Young Somali American Brings Green Islam Movement to Portland

 She kept coming back to a verse: “But waste not by excess, for Allah loves not the wasters.”

By Gosia Wozniaka

Jan/Feb 2024

Ahlam Osman stood at the edge of a massive landfill in Arlington, Ore., a dozen miles from the Columbia River, watching trucks dump thousands of pounds of urban garbage and bulldozers push the refuse across a vast sandy field.

She learned that 65 long-haul trucks make their way every day from Portland to the dump site — and that’s not even half of the Portland metro region’s waste.

For Osman, a Somali American who grew up steeped in Islam, visiting the 12,000-acre Columbia Ridge Landfill as a high school senior three years ago drove her, now 22 and a Portland State University senior, to examine her personal impact on the environment and explore how Islam aligns with climate action.

That journey, in turn, led her to become an organizer who encourages young African and Muslim people to engage with nature and advocate for their communities, which face many challenges brought by climate change.

“When I saw the piles and piles of garbage, that really opened my eyes and made me realize, wow, our trash isn’t just disappearing,” Osman said. “I realized that as Muslims, it’s our duty to take climate change seriously and to do our best to protect the Earth.”

As Muslims see their voice and political clout grow in Oregon and elsewhere, Osman is part of a new wave of young leaders across the country who are using Islam as a tool to tackle climate change.

She’s an early adopter in Portland, building on a Muslim green movement that’s further along on the East Coast.

On The Periphery

Being an environmental organizer was far from an apparent path for Osman.

Like many other Somalis in the early 1990s, her parents fled their home in Mogadishu with their growing family during the country’s bloody civil war. They spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, where conditions were cramped and necessities scarce. The family survived largely thanks to financial support from the father’s uncle who lived in Los Angeles.

The uncle helped bring the family to California, but they moved to Portland five years later after Osman’s mother developed asthma. Portland, they thought, offered cleaner air – though they later realized it was far from pristine, especially during fire season.

They joined an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Somalis who call Oregon home, most of them living in Multnomah County. Thousands of other Africans have also resettled here, many hailing from countries with large Muslim populations, including Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Osman was born at OHSU Hospital with her twin brother – the ninth and 10th of 11 children and the first to be born in Oregon.  was brought up in a traditional Islamic household and a supportive, tight-knit family. She attended Islamic weekend classes to learn Arabic and study the Quran.

As she grew older, Osman said she noticed various things: 

• She watched fellow Somali teenagers struggle with fitting into a society that didn’t share their culture, language or religion and that made little effort to understand or reach out to them.

• Many Somali families she knew faced financial hardships, discrimination and health problems largely unknown back home. Most of them had owned homes and held stable jobs, she said, but now work for low wages. Many, like her father, a former business owner, became taxi, Lyft and Uber drivers or held a series of odd jobs to make ends meet.

• Refugee agencies often placed families in affordable apartment complexes with poor ventilation and no air conditioning, near major roadways and areas without sidewalks.

• Getting food is a problem. Many Somali refugees don’t drive, live far from supermarkets and avoid public transit after displays of anti-Muslim hatred intensified.

• It turns out Somalis and other East Africans have moved into areas considered heat islands, where cement dominates and tree canopies are sparse. This leads to higher-than-average temperatures and denser air pollution. “Where you live, your ZIP code determines your lifespan and health issues, especially in the era of climate change,” she said.

• Many Somalis don’t see the connection, for their families are focused on survival. They also feel a sense of hopelessness coupled with fatalism, because “a part of our faith is the idea that whatever is meant to happen will happen.”

• Portland’s climate movement is predominantly white and few blacks or Muslims work in sustainability-related fields. The Portland Clean Energy Fund seeks to invest millions of dollars in clean energy and climate justice job training programs and apprenticeships for people of color, among other investments. “I think there’s a huge disconnect,” Osman said. “People don’t see the connection to their faith and values.”

Waste Not

Determined to change those disparities, Osman joined leadership and civic training programs, the Multnomah Youth Commission and social justice initiatives. Her older siblings also encouraged her to get involved and pursue higher education, although many female Somalis did not.

“Osman was always very outspoken and very curious. She would seek out why things were happening, and she was driven from a young age to engage in the community,” said her older sister Hanna, who works as a public health planner and policy analyst and became Osman’s mentor.

Then there was the three-year internship with Oregon Metro, when she visited the Columbia Ridge landfill site, learned about recycling and planted native trees and shrubs. This internship would lead to an awakening of sorts.

Osman also sought to incorporate Islam’s teachings after learning that God appointed humans as khalifa (guardians) of Earth and that Islam emphasizes that Earth and its resources are an amana (trust). She tried to avoid fast fashion and buy less, scoured second-hand stores for clothes, took public transit, got better at recycling and sought to make espresso at home or bring her own mug to coffee shops.

