Saturday, September 24, 2016

You Don't Have to Live like a Refugee

Asalamu Alaykom,

My last post was about my time as a teacher for Somali students---refugees from their war-torn country on the east coast of Africa.  Basically, I said that there are problems, which if you've been following the news you already knew.  The problems were there within their community before they even arrived in the U.S.

One loyal reader, Deanna, followed up with some questions:

You have obviously seen the Somali community up close based on the family dynamics you describe. What would the solution to the discontent be? If you were in a position to make sweeping or subtle changes what would they be? I am flummoxed really. How do you encourage people to do well for themselves and the society they now permanently live in given their cultural or circumstantial underpinnings. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Deep breath.

What has already happened with the Somali population in Minnesota is done.  We can't go back and fix so many wrongs.  The situation could run better, but it was messed up before they even got here.  The same is going to be true for each new group---the Syrians, for example.  

I think the first thing to consider is that a country which takes in refugees is not simply moving people in.  Here's what I mean:  if you were accepting people into your home, you would want to make sure they were comfortable.  Simply put, their level of comfortable translates into a general easiness for everyone within your walls.  Everyone gets along better when needs are met.

Now, guests are different than family.  Who are the refugees?  Are they guests in America?  Is their goal to stay just as long as it takes for their country to find stability?  Then, will they be on the first plane back?  If that's our understanding, they are only guests.  We should leave them to do as they wish; not try to assimilate them into the American culture's melting pot...or tossed salad... and put up with them.  However, I don't think that's a long-term solution. 

The Somalis are staying in America and they are going to be a part of the interwoven fabric of a diverse, but often divisive, country.  Part of the problem is that THEY don't believe it and the other part of the problem is that the REST of America doesn't believe it.  History shows us, through every wave of troubled peoples, that, even after homelands resolve their issues, the vast majority of immigrants stay.  

Position them for success by taking care of their mental health needs.  Check the systems they have in place for rearing children, and for educating them.  Focus on women and children.  Don't push them into the mainstream before they can swim.  Honestly?  Let them decide how much they want to participate in society.  Which first generation has ever been fully assimilated?  My great grandparents from Ireland and Norway surely weren't.  They kept to themselves in their isolated communities.  Understand that it is NORMAL for the process to take a couple of generations.    

OK, so back to envisioning us as homeowners who have people staying with us.  They are going to be living with us FOREVER.  They are not guests.  This is long-term and it is going to be costly unless we help them be productive members of our team.  There can't be two teams---us and them.  That's going to create discord and disruption.  We've got to redesign our agenda.

1.  Redesign the agenda for the long-term

Canada is also getting refugees, of course.  It's not as if the United States is the only country in North America receiving anyone.  Canada has a different system.  At first glance, it seems unfair, as the government doesn't sponsor the incoming asylum seekers.  An organization has to sponsor the families.  This has led to a disproportional amount of Christian Syrians, for example, than Muslim Syrians, as churches have been able to sponsor more.  When the issue actually gets analyzed, it makes sense to only allow those in who have a support system.     

It's a very Islamic idea to have helpers or ansar who guide newcomers through the transition.  I had that when I first came to Egypt----and ended up marrying the man who had done the most for me.  It is not easy AT ALL to navigate a new place.  Anyone who has relocated has felt that odd sensation of loss and of being lost while still trying to go 60 mph through their day.  It is stressful and overwhelming.  Knowing that someone really does have your back; someone is on the other end of the phone day or night, is calming.  Better decisions get made when in a calm state of mind.

Lambasting the newest members of society to step up to the plate, pull themselves up by the bootstraps and so many other unhelpful idioms means the onus is on those LEAST LIKELY to have the resources to do so.  Really?  The onus, the responsibility, needs to be with the citizens who have the ability to assist.  It is kind, caring, and in the long run, it is a necessity.

The way I always think about those who are falling between the cracks is that you WILL have to deal with them.  You either volunteer, tutor, give money, provide a meal, etc. NOW or you will see that same at risk person turn to alternative to get their needs met.  Maybe they turn into the thieves and the murders because no one cared.  

That bully in your kid's class?  Talk to him or her every time you pick your child up.

