Abdi Aziz, 16, is tall and lean, with chocolate-brown skin and a wide smile that lights up his otherwise solemn face. When he arrived in Minnesota almost a year and a half ago from Nairobi, Kenya, where he’d lived for 10 years after leaving Somali refugee camps, Abdi imagined his problems were behind him. He knew some English and envisioned America as the land of opportunity and freedom. However, Aziz, now a sophomore at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, discovered barriers he hadn’t anticipated.
“The greatest difficulty was interacting and making friends with Americans. Still I have this problem,” he says gently in imperfect but articulate English. “It’s a process. I have to learn how American culture is.” He felt welcome in classes, he said, but has struggled with tensions between Somali and African American students and the trash talking that’s common in American high school hallways. He is learning not to take offense.
Aziz and his family are among the 20,000-plus Somalis who have settled in Minnesota since 1991 after fleeing civil unrest and famine in the coastal East African country. Minneapolis public schools enroll roughly 1,937 students of Somali descent, Rochester schools about 640 and Owatonna schools about 250. Many Somalis are thriving thanks to cultural values encouraging education, entrepreneurship, and community engagement.
But for many Somali youth, Somalia is a distant memory or a place they know only through family stories or contact with relatives in Africa, so they are bridging a cultural divide between old world and new.
Like countless immigrants to the new world before them, they experience “layers of identity,” says Soozin Hirschmugl, arts and education specialist at Brian Coyle Community Center. She works with hundreds of Somali youth in afterschool or summer programs at Brian Coyle.
“I hear it at community meetings. There is intergenerational conflict; parents have different values. They want their children to keep their culture, get an education, and stay out of trouble.” But Somali kids want the same thing as other teens: to fit in.
“They have the title of ‘East African’ or ‘Somali’ but in their minds they are Americans,” says Abdirahman Mukhtar, youth coordinator at Brian Coyle. “They want to talk about the Super Bowl, or the NBA game, or Valentine’s Day.”
Some of these new Minnesotans have the self-confidence and language skills to succeed in school and pursue higher education and good jobs. They’re joining Girl Scouts, student council, and other extracurricular activities; playing on high school sports teams; and graduating with high class rankings and earning scholarships.
Aziz, for example, is taking classes through Washburn’s English Language Learner (ELL) program, which offers accommodations for students whose first language is not English, plus tutoring and homework help after school. He’s proud to have “mainstreamed” in two classes — gym and English — and hopes to take entirely mainstream classes next year. His ultimate goal is to become a pediatrician.
Washburn High School senior Hodan Hashi is also succeeding. She arrived in the United States four years ago way behind in math skills, explains Ibrahim Ayeh, a teacher and ELL coordinator at Washburn. “The struggle for education is hard because of different culture, traditions, and language,” she echoes. Hashi credits Ayeh’s program with helping her catch up and even plan for college. She’s taking trigonometry and advanced algebra, played on the championship badminton team, and expects to attend St. Paul Technical College next year and pursue a nursing career.
Yet others aren’t faring so well, educators and advocates say.
“I think most kids who are here are eager, and their parents are eager, [for] education. But they have to struggle with peer pressure like any other child. Whether you are an immigrant or not, you deal with that as a teenager. Combined with that, they have to navigate cultural differences. He [or she] has to please everybody,” says Amal Abdalla, a mother of four sons and chief executive officer of Somali Success School, a multiservice agency serving 200 East African families.
Bilingual liaisons like Washburn teacher Ayeh also help families bridge the cultural divide — and that’s key, say community leaders because parents with limited English and knowledge of the American system can be “almost handicapped in raising their kids,” says Mohamed Farid, a teacher at Roosevelt High School and coauthor with Don McMahan of Accommodating and Educating Somali Students in Minnesota Schools. Ayeh is very concerned that resources like bilingual school staff, classes, and testing options are drying up as school districts face budget and political pressure.
“They might receive a letter from the school but [may not] know what ‘truancy’ means, or don’t know the repercussions of not answering,” concurs Abdalla. And if families rely on the student to act as translator, there may be a “conflict of interest,” she notes.
For example, says Farid, one Roosevelt student was suspended for three days. When he and his mother met with the principal, she was beaming with pride, said Farid. “The principal could not understand why. We found out this child told his mom he was rewarded with three days off because of his good work in school.”
Abdalla says such teens are “at risk,” but not in the conventional sense. They may have strong families who care about them. They aren’t in trouble with the law or using drugs, and they don’t necessarily need remedial education. But they do need extra incentive to see beyond their immediate surroundings and to find the way — and the means — to attend college.
Ayeh notes that students must also pass Minnesota’s standardized test requirements. He says he helps them fight the temptation to give up if they feel stigmatized by being in ELL or are intimated by the tests themselves. His program helps them overcome these mental barriers through “constant encouragement and ‘pushing’ them, plus moral and material support” such as making sure they have textbooks and notebooks.
The Somali Success School offers 25 students at a time intensive, long-term mentoring and advocacy to get them successfully through high school, into college, and through the first year of college. Staff members — one for every four students — help students and families take advantage of community resources that aid them in applying to schools and affording a college education.
Such mentoring can also help kids who fall through the cracks socially. Community leaders are especially concerned about young males who traditionally have more freedom and fewer domestic responsibilities keeping them linked to home and family than girls do. Also, since many fathers are absent due to death in Somalia’s civil war, family separation, divorce, or working night shifts, there is a lack of male role models. These factors, plus enticing but violent and materialist media images can draw Somali teens into a quagmire of aimless hanging out, staying up late to play video games or watch television, or even flirting with gang membership.
Rivalry among neighborhoods or ethnic groups is nothing new, but kids seeking an identity will find it wherever they can, whether it’s sanctioned or not.
“You have to make friends to survive,” notes Mukhtar. “If you make the wrong friends, it can go the wrong way.”
So he and his colleagues welcome kids who have moved on to other neighborhoods or are “aging out” of the youth program but return to Brian Coyle because, to paraphrase the sitcom “Cheers,” “everybody knows their name.” Staff members are known to go the extra mile to chip in from their own pockets to pay fees for basketball jerseys or soccer registration. They help teens fill out applications for summer jobs, make sure they’re signed by parents, and deliver them on deadline. They notice when a kid is having an off day and can gently ask how things are going. They’ll field calls from parents who need help translating school forms.
Most of all, they support the kids’ own interests and try to empower them. The Center has formed partnerships with community resources like the Bedlam Theater, the Timberwolves basketball team, and the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. Hirschmugl invited several kids to help write a grant proposal for $2,500 to the Hype Foundation, securing funding for a new youth council.
Mukhtar says the kids he works with have goals and dreams. They are attracted to technology jobs, nursing or health care — and youth programs: “Many want to give back to other kids.
“Most are humble and very nice kids who want to do good stuff,” he adds.
The goals of Abdi Aziz, Hodan Hashi and thousands of their peers are the same goals shared by generations of new Americans before them. They and their parents desire a safer, more free and abundant life in their new home. In return, they are very likely to take their turn extending a hand to welcome whoever knocks at America’s door next.
Kris Berggren is a Minneapolis writer.