PORTLAND, Maine — Fowziyo Jama’s mother saw the danger approaching first.
“She told me to close my eyes, and I heard a shot,” Jama, who was 8 years old at the time, recalled this week. When Jama opened her eyes, her mother was on the ground and bleeding. Three robbers were fleeing from the scene.
On Thursday night, Jama, 18, will be among the graduates of Portland’s Casco Bay High School in a ceremony at Merrill Auditorium. But just 10 years ago, she was left searching the outskirts of a Kenyan refugee camp for medical help.
“You saw things like that all the time,” Jama said of her mother’s shooting. “It scared me a little bit more because it was my mother, but weeks before that I’d seen a friend of my mom die from being shot.”
Bystanders helped control the bleeding and tied up Jama’s mother’s leg, where the bullet had hit her, while Jama ran for help. The 8-year-old finally found a United Nations peacekeeper who could come administer medical help. Two days later.
Jama’s mother survived the ordeal and after four years of living in the “wild west” atmosphere of the refugee camp — where Jama recalled food and resources being limited, crime commonplace and families largely recoiling in social isolation — the Jama clan made its way to the United States.
After a brief stay in San Diego, the family relocated to Portland, where Jama, her parents and five brothers now live.
The trek to Maine’s largest city began in Somalia. Portland has a large Somali population for a city of its size and Jama’s father already had family members who had moved here.
Violence was ratcheted up in the country’s civil war and Jama’s mother insisted on leaving Africa for America.
But Jama didn’t yearn to leave her native country while growing up.
“It was nice,” she recalled. “It was peaceful until the last year we were there.”
Reflection upon those armed conflicts, carried out by political organizations with strong religious and tribal affiliations, inspired Jama this year to create a documentary about tribalism in her native country.
She then showed the school project to an audience of fellow Somalis in Portland, many of whom still carried entrenched tribal allegiances. The video aimed to show that while tribal heritage can be a source of pride, it should not be the basis for racism or discrimination against other tribes.
Jama said her message came as a shock to attendees of her documentary viewing, who were surprised that someone so young would tackle an issue so controversial in their country’s recent history.
“I said it was wrong and we shouldn’t be using [tribal organizations],” she said. “It’s tearing our country apart.”
Jama — who speaks Swahili, Arabic and Dutch in addition to Somali and English — plans to attend Emory University in Georgia in the fall, where she will begin studying cardiology in hopes of one day becoming a heart surgeon.
Jama said she appreciates her decade in Portland and aims to explore other corners of the United States in her life ahead.
“It was a nice place to grow up,” Jama said of Portland.