The woman who can't seem to clothe her family properly for the weather?  "I have some things that we can't fit any more.  Can I bring them over to you?  I bet they'd fit your kids."

As for a family new to your area, "We would like to have you over for dinner."

I invited over a Bosnian family once, in my days as a unhappy homemaker.  They were most worried about that beef roast I was serving.  Although I never thought about it much at the time, they must have been Muslims.  I was not in Islam at the time.  I simply was a church goer who wanted to help the family who needed it.  

Even now, as an immigrant in Egypt myself, I look out for those wandering lost in our neighborhood.  On the first day back to work, I discovered two tourists who were a long way from the Pizza Hut and needed some directions.  I had them stop at our house to get out of the heat and drink some water before we all escorted them to the restaurant.  It was beneficial to them AND it was fun for us.  NO ONE was the loser for this chance encounter.   

2.  Help has to be lined up

Information.  Where is it?  Who is providing it?  Is the news media the correct dispenser?

When I was little in the 70s, the newest wave of immigrants were the Hmong who had aided the U.S. in the Vietnam War.  I didn't know much about them BECAUSE NOBODY PREPARED ME FOR THEM.  Because of who I am, I made friends right away with Pow Kong.  We walked to school together.  

Yet, I was unprepared for her stories of her sister's baby being killed.  I didn't believe her.  She was weird.  She didn't know what I was talking about that my parents were divorced and I only lived with my mom.  Even though her family had showed me kindness as I ate up their offers of spring rolls, I dropped her as a friend.  I couldn't handle the gap between us.

What if I had been TAUGHT about where she was coming from?  What if she had been taught in school assimilation groups about where I was coming from?  It would have been better for the school to educate the young about respecting differences.  Maybe the boys could have gotten over her name and stopped teasing her.  Maybe the girls could have gotten over her height or the length of her hair.  
I don't know.  I'm only guessing, but as a teacher, I feel that the best equipped in society to close that gap are the educators.

Unfortunately, even the teachers are left clueless.  The focus becomes, months down the line, how to address bad behavior.  Ridiculous stuff!  Where was the care when the school year started?  Administrations are responsible for teacher training and no preventative measures seem to happen when a new culture comes in; it is all knee-jerk reactionary measures once teachers start complaining and grades are dropping. 

Instead, what happens is that the differences are hushed up and ignored.  Needs are not addressed as if they will go away.  Somali students have more needs within the school day than others.  For instance, girls might be wearing hijab and long clothing, both boys and girls feel uncomfortable getting too close to each other, parents worry about halal meat and avoiding pork products, students are supposed to wash and pray at mid-day, fast during the month of Ramadan, and learn Arabic.  These are not issues that are going to go away UNLESS their Islam goes away---and even though some wish this would happen for Somalis, it would leave them hollow cores as human beings. 

At the same time, new immigrants need to get a grip.  I can't come into Egypt and change every aspect to their society.  I can't!  "Malish" can drive me crazy, but it is their country-wide motto.  It's worked for them for THOUSANDS of years.  Who am I to say that my home country of only a few hundred years has the solution for the world's ills?  Somali immigrants need to also back down from so many demands of their new home.  No, they shouldn't have to put up egregious xenophobia, on the other hand, some of what they see as worthy of a protest simply isn't.    

3.  Preventative Education

Will my three suggestions cure all?


I do think that effort has to be made from many sides---never underestimating that an evil element will always want those who claim the country as "theirs" not want to share it with those searching for a stability.   

The refugee problem is not happening outside our homes.  Our world is our home and their problem is ours.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Somali Students in Minnesota

Asalamu Alaykom,

I used to teach Somali children and adults in Minnesota.

That Midwestern state has the highest number of Somalis out side of Somali itself. I know that population very well.  We learned together, prayed together, fasted and ate together.  I cried over their hardships and rejoiced in their triumphs.

Yet, I also have to admit that my last job in the state ended due to insurmountable problems I faced in teaching the Somali community.


My first job teaching Somalis was at a K-6 charter school in Minnesota.  It was set up for East Africans, BUT it was not meant to be for Muslims.  That's an oxymoron.  You simply can't alienate the Somalis from their religion and keep them intact, however, that's just what the Jewish principal attempted.

