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Seattle’s African immigrants, refugees confront what it means to be Black in America

King County has a large East African population. They are learning that America's Black Lives Matter movement is for them, too: “We need to be visible."

Immigrants and refugees are sometimes reluctant to speak up, to protest, to call out racism and demand change.

There are valid reasons for them to want to keep quiet.

The Seattle area has a large population of East Africans, many of whom escaped war and governments that don’t tolerate activism. But they’re discovering what it means to be an American, and that means participating.

“Sharing my story makes this union better,” said Awale Farah, who came to the United States from Somalia in 1984 as a refugee.

Unlike most African Americans who grew up in the U.S., Farah said he did not even think much about the color of his skin until he moved here at the age of 19.

He said he quickly learned some people only saw that he was Black, a startling realization.

“I identified myself as an East African. I didn’t identify myself as Black. But I learned being in the United States it doesn't matter if I identify myself as an East African, so long as my skin is Black,” Farah said.

“It doesn’t matter what you think of yourself,” he said.

It’s estimated more than 40,000 people in King County are immigrants and refugees who were born in East Africa, and many of them share stories like Farah’s.

But those attitudes are changing, driven, in part, by a momentous 2020.

“My mom or grandma is not likely to be outside in the streets protesting, but I know I am,” said Hamdi Mohamed, a community organizer whose family fled civil war in Somalia in 1993 when she was a toddler.

That violence scarred her parents’ generation.

A different kind of turmoil is shaping hers.

“When the death of George Floyd happened, I know my anxiety was high. I was worried about my husband, and I was worried about my nephews. I called, and I checked on them. I told them about their rights. I told them how they should engage with police officers,” Mohamed said.

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She said she and other younger Black immigrants are increasingly marching, protesting, advocating and voting as they grow and gain a deeper understanding of the forces working against them.

“As newcomers, people who are immigrating to this country are coming here as refugees. They're not given any sort of classes or information about what it means to be a Black person in the United States,” Mohamed said. “You figure it out on your own.”

“There is a dark history in this country that has oppressed folks who look like myself,” she said. “A lot of immigrants and refugees do not come with that sort of understanding. It takes time, understanding that, and understanding what institutional racism is.”

Farah said it was only in recent years that he felt comfortable opening up about his experiences and participating in the mechanisms of change.

Last year he ran for Kent City Council, pushing for increased access to public transit and affordable housing.

He lost that race, but looking back on where he came from, it sure felt like progress.

“We need to be visible, we need to speak, we need to be part of the solution, to make this country better than it is today,” Farah said.

As Americans, immigrants like Farah and Mohamed say they feel a sense of duty to challenge the embedded, historical racism here and the new reality of racism for them.

“We are impacted by racial profiling. We are impacted by all of these different issues that our African American brothers and sisters have been fighting for for decades,” Mohamed said.

“We have so much to contribute, so for us not to say something," Farah said. "It's a disservice to the essence of being American."

This story was produced as part of “Facing Race,” a KING 5 series that examines racism, social justice and racial inequality in the Pacific Northwest. Tune in to KING 5 on Sundays at 9:30 p.m. to watch live and catch up on our coverage here.