Just over a year ago, the abrupt onset of the COVID-19 pandemic left some travelers stranded far from home and in a panic. Among them was Khadjia Ali, a local woman who traveled to Kenya for an incredibly unique reason.
A survivor of ongoing conflict in Somalia, Ali came to the United States in 2014. First arriving in Chicago, Ali moved next to Mankato and then to Faribault, as she and a group of neighbors were drawn by the ample economic opportunities Minnesota offers.
During the conflict, Ali was separated from her mother and the two lost contact. Ali came to believe that her mother had succumbed to the dangers of the Somali conflict, which is why it came as such a surprise when she heard that her mother was still alive. Ali was told that her mother had managed to leave the country successfully for refuge in Kenya. Wanting to see for her own eyes and reconnect with her mom, she acquired a visa and traveled to Kenya in December of 2019.
Until what was supposed to be the very end of the trip, things went according to plan. Ali was overjoyed to see her mother and was looking forward to bringing her to the U.S. once she is able to secure citizenship. But then came COVID-19.
COVID hit Kenya abruptly on March 12, and Kenya’s government responded with tight restrictions. Ali had no choice but to stay and watch helplessly as her visa expired and her job back home in the U.S. hung by a thread.
“It was a real struggle — we went through a lot,” she said through a translator.
After finally securing a plane ticket, Ali returned to Minnesota in July. she eventually lost her job at Amazon due to the delay, and spent her first two months back in the U.S. looking for work.
Ali was finally offered a position at one of Faribault’s largest employers, Jennie-O Turkey Store. But in the meantime, she wasn’t able to access the federal assistance and relief programs that played such an invaluable role in helping so many U.S. citizens stay afloat.
While Faribault’s Somali Community Resettlement Agency wasn’t able to provide any sort of formal assistance for those trapped overseas, they were made aware of several cases, provided advice and were in some cases able to connect people with resources that could help.
Just weeks after the pandemic hit, more than 90% of the world’s population was quickly subjected to often extreme travel restrictions. The U.S. closed land borders with Canada and Mexico and barred travelers from China, Iran and most of Europe.
U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents (green card holders) were allowed to return to the U.S., and the State Department worked overtime to help coordinate emergency flights with Congressional offices often acting as a crucial go-between.
Reps. Angie Craig, DFL-Eagan, and Jim Hagedorn, R-Blue Earth, touted their success in helping stranded Minnesotans. In the early days of the pandemic. Craig’s office helped Minnesotans stranded in Ecuador, Germany, Guatemala, Peru and the Philippines to return home, while Hagedorn’s helped 12 constituents stranded in three different countries.
For Minnesota’s significant East African population, those resources proved difficult to access. In the end, it was constant support from friends within the Somali community that enabled Ali to finally make her way home.
“No one else was able to help,” she said.