Say hello to Ismahan Abdullahi, Director of Community Partnerships & Civic Engagement from PANA!
Our Gamechangers series highlights different community leaders in City Heights who have committed their lives to the cause of others. Their work changes the socioeconomic and cultural playing field for their clients, which include at-risk youth, refugees, and the homeless. You're going to love their story just as we much as we do!
Introducing Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans:
Hey, it's Dana! I am very pleased to introduce you to our next Gamechanger from PANA. Ismahan Abdullahi is a pretty incredible woman. She is extremely passionate about what she is doing with PANA and was an absolute pleasure to interview. We need more people like her because she continues to take a stand for what she believes in and wants to make our community a better place for everyone. She is pretty awesome, but I'll let you take a look at why she is Gamechanger worthy.
Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA) is dedicated to advancing the full economic, civic, and social inclusion of refugees to have a powerful voice in shaping the public policies that affect their lives. They envision a world where refugees are connected global leaders building trans-continental movement work to advance meaningful freedom for all.
I sat down with Ismahan Abdullahi, Director of Civic Engagement and Community Partnerships, to learn more about her story and her involvement with PANA.
Dana (CHCH): Tell us a little about your background and how you got involved with your nonprofit.
Ismahan (PANA): I am a Somali refugee who has always been passionate about collectively unlocking the human potential to build a better world today, tomorrow and the years to come. I’ve been doing community work for the past several years through the Muslim American Society and being active with local mosques and community centers. My passion has always been in working with youth and community and making sure we create an environment that allows for growth,development, support and opportunity. Being a strong advocate for social justice and ensuring that we are building an inclusive society has brought me to work with the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans. PANA emphasizes a commitment to the full economic, social and civic inclusion of refugees and building a visible electorate. For an individual who has been actively fighting for social justice, equity and the full inclusion of marginalized communities in the fabric of American society, it was an ideal fit for me. I co-host a podcast with Nicole Capretz from the Climate Action Campaign called Flip The Script: The Future is Female. The goal of this podcast is to develop a progressive platform where we lift up women game changers in San Diego and put the spotlight on building grassroots community power. I came to flip the script so that our overlooked-but-blessed communities get the chance to build agency and thrive in an era where their light is trying to be suppressed.
Dana (CHCH): What kind of impact does your nonprofit make in our City Heights community? (What do you envision?)
Ismahan (PANA): PANA is a nonprofit organization that focuses on lifting up refugee voices and building power in AMEMSA communities. We are a leadership development, research, advocacy, community organizing hub that is dedicated to the full economic, civic and social inclusion of refugees. We focus on training and developing leaders within the refugee community in becoming strong advocates and community leaders that push for positive social change through policy and advocacy work. PANA was founded in the recognition that the unique needs of San Diego’s growing refugee communities cannot be addressed by simple adjustments to existing ways of doing business. Instead, PANA uses an integrated advocacy approach to its research, public policy, and community organizing in order to build and leverage deep community networks,develop community leaders, and establish a civic engagement infrastructure for the refugee community. Our work centers impacted communities. We host regular community education and engagement opportunities geared towards building leadership and power within the community and providing a safe space for folks impacted by racial injustice and toxic refugee rhetoric and policies. City Heights is a unique community where we see the richness of our diversity and multicultural values being in display every day. Though the gentrification in this neighborhood has been real and painful to witness, we hope and continue to envision and work towards a world where inclusivity and equity is the norm and justice its foundation.
Dana (CHCH): What core values inform and shape your team’s culture and how you operate?
Ismahan (PANA): Establishing core values is critical for a team to function and thrive positively. At PANA, we have a passionate team that is dedicated to building, supporting, creating and pushing each other to the next level so we can continue to serve our community. Our team culture comes from a place of strength, understanding and recognizing that it will take us all working together to usher in the just world that we envision. Our core values of respect, dignity, collaboration and waking up with the passion to serve and be curious and open to learning is the fuel that drives us and the glue that binds us. We build a coherent culture where we center people and their experiences and that is evident in how we function as a team and also do community work.
Dana (CHCH): Who’s your personal “Oprah, Michelle Obama, or Ellen” (aka personal role model or inspiration?) Why?
Ismahan (PANA): My life’s inspiration is my dear mother. She is my personal hero and my guiding light. My mother left Somalia with her young children to provide her family the opportunity to live and thrive in an environment free from war, cruelty, fear and death. She wanted to give us a chance at life. My mother strove to teach us the tenets of our faith and putting that into practice and making sure we are not just spectators as we live life. She taught us to always dream big, pursue an education, be strong and resilient despite the challenges we may face and to bring good into people’s lives. She has experienced the cruelty of war and destruction and instilled in us the light to imagine and work for a better world. Her unwavering strength throughout our journey here to America and her resilience and true grit in raising her family despite the socioeconomic challenges we faced is nothing short of heroic. She is a force to be reckoned with, determined and optimistic. She wanted to see us succeed, but she wanted us to live a life of service even more. I have learned to take that spirit of giving and contributing to the world from her and she continues to be my living and precious hero.
Dana (CHCH): Can you share a personal story that motivates you to continue making a difference in our community?
Ismahan (PANA): When we first came to America with nothing but our clothes on our backs, I knew life would be different. I was excited and eager to get to know my new country, even if it wasn't;t excited and eager to get to know me sometimes. Throughout my life, I've always seen myself as being uniquely different, as everyone truly is. The hijab that I wear as a symbol of my Islamic faith and my love to God has often been seen as something odd and at times, even as a threat. In elementary school, I remember instances where some children would try to pull at my hijab to force me to take it off. I remember feeling angry and defending myself and my hijab every time,no matter how exhausting it became. I remember those days of being the new kid and being seen as the other. It instilled in me a quiet courage and sense of strength that has guided me in the work that I do as a community activist. It instilled in me the value of empathy that I carry with me till this day, always looking out for others and stopping injustice whenever and wherever I see it to the best of my abilities. The one experience that has shaped me and the type of activist I would become was the September 11th attacks and the subsequent dominant discourse that emerged surrounding Islam. Before I was given the chance to even mourn the horrific tragedy that occurred that day, my family and I prepared for the hate crimes that increased out of the ignorance and fear mongering we witnessed surrounding Islam and Muslims. All of a sudden, I was not seen as just being the "other", but now being seen as a threat, who shares the same faith as the people depicted in the media and in political dialogues, All of a sudden, our communities had to deal with surveillance and the Patriot Act, hate crimes, bigotry and Islamophobic acts and legislation before we could even mourn with our fellow Americans. Our pain as Muslim-Americans was two-fold. Through that pain and untold stories, I was motivated to become more active and to use my voice to speak truth to power. I took that energy to strive hard in school and be involved in community organizations, youth work and mosques so that my voice as a youth can in these spaces. I sought to create an environment for youth to get to know their faith more and not be afraid of their Muslim-identity. I sought to strive for social justice and never labeling or branding an entire group, race, culture or religion by the actions of few. I sought to challenge white supremacy that kept marginalized communities divided and to seek intersectional solidarity. Out of that pain, fear, uncertainty and tragedy, grew hope, optimism,strength and an activist who is passionate to create a more equitable and just world.