This was the final week of the school year in the local ESL program where I’ve been tutoring. We started in March as outreach to Somali women who have moved to our town. The six women who have participated are all different– different ages, different personalities, and different levels of English speaking. We have gotten to know each of them a bit and hopefully helped them not just feel more comfortable speaking English but also feel more comfortable living in our town.
This week I also went to the local elementary school and did a Poet-in-the-school visit for all four sixth grade classes. Each class had Somali children in it, the girls all in hijab. Here in Minnesota, the arrival of Somali immigrants is the second wave of diversity in our area. There was a wave of Mexicans and Latin Americans, who came to work in the local meat processing plants.
But the Somali immigrant situation is different. For one thing, no one feared the Mexican immigrants. They may have had disdain for them– for people who don’t speak English or were suspected of being here illegally– but there was not the stigma of America’s fear of Islam and suspicion about terrorism hanging over them.
The Somali population has it hard. Most of these families are coming from refugee camps. Many adults have not had formal schooling or held a pencil before. They are coming from a failed state. Also, they stand out wherever they go. Really, the women are so striking in their bright clothing and flowing hijab that they can’t help but turn heads. One day I saw a group of Somali women waiting at a bus stop near the library and that image has stayed with me. There is an otherness to these East Africans that would be noticeable anywhere but seems even more stark in the homogenous neighborhoods of Central Minnesota.
Teaching English to the women who come for the class is a way to bridge what feels like a big gap between the two cultures, to get to know these women. Because like any other immigrant group– from Asia or Latin America or Africa or the Middle East– that first generation, the parents, need to learn English and find ways to connect.
I saw this need most directly when I was in the sixth grade classes. We wrote a poem together and then they wrote their own on the subject of “A Trip to X.” The Somali girls wrote about “A Trip to Paris,” and “A Trip to Los Angeles.” Places they had never been but supposed were filled with glamour and movie stars. The Westest of the West.
One girl, however, started her page with: “A Trip to Somalia.” She was immediately stuck. I worked with her a bit. She had been born in Somalia but didn’t remember it, but heard about it from her parents. I asked what she thought she would see, hear, eat– use your senses. Was she in a city? A village? Near the coast? She looked blankly at me. Are there flowers? A market?
When she got up to share her poem, it was no longer about Somalia. She didn’t name the place. But she said it was frightening there, dangerous, and you couldn’t go outside. She said it was an ugly place and outside was death.
Her poem shocked me. It represented the worst of the worst of what Americans think about Somalia. Blackhawk Down. But a friend of mine had just been there on a trip to help repatriate some refugees, and she posted photos of markets and clean streets and elaborate banquet meals. So how did this sixth grader get that picture of her homeland in her head? It came to her in English, I believe.
And it was hard for me to imagine these children taking their poems home to some of the mothers in our class. Two of the mothers would not be able to understand their children’s work at all. Others would be able to read the poems, but probably wouldn’t know what to make of the pop culture references– of Spongebob Squarepants and Steph Curry. In a discussion of rhyme and the oral nature of ancient poetry, one of the boys brought up rap music, and the other two Somali boys turned and smiled at him, though they seemed a little embarrassed or unsure of how rap music would be received in this context. I compared early rappers who stood in circles competing to see who could come up with the best rhymes with early Haiku masters who would sit in circles and compose 100-poem cycles.
The sixth graders were already Americans. They were fluent in English and pop culture. Their classmates appreciated their quirks and contributions.
On the last day of class, the Somali women brought in a lot of food for a little farewell celebration. They compared the “sabaayad (flabread) with stew (curry)” to tacos, and we recognized the delicate, sweet pancakes as crepes. The sambusa meat patties are clearly relatives of Indian samosas. We talked to Sahara and Fardosa and Saydab and Sadiya about grocery stores and food. Sahara particularly stresses her search for “quality”! We asked if she’d made it to the Farmer’s Market, which is right behind her apartment building on Friday afternoons. Sahara was pleased, because she bought “organic honey” there. Always she wants “quality, best quality” for her family. No doubt her children ask for “PBJs” and the cereal with LaBron on the box.
In other words, it is as it always is. We meet over language learning. We share food. The children lead the way.