Her Muslim colleagues and family members called her “the environmentalist” because she often shared her sustainability practices — although she isn’t overbearing with it,” her sister said. They told Osman she reminded them of Fatima Jibrell, a Somali American activist who campaigned in Somalia to salvage old-growth forests of acacia trees and promote solar cookers.

But Osman wanted to bring change to Portland, not Somalia.

In 2021, she worked as a youth environmental coordinator with the African Youth and Community Organization (AYCO), an east county nonprofit that supports immigrant and refugee Muslim African, Irani, Myanmar and Afghani teens and their families in the Portland area. She took them on hikes to local nature areas, raised their awareness about climate impacts and taught them about careers related to sustainability and renewable energy, among other industries.

“Osman has a very strong mindset about fostering an environmentally friendly way of living,” said Jamal Dar (executive director, AYCO).

Osman introduced staff and families to recycling, showing community members how to use the different collection bins and sort materials, Dar said. Such hands-on education is key, he contends, since most refugee families have no knowledge of recycling, having spent decades in refugee camps. Many adults cannot speak or read English, so flier-based campaigns are ineffective.

“There’s a big gap when it comes to communication and services within the community that we serve,” Dar said.

A Stronger Voice

Osman drew inspiration from recently established small, volunteer Muslim American environmental groups that were becoming increasingly visible, including the Wisconsin Green Muslims, Virginia-based Green Muslims or Faithfully Sustainable.

The latter was created in New York City by two Muslim college students who launched a campaign targeting overconsumption during Eid al-Fitr.

“There’s growing interest in our community not only in caring for the environment, but also in connecting with nature as part of our faith and our religious obligations to God,” said Sevim Kalyoncu (executive director, Green Muslims).

This increase in awareness corresponds partly with a shift in how Americans and the government view Muslim Americans, Kalyoncu said.

More than two decades after 9/11, about 3.5 million Muslims live in the U.S. There’s also been a rise in Muslim American politicians — including the nation’s first two Muslim congresswomen and local legislators, including state Sen. Kayse Jama (D-Portland) and Washington County Commissioner Nafisa Fai, both Somali American.

“We have a stronger voice and we feel more comfortable speaking out,” Kalyoncu said. “And we’re getting more involved in issues of the country and of the world because of that.”

Many Muslim Americans also remain connected to where their relatives still live, she said, which regularly see droughts, water scarcity and floods intensified by a rapidly changing climate.

It’s important to have environmental groups and climate organizers who represent and focus on Muslim Americans as “a stepping stone” that connects Muslims to the wider environmental movement, Kalyoncu said.

Many Muslims find that connection in their local mosque or cultural center. And that’s where the ISNA’s Green Initiative, launched nine years ago, comes in. This program guides mosques and cultural centers on how to implement environmentally friendly practices, among them waste reduction, recycling and installing solar panels, said Saiyid Masroor Shah (chair). 

Three years ago, the organization partnered with the EPA to produce an ENERGY STAR guidebook for Muslim congregations to track their energy use and improve energy efficiency. ISNA also promotes a Green Ramadan and offers resources on other climate actions.

“This is our obligation, because the Quran mentions over and over again that we are the caretakers of this world,” Shah said. “And part of the Prophet’s (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) teachings, his methods of conservation practices, is to tell us not to waste food or water.”

Youth Leaders

In September, Osman flew to New York City to attend the first-ever conference in the U.S. focused on the climate movement and Islam. She met other Muslim American environmental leaders and heard from panelists about how climate change impacts poverty and health, how urban farming can help food-insecure families and how the fashion market is trying to become more sustainable.

The conference gave her hope and made her realize that she, as a young Muslima climate activist, isn’t alone and can make a difference.

“Being in this space with other Muslims who came from a familiar background and seeing change-makers who are just as passionate about environmental and climate justice felt like a dream come true,” she wrote after returning home.

This fall, Osman returned full time to PSU to finish her bachelors’ degree in community development. In the future, she plans to study urban planning to ensure that all communities of color aren’t bearing disproportionate climate burdens.

In the meantime, she continues to volunteer with AYCO, lead hikes for African and Muslim teens, as well as develop a new environmental justice program with the Portland Harbor Community Coalition to get more youths of color interested in nature and the environment.

She hopes to take them to the same recycling plants and landfill sites she saw, so they, too, can understand how trash and over-consumption affect the environment.

“We believe that Allah is going to ask us what we did and what our role was when there are injustices going on,” Osman said. “When I think of my legacy, I hope to be a mentor to youth… so they can advocate for themselves and recognize the power of their voice.”

Gosia Wozniacka is an environmental reporter for The Oregonian/OregonLive.  Republished with permission. This article is a condensed and modified version of a longer article written by Gosia Wozniacka that first appeared in The Oregonian/OregonLive.

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