World Refugee Day: An Interview With Author and Activist Warda Mohamed Abdullahi On Welcoming Refugees, The Importance of Education, And Inspiring Young Girls

Photo Courtesy of Warda Abdullahi

#ICYMI June 20, 2022, marked the 71st anniversary of World Refugee Day, which is the United Nations’ international day of observance for refugees worldwide. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the world is witnessing the highest recorded levels of displacement in history. Over 70 million people have been driven from their home countries due to war, conflict, and persecution, and 30 million are under the age of 18. If given a choice, refugees would almost always choose the familiarity of their culture, the security of their family, and the safety of their homeland.

However, when fleeing is a matter of life and death, they must choose life.

This year’s Refugee Week theme surrounds healing and safety with its motto being: Whoever. Wherever. Whenever. Everyone has the right to seek safety.

“People escaping violence or persecution must be able to cross borders safely. They must not face discrimination at borders or be unfairly denied refugee status or asylum due to their race, religion, gender, or country of origin.”

“People escaping violence or persecution must be able to cross borders safely. They must not face discrimination at borders or be unfairly denied refugee status or asylum due to their race, religion, gender, or country of origin.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres

America essentially is a nation of immigrants and asylum seekers. All of whom, in the spirit of entrepreneurship, faith, family, and the intense desire for a life of democracy and freedom — wound up here. All of which was done with the help of strangers, the kindness of neighbors, and a supportive community. Even those of us whose ancestors were stolen from their native lands and stripped of their free will, all while being subjected to violence, had a strong desire for America’s promise of a better life. That desire is something that not only I benefit from, but culturally we all benefit from as a nation.

My interview with Warda is not a simple refugee story but of a woman finding her voice and place in the world. Both of those things resonate with me, which is why speaking with Warda was so inspirational. She lost her mother early in life and had to live apart from her father and find refuge in the United States while facing discrimination and overcoming the intense feeling of isolation. Something that refugees often experience when they arrive here.

However, no matter what life threw her, she stood boldly determined in the face of rejection and setbacks by keeping her faith, never compromising her identity, and maintaining a positive mindset. For Warda, it was the dreams of her father and the burning desire for education — and the hope of one day becoming a doctor and helping her community that was her mainstay. While this mom of two is still on her journey, the rewards she gained after her many sacrifices in pursuit of her American dream, will bring tears of joy to your eyes.


Warda’s Interview

Before we dive into everything else, would you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background?

My name is Warda Abdullahi, and I was born in Saudi Arabia. I have lived in many different places throughout Africa, where I faced many obstacles, such as loss of education, living through a drought, and losing my mother. But after everything, I still succeeded. I live in Minnesota now. I graduated from Saint Catherine University with a bachelor’s degree in Public Health while I wrote the book, “Warda.”

Why was it so important to you to be the first member of your family to go to college? What did that represent to you?

It represented change, a look into a better life and ditching our former nomadic pastoral lives. The Somalis have this saying which directly translates to “the last camel’s following the first,” so I wanted to be the first to create a chain reaction of success.

What was your first impression of school in America?

On my first day of high school in America, the school was big, and there were so many students, unlike in South Africa. Schools there are smaller, and there are not many students. I was confused. I had never seen students talk back to their teachers. It was certainly a first for me. Back home, we were taught that teachers are our second parents and should always respect them. Treat them as our parents. I could not stop thinking about how this student was not taking advantage of their opportunities around the world; kids their age pray to have an education every day. However, it has alway have been a dream of mine to have access to the best education in the world and despite everything I have been through, it was a fresh start for me where I could pursue my goals and dreams.

Has your relationship with academia been what you thought it would be? We see you have plans to pursue another degree…

Since I was 6, I have always wanted to become a family medicine doctor or a pediatrician. I will continue to pursue that dream, and any additional skills I may acquire will help toward that.

Your mentor, Mackenzie Wellman, wrote a beautiful afterword for your book. How did you two meet, and how did your relationship with her shape your life?

We met through a mentorship program during my junior year of high school at Ottawa Hills High School. Through the years of mentoring me, Mackenzie Wellmen became a family to me. She often comes down to Minnesota and hangs out with my family. She is the kindest and most caring human I have ever met. I am honored to have Mackenzie as my mentor as a first-generation student; she was a godsend as she guided me through applying to scholarships and different universities.

Obviously your story is one of resilience, but it is also one of hardships and self doubt — what kept you moving forward?

My father was my biggest supporter and motivator. He encouraged me to never give up on my education. He always reminds me of how he didn’t get the chance to go college and how all his hopes and dreams had been taken away.

I grew up in a place where every child’s dream was to have an education but was not available or affordable. Because of this, I made it a point to take advantage of the opportunities around me.

You identify as Somali-American, but you’ve lived all over (rural Ethiopia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Michigan and now Minnesota ). Do you feel connections to all of these cultures? How so?

Yes, I do feel connected to all these countries I have been to. Even though I was born in Saudi Arabia, I was raised in Ethiopia and this is the country that I am most connected to because I grew up and where most of my family is from. South Africa is the country where my journey to education started and I met my father after 10 years.

Can you discuss some of the unique struggles faced by refugees? You’ve mentioned the importance of highlighting the inequities and injustices that determine who moves freely and where they can live.

Some of the inequities and injustices refugees face are no access to food and water, also education. Throughout my life, refugees have been facing inequalities and no opportunities of education and I believe unless we do something about it, it will not change.

What’s next for you?

My future goal is to go to medical school to become a family medicine doctor and to raise my kids.


Looking Forward

Even when you feel that you are all alone, you are never truly alone. There are always guides, strangers, teachers, friends, and those you have yet to meet, waiting to help you along your path. If we can give aslyum seekers one thing, let’s give them hope.

Every 20 minutes As for aslyum seekers around the world, the journey to America’s gates remain a lighted path to hope and opportunity. To learn more about how you can help welcome refugees visit Welcome.US or the United Nations Refugee Agency to learn more.

For more information on Warda and to read her book visit: https://wardaabdullahi.com