated by Seattle city alone, (as opposed to sixteen in comperably-sized Portland,)

Yet in another recent op-ed encouraging the city to close down hookah lounges, and East African community member laments a lack of resources and argues that youth need healthier community spaces as an alternative to hookah lounges.

Is he not aware of all the resources already devoted to serving them?

Perhaps there’s been a lack of coordination between government offices and nonprofits in relaying information about what services and programs are available.

When I asked Hassan about the lack of awareness of services, and what his office was doing to help gain recognition of their efforts, he said the city is upping its ESL, out-reach and civic education by developing Seattle Votes Campaign.

Immigrants and refugees put basic needs over civics

Hassan agrees that problem is largely due to a lack of civic participation on the part of immigrants and refugees. He notes that there are over twenty important citywide commissions that immigrants could volunteer for, but only a negligible number actually do so.

“They all want to join Immigrant and Refugee Commission,” he said, “but other commissions, like the Seattle Housing Authority commission is important too.”

Well-intentioned efforts toward civic education, or getting more immigrants on city commissions sort of assumes that immigrants and refugees come ready-made to imbibe American civics.

In reality immigrants and especially refugees usually arrive in America after a long traumatizing journey. They’re most interested in what helps them get access to life’s necessities.


Mohamed Sheikh Hassan talks about his first experience arriving in the U.S. as a refugee in 1994. (Video by Nicole Einbinder for Seattle Globalist and the First Days Project)

Civic education and engagement cannot, in the words of Yassin, a newly arrived refugee who I spoke to recently, “help pay rent, get me to work or put bread on my table.”

Though the normal approach to understanding immigrants and refugees is to focus on the diversity of their backgrounds and experience, refugee research actually shows that there’s a common refugee experience, and even what can be called ‘refugee behavior.’ Studies of migrants have also found common personality traits and distinguishing behavior.

Most members of both groups have come to the U.S. to escape depravity — political, economic or social.  The traumas of war and poverty call for a psychological catharsis first, and then a process of enculturation — a settling-in period, of learning to adopt and absorb culture shocks. Only after those are complete, can they really be expected to take on civic engagement as a primary concern.

A lack of trust in government institutions

Many immigrants and refugees grew up surrounded by corruption. If the relationships between government and civilians in their home countries are characterized unchecked and violent quid-pro-quos, it makes sense that they would eye civic relationships here with suspicion, and expect corruption.

This was all too clear with Warsame’s death, where some community members’ initial conclusion was that the police and media were conspiring to cover up a hate crime. In the absence of direct communication from trusted authorities, parents’ and community members’ suspicions were understandable.

Students and community members protest the way Seattle police handled the death of Hamza Warsame. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo)
Students and community members protest the way Seattle police handled the death of Hamza Warsame. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo)

When I asked about the continued suspicion directed at the city, Uy said that there’s a similarity between the East African and the Asian political experience.

“There’s always suspicion, even in the Asian communities, speaking about Filipino community because that’s the experience I’m familiar with,” he said.

And it’s not just the government. Most of the immigrants and refugees I spoke to for this story were happy to share their experiences and opinions, but didn’t want to be identified by name for fear of some sort of backlash.

Suspicion of authority is a remnant of the rough political experiences back home, but even when they’re in a safer environment, that suspicion often extends to the very people hoping to help them, or the institutions designed to represent them

What can other cities teach us?

Last year, a study of cities with innovative immigrant services by the the Migration Policy Institute looked at Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), alongside similar projects in other American cities.

It traced Seattle’s efforts to better civically engage immigrants back what former mayor Greg Nickels’ described as, ‘tale of two cities’ — the division of Seattle along racial, social and economic lines.

A reading of the report shows that, while RSJI is commendable and should be emulated, measures taken by other cities around building neighborliness may have better approaches to increasing immigrant civic engagement and improving trust.

Take, for example Littleton, Colorado’s ‘One Stop Information Center’ housed in the library, where families and individuals are provided language-specific civic and community information. Or look at Cupertino, California’s Block Leader programs, where community-selected leaders connect with neighbors and share civic experiences and events.

The city’s role both these processes is not to build multi-million dollar immigrant and refugee departments or hire specialists. It’s merely to facilitate and train leaders.

Like anyone, immigrants and refugees are most likely to readily accept what a trusted neighbor offers.

Safiyah Ismail, second from left, a nurse at Seattle Children's answers questions during a gathering of members of the Somali Health Board. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Safiyah Ismail, second from left, a nurse at Seattle Children’s answers questions during a gathering of members of the Somali Health Board. The Board is a good example of a grassroots organization helping connect immigrants and refugees with services. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Civic engagement efforts must also involve non-immigrants. Seeing their native-born neighbors participating in programs will help immigrants and the refugees gains trust of the process.

In the light of the reaction to Warsame’s tragic death, it’s evident that there’s more to be done — a serious mistrust of authority still exists.

The words of Suhail, a forty nine year old immigrant from Pakistan, show the gap for civic engagement of new arrivals and even new citizens.

“I waited for ten years for this,” he said pointing at his recently obtained naturalization certificate. “Now I can go re-marry, see my aging mother.”

But ironically, though he has been a longtime recipient of various civic and city programs, he couldn’t be more disinterested in getting involved in local government.

“I have never voted in my life,” he proclaims. “I have no intention to start now, unless I’m forced to.”

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