One teacher in the staff room was very incensed that the children wouldn't sit nicely and listen to her book about the Holy Family.  They kept interrupting to say that it was wrong.

"Why can't they learn about other cultures?" She asked like a good missionary.

I took a look and saw picture after picture of Jesus/Isa as a baby (peace be upon him) and his mother Mary/Mariam (ra).  I tried to explain that, as Muslims, there are not supposed to look at any pictures of these holy people.  She had never been told.  Why not?!  Why was there not any cultural sensitivity training?  There was lots of talk about classroom management, but not anything about how to reach these young learners on a soul level.

There was one little boy I'll never forget who was very disruptive in his kindergarten class, and he would spend most of his time next to the receptionist.  I asked if I could take him.  We made wudu to wash away his upset and he prayed with me, a tutor, to calm down---against the rules.  Using the coping mechanisms he knew from home was not allowed, but sitting in a kind of solitary confinement away from his class was.

His mom met me once.  She was almost bursting with her latest pregnancy.  She was full of baby and full of the noor al deen.  She was so beautiful with light just shining from her face.  We hugged that day and I truly felt I was her sister doing what I could to help her boy.

Down the hall, in another kindergarten, I discovered that little girls were being kept back a little from their P.E. class with their teacher, an older white woman.  She was pulling off their hijabs to look at their hair and compliment their braids.  She didn't think that demanding to see them without their hijabs was akin to asking little mainstream girls to disrobe; giving compliments at them being uncovered was sending messages of "I'd like you better if you were more like me."  I complained to my supervisor and the ritual was brought to an end.

In an older classroom, students were told by their teacher to pray NOW because there wouldn't be time later.  I walked in while this was going on and informed her that it wasn't duhr prayer yet.  Muslims couldn't pray the mandatory prayers whenever they wished; they had to pray on schedule and not before the time.  She complained to the administration and there was a reprimand---for me.  That was a shock.  I thought of quitting at that time.  I had already been fired from a real estate office for wearing hijab not even a year before, so I wasn't ready for another show down.

Then, came the decision that the school's unifying Friday prayer would NOT be held any more with staff.  It was not allowed.  Once again, the very fabric that held together these kids' lives to a sense of normalcy was ripped from them.

The Arabic classes, which taught the classical Arabic of the Quran, could not actually teach any Quran.  It would be like taking an English Lit. class without any Shakespeare or Dickens.  These Arabic classes were horribly unruly because, in my understanding, there wasn't a deep sense of urgency in learning something so disconnected from their daily lives.

I was promoted from tutor to having a classroom of the lowest-level English speakers.  I was in charge of students who had almost no way to communicate.  Our materials were typical easy-readers about boys and girls with dogs in their homes, who played with friendly pigs, and ate ham.

The helpers at the school were Somali adults who needed work, but who were not really ready for the stress.  One woman was particularly angry---she was literally fuming at every provocation.  After work one day, she confided in me that she had last gone to Somali as a teen.  She had thought that it was going to be a family holiday.  Instead, she discovered that she had been brought back "home" from America to have FGM done to her.  They had lied.  They violated her body and changed her forever.  She was rightfully angry and unable to process what had happened to her.

So many Somali survivors needed counseling and coping skills.  Kids told me of seeing men shot dead in front of their eyes and left lying in the street.  The civil war had scarred many.

The parents were likewise confused over how to cope with new world problems.  The moms of these kids kept having babies while working long and difficult hours.  The job of raising the children was left to the older children.  No one was there to guide the young ones or the teens.  They were home alone---a movie I simply can't watch without thinking of the reality which takes place all over America.  Those huge numbers of young Somalis, who would now be in their early twenties, grew up without support at home AND without understanding at school.

It's worth remembering that the written language of Somalia has only been in existence since 1972.  Education wasn't really a focus in a land with so much strife.  What teaching was done was often with a wooden ruler at the ready.  Free thinking and using your own personal reasoning were not accepted like rote memorization.


It was through my work with the children, that another teacher recommended me to work as a teacher at a night school for Somali adults.  I needed the money, so I agreed for an interview.  I couldn't believe what I observed.  A Somali man was using a workbook from the elementary level for a lesson on camping.  What a joke!

