Teenage Somalia Refugee Saida Dahir Is Using Poetry to Change the World
Saida Dahir is a 17-year-old political activist using poetry to change the world. She is a Muslim, Somali refugee who spent the first three years of her life in a Kenya refugee camp before fleeing to Utah, where she now currently resides with her family. Dahir is an award-winning poet and community activist who advocates against intolerance and racism, and for religious and racial equality through her poetry. Her words of hope and encouragement are an inspiration to all, and act as a powerful reminder to the masses of the increasingly influential voice of young people.
1. When we met at the 18xEighteen Summit, I was fascinated by how you so deftly use poetry for political activism. What brought you to poetry in the first place?
I’m from Somalia, and Somalia is known as the land of poetry. I was born in a refugee camp, and I came to the United States when I was three years old. When I came here, my family kept our Somali traditions, our Somali culture, and one key asset of that was poetry. Everyone I knew wrote poetry: my mom wrote it; my brother wrote it; it was just something our family did. For my twelfth birthday, I remember my brother bought me a notebook and I would just write – write about everything from Somalia to the struggles I grew up in living in America. Eventually, the words I wrote became poems, and the poems became my voice of activism.
2. What started your passion for political activism, and how exactly do you use poetry to spread your message?
It all began with the tragic shootings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin. When I was in junior-high, my teacher – the first black teacher I’d ever had – told me the brutally honest truth that these police officers weren’t going to get indicted. Low and behold, he was right – they weren’t indicted. The injustice inspired me to write about political poetry and the dangers my skin color holds; I began to understand that my words had meaning and could make a difference when navigated correctly because there’s so much power in the way we phrase things. By writing about the injustices of our world, I try to understand how we, as a collective, can make a change. I always end with some sort of resolution, something to make the future brighter, and when I read my poetry, this last bit connects with the crowd’s emotions, it connects to what people want to see in the world.
3. Living in Salt Lake City, Utah you’re heavily exposed to Mormonism and live in a predominantly white community. Do you feel, as a black Muslim, that your community is underrepresented? How do you use poetry to give other Muslims like you a voice?
Yes, I grew up in a predominantly white town; I was the only black girl in my whole elementary school and there was a lot of assimilation, a lot of me not wanting to be who I was when growing up, a lot of bullying – relentless bullying – and I often had to transfer schools because of this. The reason I do what I do, the reason I use poetry for activism, is to be the representation for Muslim faith and for the black community that I so desperately needed to see when I was younger. The use of my voice isn’t just for self-validation, though that is important, it’s to give a voice for the voiceless, to utilize my platform for kids who feel like they have no one to look up to.
4. Given that we live in an environment characterized by misperceptions about Islam, how do you shift the conversation to make people realize the religion is peaceful?
The modern-day assumption about Islam is something that needs to be continuously addressed in our society. I often tell people there are 2.1 billion Muslims in the world currently, and if they were all terrorists, there would be no world. Unfortunately, the media chooses to ignore who Muslims are in their core; they are Olympic medalists, Hollywood actors/actresses, they’re our doctors and our pharmacists. The problem is rooted in how our society misreads and mislabels Islam, putting all Muslims, extremists or not, into a box as one collective unit. If you put any group into a box, whether that be a race, religion, or sexual identity, boxes cause hate. Looking at things from a third perspective, people can begin to see that maybe it’s not that specific race or religion doing damage, maybe it’s just that individual. If we detach ourselves from generalizations, the world would be a better place because we wouldn’t brand people with man-made stereotypes; we would, instead, brand them for who they are and what they bring to this world.
5. If you could relay one final message – one thing you want everyone to know about your personal mission and/or career in activism as a young person – what would it be?
The hope that I feel for the future, and the hope that I feel in the fact that people are increasingly becoming more aware and more resilient to the ways in which they can use their voice. We look at big movements like March for Our Lives and Time’s Up, and we can see that it’s history being made, chapters in history text books being written as we speak. I want everyone to know we, as young people, can utilize our voices to continue to showcase our own individual power – despite any obstacles we may face. Young people will continue to push boundaries, they will fight back against injustice, and they will change the world.
About the Author: Amelie Zilber is a high school junior using journalism to change the world through her website, newsletter, and consulting services. She writes and publishes a weekly political newsletter summarizing the week’s top headlines in a quick & entertaining fashion, and writes opinion pieces for her website, TwoMinuteTimes.com. Amelie founded KnowYourWorld, a project aimed to engage youth voters around the country, in coordination with California Congressman Eric Swalwell. Striving to create more global awareness, Amelie wants to ensure her generation, the future leaders of America, are knowledgeable and empowered to step up to the plate.
This essay was featured in the Jan. 27th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.
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