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Zeynab Ali: using your voice for your community

Many people immigrate to America every day, either looking for refuge or for a place to start over. Zeynab Ali, an 18-year-old activist and leader in her community, is one of those immigrants. She and her family are Somalian refugees who immigrated to Milwaukee to make a better life for themselves.

In Somalia, and in the Kenyan refugee camp she was born in, poverty was a norm for her family and others in her village, so much so that she didn’t realize she was in poverty as a child in Africa.

“It [poverty] was a normal thing for me,” Ali said. “It was a daily survival for my parents and other families living there.”

Her family moved to Milwaukee originally for job opportunities and better healthcare. Coming to America was a chance for her family to start over and for her to get an education.

Moving to a foreign country knowing barely any English and seeing different races of people for the first time was hard, according to Ali.

“I came to a new country where, for the first time, I saw a white person, which was so weird,” she said of the culture shock.

She said her teachers didn’t know the best way to communicate with immigrant students, because of the language barrier and just a different type of understanding. It was hard for her to communicate things she was struggling with and unique issues she was experiencing as an immigrant, so even if things weren’t okay she couldn’t communicate those issues properly because she couldn’t find the best way how.

But that didn’t stop her from being heard--Ali later wrote a book to explain her life and the history of her country.

“Teachers [and other people] might wonder why immigrant students are acting the way they are,” she explained. “Some of them are facing trauma from their previous or native country, and that’s basically the platform of the book, to address the issues faced by immigrant children.”

Ali’s book, called Cataclysm: Secrets of the Horn of Africa, is about the history of Somalia, specifically the current state of her country’s government and economy. In it, she wrote about how the Somalian Civil War began and the significant impacts it had on her family and other families like hers. The second half of the book is a memoir of her life growing up in Kenya in a refugee camp and later coming to America. The purpose of the book is to address the struggles refugee students face everyday.

Today she tells her story to inform people about the struggles of refugees like her and how she overcame them. She also uses her platform to address issues in Milwaukee like gun violence, poverty, and human trafficking. She uses her past experience to help communicate these issues with others.

“Like poverty, I lived in a poor town in Kenya. Violence, my parents lived through the civil war in Somalia, and, you know, trauma spreads in generations. Human trafficking, I’ don’t really talk about it, but sexual harassments, I’ve been there.”

Although the trauma her parents faced reached her, she didn’t let it stop her from being an activist for issues that have touched her personally and issues within her community. Besides going out to inform people of these issues she also blogs about theses issues and her thoughts on them. She also attends meeting with local officials to stay informed about changes with the issues that are prominent in Milwaukee.

Zeynab Ali is a great leader in Milwaukee that leads youth by example of what they can do if they see problems in their community. When there are issues that concerns you, you must speak up about it, there’s a chance that others have the same concerns you do. Zeynab showed me that you can’t not sit and watch things happen you have to speak up and inform others as well.

“It’s easy for people to start addressing things because now they’re aware and wary about what’s going on in the world.”