From Somalia to America
I was born into a nomad family in Somalia. To survive the harsh desert environment, everyone in my family had a task and a role to play. My Mom made our hut and took care of everything inside, including us. My Dad ensured the goats and camels fetched a fair price, and went on long journeys to find the best grassland. Even as a boy of four or five, I shepherded the livestock, spending my days helping them find food and water, always keeping an eye out for fox or other predatory animals. You see, for nomadic families, our entire existence depended on each other. If one did not do their job, the entire ecosystem would collapse. Interdependency was key to our survival. This type of collective action was ingrained in me at early age, and even today is what drives my passion to make a difference in my community. For all families to thrive, we must work together. Every person’s skills, contributions, and talents count.
At age eight, I moved to the big city of Mogadishu to start my education. I quickly realized that this country boy didn’t fit in. To survive, I would need to adapt to my new environment and step into a different role. I convinced my teacher to appoint me “student master.” Student master’s job was simple. If things went wrong in your classroom, you would be held accountable. Failure meant being sent to principal’s office, being lectured by your teacher about your poor leadership skills, or—worst case scenario—being removed from the job. I took the position seriously, and I learned to lead by involving my classmates in their own learning, setting high collective expectations, and creating an environment of mutual success. We were only doing well if all of us did well. By high school, I was member of a five-member student body that represented all Mogadishu students. My formative years taught me that leadership is not an individual act. It is an act that lives or dies by your ability to understand, engage, and inspire others. A good leader must always remain close to the people.
When the civil war erupted in Somalia, my country soon descended into anarchy. I fled in search of safety, looking—as so many do—to build a better future. I finally arrived in the United States in 1998, settling in Portland shortly thereafter. When I first arrived, I waited tables at a Somali restaurant in exchange for food and a bed. Later I served the front desk at the Portland Doubletree while attending Marylhurst University. I helped new refugees adapt to life in the US while employed at Lutheran Community Services Northwest. In 2003, I founded Unite Oregon, a statewide nonprofit working to up uplift all struggling Oregonians.
Along the way, I learned about the real America, and what I call the American Dream Deferred.
For many Americans, our dreams have been deferred because often our federal, state, and local policies have been designed to work for those who already have money and power. The system is not designed for us—for the people experiencing poverty, for the displaced workers, for the women, for people of color, for native peoples, for immigrants and refugees, for the LGBTQ community, for people with disabilities—for people with everyday struggles.
I’ve spent nearly 20 years working with others to shift the balance of power and even the scales so that all people have a fair chance of reaching their own dreams. From helping with fights on tuition equity for undocumented students and raising the minimum wage to ending police profiling, divesting in prisons and investing in education, I have worked to improve the lives of average people in our community. As your next Oregon State District 24 Senator, I will work not only for you but with you to ensure all of our neighbors have the ability to thrive. The American Dream deferred is the American Dream denied. It’s time for each of us to reach our full potential and for our country to live up to its ideals. I hope you will join me.
Kayse Jama is the Executive Director of Unite Oregon. From 2005 to 2007, Jama trained immigrant and refugee community leaders in five Western states—Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah and Idaho—under a prestigious New Voices Fellowship at Western States Center. He has been awarded the Skidmore Prize for outstanding young nonprofit professionals (2007), the Oregon Immigrant Achievement Award from Oregon chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (2008), the 2009 Lowenstein Trust Award, which is presented yearly to “that person who demonstrated the greatest contribution to assisting the poor and underprivileged in Portland,” the 2012 Portland Peace Prize, and the 2016 Rankin Award in recognition of "lifelong activism and extraordinary service." He lives with his wife and David Douglas School Board member, Stephanie D. Stephens, in the Hazelwood neighborhood of East Portland along with their seven-year-old twins, Sahan and Saharla.