El Salvador
South Korea


by Carol Stephenson

Context for Somali Immigration


History and Government

Somalis have a 1,000 year history of nomadic culture where people are identified and divided by clans. Somalia was colonized by the English, French and Italians. The borders of Somalia were determined by colonial powers in the 19th Century.

In 1960 the British and Italian protectorates joined to form an independent United Republic of Somalia. Many Somalis, for example those colonized by the French, were left out of the new nation of Somalia. Somalia has had intermittent border disputes with neighboring countries in an effort to include all cultural Somalis within Somalia.

For a few years after its founding Somalia enjoyed an era of parliamentary democracy and the success of a multiparty system, in part because the clan system is traditionally egalitarian. However, toward the end of the 1960s the government began to be perceived by Somalis as corrupt. In 1969, the President was assassinated by a bodyguard.

Major General Mohammed Siyaad Barre, a military leader, took over in the aftermath. During his first years as president Somali was developed as a written language. This accompanied a literacy campaign and improved educational access. Over time, Siyaad Barre became a dictator, controlling much of the Somali economy and practicing nepotism. After a breakdown in the Somali-Soviet relationship, the Soviets were expelled in late 1978, and Siyaad Barre created ties with the U.S. and Europe. During the 1980s, dissident groups opposed to the increasingly corrupt Siyaad Barre government began to voice opposition, and in 1991 he was ousted.

Late 1991 marked the beginning of two years of intense fighting, especially in the south, over control of the country. In the first two years after Siyaad Barre fell, agriculture and animal husbandry were disrupted, and 400,000 people died of starvation. An additional 50,000 people died in the fighting and 45% of the population was displaced. In August 1992 one-quarter of the population was at risk of starvation and one half of Somali children under five had died. Since then, the death toll has risen to nearly 1,000,000. In 1992, the United States sent humanitarian aid and troops to Somalia and the United Nations took over in 1993.

Divergent clans have not been able to agree on a central government, so virtually none exists. The northern part of the country has declared itself the Somaliland Republic but it is not recognized by any government as an independent state. In August 2000, a parliamentary government was put together although it not fully operational. The head of state is Abdiqassim Salad Hassan and the Prime Minister is Ali Khalif Galaid.



Somalia is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita income of about $600 per year. Ninety percent of the population lives outside of the cities, remaining nomadic and primarily practicing animal husbandry. The nomadic population has no running water, electricity or services. The cities generally have these services, although the civil war has caused disruption. Clans have always had disputes over resources and land. During the ongoing civil war, these conflicts continue.


Somali Immigration

In the early 1990s the conditions of fighting and starvation forced many Somalis into refugee camps. Since then the flow of migration has continued across clans and includes both nomads and city dwellers. Overall conditions created by ten years of civil war have prompted ongoing migration. Over 80% of the survey respondents cited war in their homeland as the reason for immigrating to the U.S.

The U.S. accepts certain numbers of refugees from around the world each year. Refugees who are living in camps in Africa fill a percentage of these slots. Refugees do not usually choose the country in which they will be resettled. Between 1991 and 1999 a total of 29,328 Somalis were admitted into the U.S. as refugees. An additional 4,129 were granted asylum in the U.S. The largest population of Somalis in the U.S. lives in Minnesota.

In Santa Clara County, a relatively large community of Somalis was resettled in the early 1990s. Somalis continue to be resettled in the county and still more come through family-based immigration to join close family members. The Somali population in the county, however, continues to decline because of the high cost of living.


Social Characteristics of the Somali People


Ethnic & Religious Diversity

Approximately 85% of Somalia is comprised of ethnic Somalis. Bantu, Arabs, and others make up the remaining 15% of the country’s population.

The Somali rural culture is shaped by nomadic life. Clans are governed by egalitarian councils and people have a strong distrust of government. Oral tradition is extremely important and those who are skilled with words, such as through story telling or poetry, are highly respected.

There is little religious diversity: Somalis are virtually 100% Sunni Muslim.


Family Life

People live in large families. Several generations and extended family frequently live together in one house. Many people remain at home during the day and people walk every day to see neighbors, do household chores and do errands. Because of the civil war, families have lost members through death and separation. The father is considered the head of the household and family duties are divided by gender. Men in rural areas practice animal husbandry, while women in both the cities and rural areas are in charge of the household and children. Families are quite large, with the fertility rate at slightly over seven children born to each woman. The infant mortality rate is 125 deaths per 1,000 live births.