These were refugees who had lived in Kenyan camps for years.  They were suffering in outdoor conditions without a home.  Now?  They were supposed to identify with happy families who willing left their homes to sleep outdoors?

His next class had a lesson on transportation in which he taught the antiquated word aeroplane and accepted that donkey and camel were types of transportation---without qualifying that those answers were not typical in the U.S.  He didn't know how to teach American culture which is key to language learning.  His next lesson was going to be on baseball.

I couldn't stand it!  Of course I wanted to take over his position and get some real life learning in place.  I came in and got the students to start TALKING about themselves, about their families, and about their journey.  They introduced each other to the class.  They role played talking to their child's school teacher and going to the pharmacy.  They-----

hated it.

Yep!  Those Somali adults begged me for a return to worksheets and workbooks.  They didn't want to speak emergency English.  They wanted to play school with vocabulary sets that they'd never use: umpire, pitcher, strike.  I stood my ground and told them a story.

I told them how an Egyptian friend of my then husband's had once invited us over to have dinner with him, his wife, and two sons.  The evening had been coming to a close when she started asking about doctors.  I wasn't sure what was going on.  Through my husband, she communicated that she was in severe pain.  She was embarrassed to give details about her period, but knew that she must because I sounded very concerned.  A call to my obgyn's after hours number, got a quick response, and after listening to me, she told me to get that woman to the ER.  Sure enough, she was in the last stages of an ectopic pregnancy.  The emergency room doctor told my then husband that she was ready to burst----she wouldn't have lasted until the morning.

The class calmed down after that story.  The moral of the story, of course, is that while we can learn about any subject, only real life lessons will help us and our families trying to survive in a new and often confusing country.

They had another fight with me when the call to prayer would sound.  Some male student would stand in the hallway and loudly call magrib.  It didn't matter if the classes were in session.  He was going to alert everyone and then everyone expected that it was fine to get up and leave immediately. I told them "no".  They couldn't just leave without permission.

That was tantamount to heresy!  Who was this woman to tell us to go against God?!  Yet, I knew that being so tight with their Islam was going to lose them jobs and stuck to my insistence that they remain until the class was done and they were released.  Years later, Somali meat packers made the same complaint as my former students---they were walking off the line because it was prayer time and they had to go RIGHT AWAY.  Islam seriously isn't that tight---there are windows of opportunity not immediate executions.

I worked almost a year at that school.  I worked through the summer and into the next school year.  We fasted Ramadan together and I broke the fast eating samosas from women who seriously could have kept them to themselves---but shared with their teacher.  I earned their respect through our times together.  Maybe I wasn't the best teacher, since I was still very new to leading a classroom, but I cared.

They cared too.  One time, I got a phone call from the mosque because I had said that I'd be open to talking with women who were interested in coming to Islam.  The assistant from the mosque said there was a woman looking for a group of sisters.  I called her and said that she could meet me at the school.  She came and I had her watch duhr prayer before we headed out for lunch.  My oldest student---a spry and sassy woman in her seventies---had asked me if this woman wanted to become Muslim.  I said, "inshahallah".  Sure enough, as we were leaving, this senior ran after us and pushed into the woman's hand a necklace and earrings.  The woman, probably a government informant, didn't know what to make of the sudden gift.  It was one of the kindest gestures I have ever seen.

I'm especially proud of the school newspaper we put out.  They really did produce articles, cartoons, and reviews.  I wanted them to have ownership over a product they could be proud of.

I only quit after I became pregnant.  I could no longer work teaching in the day and then at night.  I was very dangerously falling asleep at the wheel as I drove home after 9:00 PM.

During the day, I kept my job at the Islamic school.


My first-grade classroom had

  • six Somali-American children
  • one girl who was half Somali and half African-American
  • three children of Pakistani parents
  • two boys who were of East Indian descent
  • one boy who was a mix of Indian and Spanish
  • one half Afghani and half American boy
  • one boy of Syrian parents
  • one half Syrian and half European American boy
  • three Palestinian-American children
  • one boy who was a mix of Palestinian and Algerian
  • one half Iranian and half American boy

three girls wore hijab...two were was allergic to had parents had suffered head trauma as a child...a couple of kids had moms expecting a had a dad who had two was being pushed to excel a year ahead of his was so troubled that he threatened to jump out the moved away to had a family who invited our family to dinner...

