Somalian man evolves from civil war to crafting films

After escaping Somalia conflict as a boy, he is chosen as activist storyteller here


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Civil war broke out in Somalia the year Haji Muya was born. The family quickly fled the country for a refugee camp in Kenya. As Bantus, they were persecuted even before the conflict.

Most of his first 13 years were spent in the camp waiting out the process of being found suitable for asylum. When his family found out they were accepted in the United States, he said, "I had high hopes and crazy thoughts. I thought America was made of glass, that you wouldn't be able to see forests or dirt.

"I got here [to Pittsburgh] June 9, 2004," he said. "The most memorable day ever."

Mr. Muya is now 20, and in almost eight years in Pittsburgh he has gone from being a foreign, forlorn youngster to a self-assured, budding filmmaker ready to graduate from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

He is one of 10 filmmakers representing the Game Changers Project, a national media fellowship program whose mission is to change the public perception of black men and youth. Four fellows are in Pittsburgh, including Chris Ivey, James Robertson and Jasiri X, with one each from Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, Oakland and Los Angeles.

When the organization asked Jeff Guerrero, a graphic designer and teaching artist at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, to recommend someone, he said, "Haji was the first person who came to mind. He has stories to tell, and he is determined."

The fellows were chosen as activist storytellers who regularly produce four-minute documentaries about black men and other under-represented people. The fellows earn $500 for each of their films, which are shown nationally.

In his Game Changers bio video at gamechangersproject.org, Mr. Muya said other kids "called me a pirate because I came from Somalia. Will that stop me from succeeding? No sir and no ma'am. I work hard, I play hard. I am driven to create music."

Mr. Muya has a part-time job as a trainer for Soccer in the Community, and he makes short films of student testimonials for the craftsmen's guild, where he got his start in filmmaking, graduating from its Youth & Arts program in 2010. "MCG helped me," he said, "so I have to help it."

In his own time, he works in his basement studio and makes videos for "my boys," the G-Brotherz, a local hip-hop group of Somali Bantus who went to Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. Mr. Muya, whose hip-hop group is Lil Kiziguwaz, graduated from Schenley High School.

A video of his band shows the trio walking through shady Highland Park and down its stone steps, sing-talking in the Chizigula language a sketchy, catchy tune laid over melancholic instrumentation.

The scenes shifted between his band and archival footage of vacant-eyed children, hands dipping into a bowl of mashed vegetable, bone-thin women hauling sacks, camouflage trucks, soldiers cradling automatic rifles and bombed-out buildings.

"That is to show the story of what's happened and is still happening in Somalia," he said.

Pittsburgh's Somali community of mostly Bantus has grown to about 50 families. Many of the Somali women in Pittsburgh got jobs in child care, housekeeping, as seamstresses and in laundries, said Karen Moynihan, director of budget and contracts for Catholic Charities.

The Muyas were among several who were settled near each other in Lawrenceville. Mr. Muya's mother is a baby sitter. His father is disabled, not working and taking English classes.

At age 13, the teenager could speak English passably but could not read or write it. Like other Somali children, he didn't talk, dress or act like the other black kids in school.

"People wanted to fight us," he said. "Sometimes we tried to solve it ourselves, sometimes we reported it. I told myself, 'This is my new country, and I just have to deal with it.' "

He softened the clipped diction, learned slang and eased into a different set of clothes. By his sophomore year, he said, "I had no problems."

He had survived 12 years in a squalid camp where tens of thousands of people were unwanted in Somalia and Kenya and uncertain where they would go. They were threatened by attack and rape by rival clans and were hungry and thirsty.

"A lot of people died," said Mr. Muya, whose parents, two brothers, two sisters and a niece all came to Pittsburgh together. "I saw friends die of starvation."

Mr. Guerrero said he was struck by Mr. Muya's determination.

"He came to the digital department wanting to make music videos. My first impression was, 'Wow, everything he says is "yes, sir; thank you, sir." ' Another thing that makes him unique is he actually listens to advice. He is more mature. He has been through some things.

"We set him in front of a computer, showed him what to do, he asked questions and started making videos. He organized the other Somali boys who went through MCG. One time they missed the bus and started running. They ran here all the way from Allderdice High School.

"Haji is exceptionally attuned to getting through things and succeeding at them."

In a recent interview at the guild, Mr. Muya said he wants to make a career in music videos and short documentaries.

"I don't like long," he said. "I can't sit. I hate sitting. I hate waiting."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. First Published May 28, 2012 4:00 AM


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