The social standing of women is relatively high in that the work of women is respected and economically important. In the cities, women own shops and work in a variety of occupations. Female circumcision is practiced. It is common for men and women to meet and eat separately. As Muslims, men can have up to four wives, but divorce is easy and common. Islam specifically teaches against violence against women.

Because of the war and Somali oral tradition, Somalis are unlikely to have written documents such as birth, death and marriage certificates. As such, they may not know their own age or the year in which an event occurred. This causes various conflicts in U.S. society in areas such as school, social security benefits and immigration. Somalis are unable to provide such documents and, if pressed, can only guess at such numbers and or years.

In Santa Clara County, most of the survey respondents (85%) had children under 12. Mothers were the most likely to take care of these children. In 10% of the cases fathers were reported as care takers. As reported, the rest of children were taken care of by the grandparents, relatives, friends or older siblings. About 30% of children had nannies or baby-sitters, and only 5% were enrolled in child care centers, according to the survey respondents. Similarly, only 6% of the survey respondents would choose institutional care for disabled family members. Over 50% of the respondents prefer in-home care by family members and about one fourth prefer in-home care by trained caregivers.


Health Care Practices

Life expectancy in Somalia is 46 years. Medical histories are not kept so, for example, often Somalis do not know what kind of medication they have taken in the past. Similarly, many Somalis do not know the cause of death of their parents. Somali women tend to be modest and may be uncomfortable discussing health concerns, especially with a male doctor.

Fifty-five percent of the Somalis in the survey stated that they or their children received medical care through the child’s school, more than any other service received at the school.

Mental health care is not something people seek out in Somalia and the majority of Somalis in the survey stated that they do not talk to anyone about their emotional problems.


Educational System

The Somali language had no written form until 1972. Before that time, educational systems were primarily in Italian for the very few. Under Siyaad Barre, a Somali system of education was developed and literacy increased. Still, the literacy rate for men is 36% and for women it is 14%. Education has only been made available in the cities. Since the fall of the government, the system of education has collapsed. The only schooling that occurs now is through Moslem leaders. It is available to both boys and girls although girls may be less likely to attend.


Somalis in Santa Clara County



Women were the majority of those who responded to the public benefits survey. The average age of respondents was 39. All Somali residents in the county speak Somali. The survey revealed that nearly all Somali residents in Santa Clara County used Somali most often in their communication. They are relatively recent arrivals in the County ranging from 1.5 to 6 years of county residence. About 75% live in San Jose, with most others living in Santa Clara or Sunnyvale. Only 15% of the respondents have completed more than 12 years of schooling, while 35% have completed only 1 to 3 years of schooling. Approximately 82% of the respondents reported having a total annual household income of $10-30,000 and 18% reported annual income of $10,000 or less. No respondent reported having a household income over $30,000. An average of 5.2 people lived in each household. Over 70% of the respondents had mixed households with non-family members living together with Somali families.


Social Customs


Interpersonal Communication

Somali people use their first name and their father’s name (as well as their grandfather’s name, great-grandfather’s name, and so on). Only when they came to the U.S. were they asked to provide a first, last and middle name. In almost all cases the father’s name is used as the last name in the U.S. Therefore, it is a common practice to use the first name in communication, even at the first encounter. It is also common to have direct eye contact. Shaking hands is appropriate with men, but men do not shake hands with women. Only women shake hands with each other.


Emotional Support

The majority of the survey respondents (55%) indicated that if they had emotional problems they would talk to no one. However, of those who would talk to someone, 40% would talk to a doctor, 20% would talk to a teacher, and 15% would talk either to a friend, relative or mental health specialist. Some would also talk to a community leader (10%) and spouse (5%).



In cities and in professional settings Somalis dress in Western clothing. In leisure and rural setting, they use traditional dress. Men may wear white cotton as a skirt wrapped around their waist, and another cotton cloth around their upper body as a shawl. Girls wear blouses and pants while women generally wear full-length dresses. Married women wear headscarves. Fundamentalist and Arab women might wear veils.



