Cambodia: Somali refugee resettled in the US

23 July 2010|Lian Yong, legal officer, JRS Cambodia

Omar, more fortunate than most urban refugees.
Phnom Penh, 23 July – Omar came to the JRS office the day he was about to leave for America. He brought with him a piece of paper with ‘St Louis’ written on it. He sat in my office and we looked at a map of America and found St Louis. He asked me if it was very cold there.


This name on a piece of paper would be the final chapter in a story that took Omar from Somalia to Libya, Iraq, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia.

Omar comes from a minority group in Somalia. His two brothers were killed and his family disappeared. With nothing left for him in Somalia, he left for Libya, where he learned that Iraq was offering free education for Somalis. He worked hard, earned enough money for a ticket to Baghdad and after learning Arabic and gaining a bachelor’s degree, he worked as an interpreter for the US-led coalition forces.

With the security situation deteriorating in Iraq, Omar knew that he would be targeted by extremist groups for working with the Americans. Many of his friends who were translators had been killed. Soldiers within the coalition forces helped him to buy an air ticket and visa to Malaysia. In Malaysia, issues with his visa forced him to travel on to Thailand, where he faced similar problems, and eventually he arrived in Cambodia.

JRS assisted Omar gain refugee status in Cambodia, and provided basic accommodation and social assistance. However, even with his degree, work experience and proficiency in a number of languages including Somali, Arabic, English and even Italian, he could not find work in Cambodia. Complications with his health hampered his ability to be self-sufficient and isolation from the broader Cambodian community rendered life extremely difficult.

“Cambodia is a very difficult country for refugees – economically, jobs and education are hard to find, as is accessing healthcare; it is very hard to find good doctors”, Omar says, describing his circumstances and those of all refugees in the country.

“It was difficult to find friends here because I would be treated differently. We could not get further training here. Mostly we stay in our rooms; we just think, get stressed and worry. We would get emotional. It’s like this for everyone”, he adds.

“I am hopeful that my life in the US will be better than this. But life will be new for me there. The country, the people will be different. I just want to make contacts and be integrated”.

Omar was fortunate to be given a new opportunity in America. For the rest of the refugee population in Cambodia, everyday life continues to be a struggle.

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