What can I say?  I loved this class of six-year-olds very much.  They were with me every day of my pregnancy in 2004 into 2005.  They were very mixed in their background and their experiences.  It was a Mini-United Nations.  We benefited from sharing time together and gained from our diversity.

I want to also acknowledge the religious studies teacher from Somalia who was one of the greatest examples of adab and sabr, good manners and patience, I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  She was glorious and such a big help.  She taught Islam with her every action.

One time, I needed her help to explain pumpkins.  We had gone on a field trip to a farm.  It was a great excursion.  One of the highlights for the kids was picking out their own pumpkin from the farmer's crop.  Each child sat on the hay wagon with their new prized possession.  Sadly, the next day I was told that the Somali moms had thrown the pumpkins away.  They had associated them only as Halloween symbols and, as immigrants often do, avoided any possible conversion of their child to the new culture.  The religious studies teacher explained to all the students that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) actually loved squash so much and that no vegetable from Allah is forbidden for us.  That incident was an indicator that cultural misunderstandings were going to increase with the most recent wave of refugees who practiced an Islam that was much tighter than other sub-groups.  

After I had my son, I did not return to this school for three years.

2008  When I did return there were some big changes.  

Gone was this multi-culturism.  I learned that with additional state funding for schooling options , came more Somali families to this private, religious school.  As the classrooms filled up with Somali students, the other families left.  I tacked this up to racism and shook my head at this un-Islamic behavior.  

Yet, once I came back, I was shocked.  Teachers were quitting left and right.  The religion teacher was gone.  The administrator was no longer the qualified man who had been in charge.  There was now a Somali man who was learned, but not in K-12 education.  He didn't know how to deal with the many discipline issues and the whole school was suffering.

One of the problems is that very old children were being registered as first graders---they were being held back due to lack of skills, but they were not sweet six-year-olds.  They were nine years old!  They were huge and not wanting to buy into the program for much younger kids.  Their learning difficulties weren't being addressed.  They were being pulled from class and being bribed with trinkets to return nicely.  Of course, that made for kids eager to leave to get gifts.  It was crazy.

I had children who had both parents working, who had divorce and separation in their families, and at least a couple had so much dysfunction in their families that they needed counseling.  

Those children faced not only school on the weekdays but over the weekend as well.  At those Quran schools, they were threatened to learn or to be punished.  I was told that they would get hit by the rod used to shutter the window blinds.  I didn't see any proof of this, but I told the children that I would never allow this from anyone.  They were to tell their Quran teachers that I would have to report them to police if ever any of them threatened them with harm again.


I swear to you that my faith was waning during the time with these very troubled kids.  I couldn't teach the way I wanted.  This wasn't my class from years before where there was respect.  I was seeing hitting and spitting, and hearing yelling and swearing---from first graders!

One big boy, who was almost as tall as me and built line a linebacker, still had a mind like a little kid.  He couldn't use the ruler in math class for anything other than hitting his classmates.  He was warned.  It didn't mean a thing.  When I tried to get the ruler from him, he wouldn't release his tight grip.  I then put my hand on his back as we walked calmly to the door.  There wasn't a fight between us, but the mom came to school upset as all get out:  I had put my hand on her child.  It didn't matter that he had struck his friends, or that he wouldn't comply with the either the work instructions or the directive to stop.  No, she was going to focus on what I did wrong.  Her support was gone (later, I learned that she took her son back to Somalia).

The last straw for me was when a small boy in my class---small but not young---ran around the school like an escaped prisoner, yelling "BITCH!" at every teacher he saw and then pulling down a boy's pants to expose him.  He was suspended and a meeting was called.  

When his mother came for our conference, we learned that he spent his time at home with his older siblings and an older cousin playing video games.  If she came home and got a bad report about his behavior, he was sent to the basement...and then she would turn off the light. She made him stay in the quiet darkness of the basement until she felt better about him.  Haram.  Astragferallah.  I had to tell her that it wasn't helping.  He was hurting and scared and alone.  I begged her to stop or else she would be considered abusing the boy.  


