As sun blazed across the hills of Atia, a village in western Darfur, young Mohamed Yahya eyed the swaying grasses and kept vigilant watch over his family’s herds. Grazing and roaming as part of their daily routine, Mohamed protected these animals because they served as the primary resource for his family’s survival. He was expected to lead and be the key to his family’s long-term prosperity in Sudan; this was the life set before him.
If someone had told this now-Chattanooga State graduate, when he was a young man in Atia, that he would one day be an American citizen earning a college degree, he would not have believed it. He did not know that the state he currently calls home existed, and could not have imagined the life he lives now -- or what he would have to endure to get here.
Growing up in Atia, Mohamed’s early years were peaceful, filled with hard work and religious devotion. Through his adolescence he grew his family’s herd of animals from 27 to over 3,000, often traveling long distances to graze them while facing predators, such as lions, alone. At one point his family had traveled by foot for over a month after fleeing famine in the region, later returning. Despite these years offering prosperity and an increased family leadership role for Mohamed, the challenges were at times extreme.
Dan Tarafa, a Chattanooga State student who interviewed Mohamed for an anthropology class project and contributed to this article, emphasizes the incredible nature of Mohamed’s early life: “This is the African tundra and desert, apex predators hunting within sight, snakes, no water, and the ever-present danger of the human predator. What this man has seen makes a hardened combat veteran like myself wince.”
In 2003, Atia was attacked as part of what would become over a decade of genocide in Darfur. What followed were years of political violence, rampages of war, and the subsequent uncertainty of living in refugee camps. Entire villages were decimated and families slaughtered. At one point Mohamed traveled to the city of Algenena, braving violence and risking his life, in order to take a test and complete his high school education -- a decision that would foreshadow his commitment to additional education in the United States. Mohamed eventually migrated to Libya to work and help his family, and then moved to the Salloum camp in Egypt, which he describes as being “in a place that felt like incarceration or prison. I didn’t know what would happen from one moment or the next.”
After being displaced to Egypt, he applied at a UN Refugee center for asylum. For 18 months, his focus was simply survival. He had no home, no family by his side, and no certain future. Finally, Mohamed was granted an interview with the Department of Homeland Security and awarded a visa. He was a survivor of brutal war and genocide, and would be relocated safely to the United States -- but many challenges remained ahead.
Prior to his arrival in the United States, most of Mohamed’s perception of American culture was forged through music and entertainment. As a teenager he often purchased American music tapes and, despite not understanding the lyrics, he “loved the beat.” Though his family did not have a television, later in Libya, Mohamed would learn more about America via the show Grey’s Anatomy, which he still cites as a favorite.
It had never occurred to him that he might someday be a United States citizen, but he ached to visit. “I was interested in just visiting America to see how it is,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting to come to citizen or resident. I just wished to visit to see how the people are.”
As a refugee Mohamed had agreed, in his interview with the Department of Homeland Security, to be relocated wherever was safe; he knew no one in the United States. He had never encountered Tennessee in movies and television and did not know where it was in the enormous country, or what exactly to expect when he arrived. He studied photographs from Google searches, such as shots of the Tennessee Aquarium, Incline Railroad, and the river, trying to learn about what would be his new home.
Moving fluidly from Arabic to English would be daunting for any language learner, but at the time of his arrival in Chattanooga, Mohamed had only learned the basics of the English alphabet and language. Barriers to communication arose at every turn: when requesting water on his initial flight into the country, shopping for food, finding a job, and finding connection with other people. He credits Bridge Refugee Services with helping him grow his English-speaking abilities and therefore his ability to become a more active part of the Chattanooga community.
Through ESL classes, employment help, and assistance with application for social services benefits, the Bridge organization helped Mohamed find his footing. Still, an incredible amount of work went into his early arrival: after 45 days in the city, Mohamed got a job working at the Pilgrim Pride factory, which was grueling and required him to work all night, after which he would attend ESL classes for most of the next day. Despite his hunger to learn, he would often fall asleep in classes out of sheer exhaustion.
Still, he persisted. Over the next couple of years, Mohamed earned his CDL license, worked for various trucking and shipping companies, and attempted at the same time to pursue additional education. He had passed his GED test and applied at Chattanooga State in 2014, but was not able to attend. Finally, in 2016, Mohamed became a proud college student and soon after began the process of applying for United States citizenship.
The 11 months he waited to be confirmed as a citizen were some of the longest months of his life. “What’s going on?” he recalls wondering. “It’s taking so long. I was waiting and waiting. Eight months, nine months. And then they sent me an interview paper for Nov. 2. I was so ready since 2014.”
In addition to his normal college studies and his work as a driver for Uber, Mohamed labored constantly to prepare for the citizenship test. He downloaded apps, listened to study materials while driving, studied books, and put extra effort into his college American Government course, which he credits as helping immensely with his learning.
Finally, in November 2018 the test and interview date arrived. He was asked to swear to be truthful, read a text, write a sentence, and answer questions. Mohamed says he did not know how much time had passed when his interviewer concluded with a smile: “Congratulations, mister,” she said. He had passed.
“It was so a grateful moment for me because I was waiting, and seems unbelievable. I’m so glad to become an American citizen. The process was long, but I highly appreciate those people who brought me here, helped me. Even in Sudan I did not think I could have this. I’m very blessed.”
His ability to pursue higher education has been a big part of Mohamed’s triumphant journey. When he first registered at Chattanooga State, navigating the process was daunting: “I didn’t know places. I didn’t know how the system worked. I didn’t know anything.”
He quickly found that college staff and faculty were eager to help him succeed, such as allowing him to join classes late and offering tutoring services. He has since become involved in many efforts on campus, traveled with student groups, and is one of the most well-known and beloved members of the community. He says, “I talk to my friends sometimes about Chattanooga State -- I say it is small, but the people work as a family. People really like helping.”
Mohamed’s motivation to learn and grow, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, is rooted in a desire to serve his family and his community. “After I got my CDL, I used to make enough money for living,” he says. “But the point is not the money; the knowledge is really important for my life. I want to be able to serve.”
Family, which includes his wife and infant daughter in the U.S., as well as members still in Sudan, gives him the inspiration he needs to continue; he says that though college work, especially writing essays in English, has proven challenging, “I don’t want to give up because I try to do my best to improve my language to complete as much as I can so I can reach the highest degree to help my family.”
Following his graduation from Chattanooga State on May 4, Mohamed plans to continue his studies in social work and eventually pursue a career in the nonprofit sector. His aim is to help others the way he has been helped in his long journey to a life in the U.S., which he considers home. Other global citizens, seeking safety and new vistas of their own, will have a capable advocate in Mohamed Yahya.
Though his future plans may take him far from the green of Tennessee, “This is my country,” he says proudly. “The U.S. is my country. American people do not know how much I love it.”