Welcoming diversity in our communities helps us connect with our neighbors

by Shirley Adams

Imagine what it’s like to move to a new place – finding a house, new doctors, a new hairdresser, new grocery stores, a new church, a new school, getting a driver’s license, registering to vote and make new friends – when you speak the language. Now imagine what it was like for the Somali refugees who moved to Saint-Joseph, who had to do all these things without knowing our language.

I knew little about Somalia or the Somali people before volunteering to teach English and meet members of Cultural Bridges, a St. Joseph non-profit organization, which has been instrumental in helping to Somalis. Members of Cultural Bridges recommended I attend a Somali event at the Millstream Summer Night Market so I could hear Somali music, see the dancers and try their food. They also introduced me to some books that explained Somali culture.

“From Somali to Snow” is a book written by Hudda Ibrahim, a graduate of Saint-Benoît. His book describes the history, customs and reasons why Somalis end up in Minnesota.

“Home of the Brave” by Katherine Applegate is a children’s fiction book about a young African boy, Kek, who ends up living with a relative in Minnesota. He befriends a girl in foster care, an old woman who owns a run-down farm and an old cow. The reader is drawn into the story and its struggles to adapt to a new culture, a winter climate and an unwelcoming environment. The story tells of his missteps as he tries to learn the culture and the mistakes he made, such as washing dishes in the washing machine instead of the dishwasher. It’s a sad story in many ways, but it has a sweet ending.

A Google search brought me to “The Last Nomad Coming of Age in the Somali Desert,” a memoir by Shugri Said Salh, a nurse in California. Her book takes you through the trials and tribulations of growing up as a woman in a male-dominated country that is engulfed in civil war and her treacherous journey to Canada and eventually California.

These stories demonstrate the strength, perseverance and resilience of Somali refugees. Many of those who fled their homes in the dark of night, living in refugee camps, did not know where, when or if they would resettle in another country or see family members again. It was a reality for thousands of Somalis as they fled their country, many of whom live in St. Joseph.

Somali culture enriches the mixed culture that is already there – the culture of Germans, Scandinavians, French, Slovenians, Poles and more. And, like immigrants before them, older Somalis, as they learn English, work, often in lower-paying jobs, so their children can have a better future. They know the importance of a good education. Like all parents, they want the best for their children and grandchildren.

There are now three generations of Somalis living here – those who came as adults, those who came as children and those who were born here. Like all immigrants, they must find the balance between their old culture and their new culture. Most Somali children will be multilingual, just like their parents. Many adults speak three or more languages, including English.

It is up to all of us to learn and respect Somali culture and traditions and help integrate their traditions into the culture of St. Joseph. We can do this by reading and learning about their stories, joining cultural bridges, volunteering to teach them English, or simply being a good neighbor.

To contact Cultural Bridges, go to [email protected] or find out more Cultural Bridges of St. Joseph, MN | Facebook.

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