After she left, I asked the principal---the learned man without actual experience guiding young children---if we could arrange for the boy to come back from his home suspension to his office.  At that time, he would be debriefed by the principal before coming back to my room.  He said that sounded like a good idea.  

However, the day that this boy returned, his bus dropped him off and he went straight to our classroom and ran to the art supply cupboard.  He threw it open, ransacked the paint and poured in it onto tables.  His buddy was misspelling BETCH on the chalkboard.  The returning boy then danced on top of tables yelling "BITCH!" until I got help to remove him.


I then started circle time with a calming voice; knowing that I needed to reclaim the classroom for learning.  As we sat together, the boy was returned.  I was expected to continue with him in class.  I started and then stopped.  I excused myself and asked my assistant to carry on.  

The principal told me that the boy would be staying in class, so I told him that I couldn't stay with him.  I literally said that it was him or me.  The principal asked me if I was quitting and I said that I only knew that I wasn't teaching with the situation the way it was.  I walked out.  It is the only time I ever left a teaching job.  I knew that I could give everything I had and it still wouldn't be enough.  Those children and their families needed too much.  

I don't regret it---even meant that I lost my job, my money, and eventually my apartment.

There was something missing in too many of those kids.  They were missing that heart connection.  They were not reachable through my attempts.  Maybe somebody else could have done better.  I couldn't.  If I was given the same challenge today, I'm not sure if I could do better even now.


I haven't wanted to return to teach the Somali population.  Egyptians are hard enough for me!  However, I could easily see that Somalis had made it easier  in some ways to be Muslim in the Midwest.  There were more mosques and more hijabis.  There were more halal markets and restaurants.  There was more chance to say, "Aslamu Alaykom".

The funny thing is that there wasn't a response.  I actually would greet Muslim brothers and sisters eagerly and not get any reply---which is mandated in Islam.  It was odd.  It was as if there was a divide between the reverts and the "born Muslims".

When I attended the mosque with two revert friends, I saw how the dynamics had changed there as well.  The once sacred space was now for play.  The Somali moms filled the prayer hall in the basement with children.  Two boys were lifting their behinds in the air and having a farting contest.  I kid you not.  Girls were running and laughing.  

As the call to prayer sounded, we lined up.  It wasn't good enough for one lady.  She grabbed at us and forced us into her idea of a straight line.  This was actually robbing us of our prayer, but she persisted.  

After the prayer was done, I was turning my head from right to left only to find her waiting there to tell me off.  I stopped her and told her to say that she hope that my prayer was accepted.  She wouldn't because she had something else to say.  I told her again that it was adab good manners to wish me well.  She finally did and then I listened to her give me advice on how to be a good Muslim.  That kind of "Haram Police" patrolling of the mosques made me stay away from ANY mosque during my last trip to the place I can no longer think of as home.

This to me is what the Muslim Somali community has become in Minnesota.  It is being so sure that it is right without allowing for anyone else to be right.  That is what grows terrorism.  It was always there within the group.  The tightness holding on to the religion without enough actual knowledge (just knowing what's been told to them).  The nonacceptance of  seeing eye dogs or drunks in Somali taxis, or pork buyers at the check-out.  There are too many people intent on memorizing the Quran, but not understanding the meaning of Quran.  The moms and dads trying to ensure a bright future through hard work while neglecting their TRUE future in their children's education and proper bringing up.

Are there exceptions?  OF COURSE!  No group is homogeneous.

We need to keep remembering Ahmed Nur Ahmed Ali, an Augsburg college student and a talented Somali man,  who came back to tutor in a tough neighborhood only to be shot down.  It was such a waste.  That's what is so upsetting.  With so much human potential, there are too many who, like the ISIS wanna-be in St. Cloud, are lost to us.

Back in 2008, when Ahmed was shot, I had hoped that there wouldn't be any more bloodshed among Somali youth.  Eight years later, Somali violence in Minnesota is now on the world stage.  Although I have no way of knowing, I can only guess that some of the hundreds of Somali students I've known have fallen prey to terrorist activity---most likely NOT the senior who gave the necklace and earrings.  Who has?  I don't know.  I can't hate them.  I do pray for them as I pray for all my students---even the terrorists---to find their way back to the right path before it's too late.