The American Dream - From An Immigrant's Perspective

The Peace Catalyst Columbus team often holds storytelling nights, forums for Muslims or refugees to share their stories with the community. This is the story of Ahmed, as told by him at a recent event with the topic of 'The American Dream.'


What were the circumstances that caused you or your ancestors to come to the US?

My grandfather was the head of the Somali police academy, and my father and aunt both served in high government positions. Then civil war broke out, and the Somali central government collapsed. This had a huge impact on my family’s life. It not only affected them financially; it also affected their safety, as there were many militias fighting to take over the capital city. My family fled to a coastal city in southern Somalia called Kismayoo, where my sister and I were born.

We later sought refuge in Kenya and lived with my aunt and grandma in Nairobi until I was 2 years old.

In 1996 we finally received a sponsor to come to the US. We arrived in New York and lived with my cousin, who had been there since the early 1980’s.

Finally, we relocated to Atlanta, where the majority of my family in the US lived. We stayed there for about 3 years until we finally moved to Columbus, Ohio and have lived here ever since.


What did the American Dream mean to you in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood? How, if at all, did it affect your and/or your family's life choices, aspirations, decisions, etc?

The American Dream, to me, meant making something out of nothing. It meant being able to come with nothing and become something!

In childhood (ages 4-12) I really didn’t think about the American Dream that much. I actually thought we were living it, having left Somalia and growing up here in the States surrounded with family and relatives and eating all this junk food and watching TV and playing video games with my cousins. I felt we were safe and secure. My mother never made me feel like we were poor, and she strived to make sure we had everything we needed.

During my adolescent years (13-18) I viewed the American Dream as being rich and powerful. Growing up in a low-income family and going to a private school, I was surrounded by what I thought were people who had attained the “American Dream” - immigrant families who had made it in life by becoming homeowners and who drove expensive cars and were able to send their kids off to private schools. As I was growing up, I also watched a lot of reality TV shows, because 1) when my older sister babysat us she would turn it on, and B) we didn’t leave the house much when I was younger due to the dangers my single mom felt were prevalent in our neighborhood. She didn’t let us go out and play with neighbors. So this tale of two cities I would see when going to this private school across town in an affluent suburb and then living and waking up in the “hood” was a huge factor in how I viewed the American Dream. It also made me realize that we were “poor” or low-income.

In adulthood I viewed the American dream as being able to use what I learn and any financial gain or success I acquire to make and impact in the lives of those who cared for me and to make a difference in the world. The American dream meant coming here as a refugee or immigrant and then helping not only myself but others - being someone who is able to give back to society. It meant being being financially secure and being able to touch other people’s lives.


How was the American Dream communicated to you in your family culture? Is there a Somali-American Dream? How does it differ from the American Dream? What were your parents' dreams for you here in America?

There was always a culture to succeed and aim high in our family.

Most of my cousins, uncles, and aunts had graduate degrees and worked in many different fields and professions. This in turn made the bar very high for me and my sister growing up, and it felt like keeping up with the Joneses.  

I could have sworn that my mom’s definition of the American Dream was that her kids would be doctors. Primarily me as her oldest son.

I felt this really conflicted with my own view of success, and for a long time I believed that my mom’s American Dream for her kids should also be my American Dream.


How does your faith impact how you pursue the American Dream? Is there a Muslim dream? Does the American Dream sometimes differ from the will of God for you?

I believe that my faith does push us to be successful and to aim high, so yes, this does impact my American Dream.

My faith also teaches us to be humble and to not look at worldly material too much but rather to look at our internal growth and to increase our faith.

One thing that I do find hard when trying to attain the American Dream is that in our religion RIba, or financial interest, is forbidden and unlawful. This makes it especially hard to become a homeowner, car owner, or take out a loan to start your business. Even having a savings account at a bank where interest is involved is unhallowed. This makes it hard when part of your American Dream is being a homeowner, purchasing that nice Lexus, or getting a loan from a bank to start your business.


Do you consider yourself the American Dream? Why or why not? 

I am the American dream to maybe some people who view my upbringing vs. where I stand today as “making it." However, I think I am still working on becoming MY definition of the American Dream.


What has it been like for you lately (post-election). How have recent policies affirmed or threatened your American Dream?

The American Dream has always been about immigrants and refugees coming to this country and becoming successful. However, when you see your country with 6 others on a “banned list” and plans to build wall in Mexico so “those people don’t take our jobs” it makes you wonder, "Is the American Dream becoming limited now to only people in America and excluding immigrants and refugees?"