Gaps frustrate Omar Osman. As class president of Central Washington University, he sees the space fellow students put between their experience and his own, because he is a refugee. When he ran for school office, closing that distance was a crucial piece of his platform, and it is a message Osman has championed since his time in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp, where he spent his first 19 years. There, what often troubled him was not the conditions that surrounded him, nor the protracted conflict in his native Somalia, but the gaps they represented, the spaces between the present circumstances and improved alternatives.
“In the camp, no one had asked us what we needed. That is why programs failed and why they were wasting money,” Osman recalls. “You see the funder, you see the people who are funded, and there is the gap in between.”
There was no amount of positive thinking that could return Kakuma’s 185,000 residents to their places of origin, but there was something worthwhile in considering feasible changes within the camp, and working up from there. And for Osman, there was never a lack of problems to tackle. Gaps appeared everywhere: in education, just 23% of adolescent refugees attend secondary schools; in opportunity, over 60% of the Kakuma working population was unemployed. But most telling for Osman was a physical gap—the one between two soccer poles, in the absence of a net.
Although youth in the camp loved to play soccer, officials had told Omar and his friends that funding for nets was a luxury. They could understand the camp’s reasoning, but at the same time, its calculated logic had failed to understand them. One morning, after camp residents received new preventative mosquito nets, the gap between the posts was subsequently filled, albeit with much tighter mesh-work.
“I’m not against malaria prevention,” Osman says with a chuckle, “but that is what will happen when you don’t talk to the people you are serving. And that is something that drives me.”
Since his formative years in Kakuma, Osman has continued to challenge the gaps that pervade the lives of refugee youth, but elude those tasked with supplying their needs. After graduating high school, he founded Youth Voices of Kakuma, a group of young people committed to promoting the needs of their community. They held soccer competitions, created anti-bullying campaigns, and promoted their work on social media.
“There was no one talking about our issues, and I saw a need,” Osman said.
Quickly, the UNHCR took notice. Funding for sports equipment began to trickle in, and Osman was selected to represent Kenya at the United Nations Global Youth Advisory Council. With his new high profile position, Osman continued to emphasize youth concerns: that programs needed more input from refugee communities; that gaps were growing.
When Kenya announced the closing of Kakuma camp in 2016, Osman and other youth activists loudly opposed the UNHCR-approved action, and succeeded in keeping the Kakuma camp in Kenya. Soon after, Osman was resettled by the UNHCR in the United States, ending up in St. Louis, Missouri, then Washington state, where he now resides. Osman says those early weeks in the U.S. were extremely difficult, as he and his family went through “culture shock,” relying on the kindness of friends for housing, information, and support.
“I had to learn the bus system, the school system, the home system. Every system was different from a refugee camp,” Osman says. “It was a big shift, but this year has been transforming for me.”
Once he found stable employment, Osman enrolled in college, joining the 1% of refugee youth who continue onto higher education. He was elected class president of his college last year, and says he wants his status to illustrate what refugees can achieve.
“Anyone can become a refugee, anytime in anyplace. It takes just one word. We are people like any other, and when we are given opportunities we can succeed,” Osman said.
In addition to his work in student government, Osman is one of thirteen voting members on the King County Immigrant and Refugee Task Force, a council that mediates between Seattle-area minority communities and county government. A crucial job because many in the local Somali community are too busy working to attend meetings, Osman notes. Though he himself is also busy juggling his many commitments, Osman says that given the needs of the community—and the gaps that remain unclosed—he must continue his efforts.
“Working to support my family, attending school, and sitting on the council makes me busy most of the time,” Osman says. “It is hard, but you find a way through the problems. There is no other option. There is a need.”
Ryan Gittler, a rising junior at Yale University, is co-president of the Yale Refugee Project, an undergraduate group committed to improving the lives of refugees resettled in Connecticut. His interest in migration, particularly its social, political, and cultural conceptions, stems from the experience of his mother and her family, who fled from Cuba to the United States in 1967. Follow him on Twitter @RyanGittler.