Many European cuisines influenced the Somali cuisine. Traditional Somali foods are meat based. Like other Muslims, Somali do not use pork in their diet. There are special standards for fresh meat preparation, and Somali people are willing to go to stores that are far away from their neighborhoods in order to get meat that is properly prepared. Traditional foods are specially prepared for various types of celebrations. In addition to meat, rice is used often in the Somali cuisine. Alcohol is forbidden.

Whenever Somali families have visitors they serve tea. It is customary to offer a cup of tea without asking.


Religious Traditions and Holidays

Almost all Somalis practice Islam that guides their eating practices, family life and moral codes. Ramadan is celebrated every year around the time of the end of the western calendar year. Ramadan is marked by daytime fasting ending with the feast of Id Al Atah. Also celebrated is Muhammed’s birthday, among other holidays.


Challenges in Santa Clara County

The top five needs that Somalis identified in the survey were medical and dental care, food, housing, ESL and citizenship, in that order. In the Somali focus group, the top issues identified were ESL, family reunification, housing, and lack of good paying jobs. Talking about the fear of losing their religious and cultural identity in the U.S., Somali immigrants saw a great need for creating a cultural, educational and religious center. They thought that such a center would also help solve other issues facing the Somali community. At the same time, focus group members and participants in Immigrants Building Community (IBC) argued for simplifying and shortening the processes for family reunification and obtaining a green card and U.S. citizenship. Many also do not have documents to prove their job skills and need simple exams to show their skills and abilities, in order to improve their employment opportunities.



Somali immigrants who responded to the survey most often felt discriminated against by the DMV (54%), social or eligibility workers (46%), police and criminal courts (39% each). Over 30% also felt discriminated against by job interviewers, bosses, co-workers, and the INS. About one-quarter indicated they feel discriminated against by civil courts and landlords.


Barriers to Services, Education, and Benefits

According to the respondents of the public benefits survey, the biggest barriers to education, services and benefits were lack of English, scheduling problems, lack of affordable child care, lack of information, and being house-bound. In addition, the Somali focus group participants emphasized gender-related barriers, lack of transportation, lack of classes in their neighborhoods, and generational and cultural differences that prevent them from understanding their rights and responsibilities. Many parents expressed their confusion about how to raise children in the U.S.


Employment and Working Conditions


Occupational Data

Most of the Somali respondents did not report any occupation or profession or reported being unemployed. In addition, 14% of the respondents reported being students. Other respondents reported working in retail or as security or assembly workers.


Working Conditions

Two-thirds of the survey participants have no medical benefits and over half have no sick leave. Over 40% have no paid vacation, pension, or retirement plan. One third reported making less than $5.75 per hour and one third were injured on the job. The Somali focus group discussed the many challenges faced in employment. They stated that many refugees have low wage jobs in temporary agencies and do not receive benefits. Some stated that they had been temporary employees for more than five years.


Small Businesses

Only 8% of the survey respondents reported having a family member being self-employed or having a small business. Most of the respondents reported a need for information about how to get started, but they also stressed other barriers such as: getting a loan, knowing what kind of a business idea might be successful, and lack of English skills.


Public Benefits in the Somali Community


Knowledge and Adequacy of Benefits

Many of the survey respondents reported needing more information and better understanding of public benefits. Of the Somali public benefits recipients who answered the survey, the following percentages did not know the requirements: for CAPI, 83%; for General Assistance, 67%; for SSI, 53%; for MediCal, 35%; for food stamps, 31%; and for CalWORKs, 27%. In the areas of cash aid such as CalWORKs, SSI, and General Assistance, Somalis did not believe that the benefits were adequate to live, while in areas such as food stamps and MediCal the benefits received were thought to be generally adequate.


Culturally Competent Services

Only 40% of food stamp recipients and 50% of CalWORKs recipients felt respected by county workers, while 60% of the MediCal recipients felt respected. In addition, a great number of CalWORKs and MediCal recipients reported that county workers did not know enough about their cultural background. About 60% of CalWORKs recipients reported not understanding written materials and only 53% reported that they understood orientations. Regarding food stamps, 60% of the respondents reported not understanding orientations, 53% did not understand phone calls, and 47% did not understand written materials. The situation was better with MediCal. Only 17% of the respondents reported not understanding written materials, 22% did not understand phone calls, and 27% did not understand orientations.


