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Airman survives refugee camp, sets goal as immigration lawyer

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Shelby Rapert
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

Until the age of 11, Airman 1st Class Salat Ali awoke each day believing he wouldn’t live to be 18.

His family had fled the civil war in Somalia in the 1990s, and he was born and raised in a Kenyan refugee camp, along with another 250,000 people–all clinging to the hope that they would be resettled into another country soon.

“I wasn’t in the position to think about the future,” said  Ali, a technician assigned to the 375th Force Support Squadron. “It was more of ‘how can I survive day-to-day?’ and ‘how do I avoid injury?’ There was this huge board in the middle of the camp and the people who could read would see whose names were picked to start the interview process. It was like winning the lottery.”

Ali, along with his father and brother, was eventually chosen to move to the U.S. after a long vetting and medical screening process in 2006. Sadly, they were forced to leave his mother and two other siblings behind.  

“That was the day I realized that I wanted to be someone who helps people,” he said. “I didn’t know how yet, but I just knew I wanted to do something meaningful.”

11-year-old Ali arrived in Syracuse, New York, and immediately began to learn a new culture and language. Despite growing up in a poor section of the city, he said his family has always “made bread out of breadcrumbs” and that they became more resilient because of their hardships.

Ali earned a full-ride scholarship to Cazenovia College and received a bachelor’s degree in psychology. In 2022, he decided he wanted to become an immigration lawyer and soon joined the Air Force to help him reach his goal. Using his military tuition assistance, he is currently working on his Master’s of Business Administration at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and plans to begin law school following his enlistment.

For the past 10 years, Ali has been doing what he can to reunite with his mother. He said that as an immigration lawyer, he will be able to help others navigate the barriers of reuniting with their loved ones as well. 

“I don’t know if I can change any systems or policies,” said Ali. “But, I know that if there is anybody going through what I had to go through, at least I can be there to help show them the way.”

Rather than letting his struggles define him, Ali uses them as fuel to better himself and help others and encourages everyone to do the same.

“For anyone reading this right now, don’t feel bad for me. I struggled but I’ve survived. From the position that life has put you in, ask yourself how you can help those in need—no good deed is too small.”