Educational Access in Santa Clara County


K-12 Education

Approximately 43% of the public benefits recipients reported having children under 18 in school. Since many Somalis have never attended school, educational access is an extremely significant issue for youth. First, they are assigned to classes by age, but Somali youth may not know their correct age. Second, the culture of school, such as raising one’s hand, is entirely foreign. Third, parents are unable to assist their children in a meaningful way.

The dropout rate is high among Somali youth. The survey responses also suggested that parents and schools could improve their relations. For example, less than 10% of parents were involved in parent/teacher organizations, a low percentage compared to other immigrant groups. Also, no respondent reported that their child had received educational counseling in school. However, schools such as Morgan Hill High School that are sensitive to the special needs and particular religious traditions of Somali students find that students can be successful.


Employment Training

Along with ESL, employment training is an enormous challenge for the many Somalis who have no prior formal education. Without a good understanding of English, vocational training is all but impossible. Over fifty percent of respondents in the county survey declared that lack of employment training is the reason for having a different job in the U.S. than in Somalia.



Somalis in the focus group discussed lack of English in depth as the first major barrier in the U.S. affecting work, raising children, and becoming citizens. ESL poses a particular challenge to Somalis because many have never attended school. The Immigrants Building Community (IBC) participants noted that ESL classes are hard to get to, the teacher does not speak their language, and no babysitting is available. Even when they can take a class, it can take years to become comfortable enough with English, to get a good job. The IBC participants were overwhelmed at the notion that they were expected to learn English and get a job within eight months of arriving in this country. The survey respondents rated lack of English as the number one reason that they have a different job in the U.S. than in Somalia. Somalis in the focus group also described the trouble finding good paying jobs in the area because of their lack of English.



Only a small number of Somali immigrants are naturalized U.S. citizens (14% of the survey respondents). The public benefits recipients reported having various needs related to citizenship: need for information about disability waivers (26%), help with an INS inquiry about their cases (26%), English literacy classes in Somali (31%), help in filling out application forms (31%), legal advice (42%), citizenship classes (53%) and most often—help in waiving the INS fee (90%).


Communication and Outreach in the Somali Community

With such a strong oral tradition, the single most effective form of communication and outreach in the Somali community is by word of mouth. There is no local Somali newspaper or television station in Santa Clara County. Indeed, 71% of the survey respondents stated that they get important information from friends, far more than any other source, including television in English (48%), radio in English (43%) and family (38%). A Somali community organizer notes: “If I have a meeting where I need to present information and only five Somalis come, I am sure that the entire community will get the information.” However, most of the survey respondents reported having a radio, a TV and a telephone. Just 5% of the respondents reported having fax machines, 11% email and internet access, 21% newspaper subscriptions, and 45% VCRs. None of the respondents reported having personal computers.


Somalis In Action: Bravely Learning in a New Land

Somali immigrants in the U.S. find a culture vastly different from their own. In Somalia, they are accustomed to having many family members living together and living close to neighbors. People walk and spend most of their time outside accompanied by friends, family and neighbors. Oral tradition is strong and Somalis love to talk. The differences in the U.S. create a world of intense isolation, especially for women and older people, because their families work out of the house all day each day. It can be frightening to venture out alone and many end up homebound.

However, a group of Somali women who range in age from their 20s to their 60s meet each weekday from 9 a.m. to 12 noon to learn English at Economic and Social Opportunities. To do so, they take the bus across town and they all transfer at least once, some with children. When one member of the class learned the bus system, she taught the others how to use it. They study English without having ever learned to read and write Somali. Women gather not only for the education, but also to give support to their classmates, to make sense of this foreign place, and to heal from the scars of the war. These Somali women, like many others, face enormous barriers each day and are taking the first difficult steps to life in the U.S. Other informal groups, such as the focus group participants who described working together to get ESL classes at their apartment complex, are also breaking down barriers to survive and thrive in the U.S.

These are not isolated instances. In fact, over 50% of the Somalis on public assistance are involved with an informal group making change in the community and 40% participate in a neighborhood organization. Impressively, 45% of Somalis on public assistance are registered to vote. As reported by the organizer of the Somali focus group, “The people we talked to seemed well adjusted despite all the problems that they have had in the past and seemed to be trying as hard as they knew how to lead a fruitful life here in Santa Clara County.”