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History Theatre’s ‘Crack in the Sky’ shows the struggles immigrants face

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Jim Walsh

Last Sunday afternoon, as most of America was fixated on downtown Minneapolis and the Super Bowl, a group of Somali-American and African-American actors quietly milled about the History Theatre stage in downtown St. Paul and talked about the importance of storytelling and their own families’ immigration tales.

It was one of the last rehearsals for “Crack in the Sky,” a new play based on Ahmed Ismail Yusuf’s life story and his 2013 book, “Somalis in Minnesota,” that makes its world premiere Saturday at the History Theatre. And while Yusuf’s story of a young shepherd boy’s journey from Mogadishu to Minneapolis is getting the full theatrical treatment, the focus of the play is on the power of the written word.

“A book can change your life, and teachers are not your enemies; they are your best friends,” said Yusuf, who learned to read and speak English when he came to the United States from Somalia as a high school dropout in the late 1980s. He discovered Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and devoured it over two weeks, using the Somali-English dictionary to translate Angelou’s poetic words about overcoming hardship and seizing the day.

“Ahmed is really interesting, because a lot of Somalia people today travel here to seek refuge in Minneapolis,” said Ashwanti Ford, the actress who plays both Yusuf’s mother and Angelou. “Ahmed moved to the States before all the terror and the war broke out in Somalia. He came here to seek an education, and when he was here the horrible things started happening in his country. So this is taking place in the ‘90s, when he hasn’t seen his family in years or months, versus today, when we can be a Facebook click away from seeing someone.

“He’s inspired by Maya Angelou to write, because he read her books and he said to himself, ‘If she has overcome all of this stuff in America, then I can overcome what I’m going through now and I can write my story.’ So it’s him, coming to America and seeking an education, and learning that he wants to be a writer. Through teachers and family members, he learns that he wants to tell his story, a really significant story that is so empowering, and inspire people to keep pushing forward and remain resilient. When I got the call to audition, I was so excited because I’ve always loved Maya Angelou. My mother was a poet; she has all her books.”

‘So many hoops to go through’
“A Crack in the Sky” is being staged at a time in America when Donald Trump — who disparaged the Somali community in Minnesota when he said, “Everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Minnesota” just before he won the White House — has issued travel bans and made immigration difficult at best.

Ahmed Ismail Yusuf

“The play is not exactly confronting it, but it shows the struggles an immigrant faces,” said Yusuf. “There are so many hoops to go through that maybe a normal American, an ordinary person, might not even notice it. But it is just quite out there for an immigrant. An immigrant is not exactly the leeches that Donald Trump has painted them to be. They are people who are contributing; they are people who are appreciative of the opportunities they have when they are here.”

“I just hope that when people come to our play that they will realize that not everyone decides to wake up one day, pack up their bags and go, ‘OK, I’m going to emigrate. I’m going to leave everything I’ve known my whole life behind,’” said actor Mohammed Sheikh, who portrays the young Yusuf. “Nobody does that. It’s not an easy thing that you can just decide. It’s not a road trip, you know? It’s a decision that can cost you your life, that can cost you identity, that can cost you happiness, that can cost you just about everything.

“And I just hope that when people come, they will realize that regardless of our skin color, regardless of what we believe in, regardless of how we pray, we’re all fighting the same battle, which is to survive to see another day.”

A Somali proverb
“A Crack in the Sky” gets its title from the Somali proverb, “If people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky.” Not only does the play detail Yusuf’s immigration tale, it tells the story of what many Somalians and Somali-Americans have faced coming to America over the last two decades. These days, however, daily headlines about deportation and racism provide a stark background to Yusuf’s mostly joyous tale of coming to America.

“I’m getting something more valuable than any prize” by being part of “A Crack in the Sky,” said Sheikh. “Lessons, motivations, and the determination to succeed as a first-generation immigrant in this beautiful country.”

Mohammed Sheikh

He continued his monologue animatedly, as if writing his own story for the stage.

“I’ve been in the United States for three years, and I’ve worked for six months now. I’m basically going through the roller-coaster right now that the character that I’m playing is going through: sending money back, being here, young in your 20s, having ambitions to accomplish a lot, but at the same time the little that you’re making, or the little that you’re getting, you have to divide it into many portions, you know?

“So my family is back in Africa, my mom and my siblings are back in Africa; my dad is here, so it saves me a lot of the trouble that my character experiences. I haven’t seen my youngest siblings or mom for three years. I want to see them, I want to touch them, I want to be with them, but hey, it is what it is. And that’s exactly the same thing Ahmed has dealt with. There are a lot of scenarios and plot twists that I can relate to.”

Angelou wrote, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible,” and, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Both truths will be brought to life through March 4 at the History Theater, which has been telling immigrant stories for 40 years.

Impact of travel bans
“I was hoping to have my family join me this year, but with the travel bans going on, I might not be able to for two or three years or until Trump leaves office,” said Sheikh. “It has a huge impact, to be honest with you. A lot of us are trying to bring our families over for the sake of giving them a safe sanctuary, for our kids to become someone, to study without worrying about gun violence or the city being overtaken by another militia.

Ashwanti Ford

“Trump is a hateful person, that’s all I have to say. He’s a hateful person and whoever agrees with him or sides with him, I would hope they would evaluate the humanity and look deep within because you can only imagine I haven’t seen my baby sister since she was 5. She turned 7 last month and she’s, ‘When are you going to come visit me? What are you bringing me?’

“She thinks it’s just a bus away or a simple plane ride, but it’s a lot more than that. Now I’m forced to wait until I get my citizenship because with everything that’s going on today. … You know, I’m Muslim, I’m young, I’m black, my country’s on the ban list, my grandmother’s 78 and I haven’t seen her for 17 years. My grandfather’s 91 and I haven’t seen him since I was born; he’s the last grandparent I have from my mother’s side.

“I have my green card, I could go. But my family keeps on telling me, ‘No, you don’t have to do that with everything, the FBI agents, the undercovers, the travel ban, everything, just wait until your citizenship.’ It’s painful, but I have to do it.

“I’m grateful, man. It could have been worse. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before we see another day.”

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Somali-British poet Momtaza Mehri named young people’s laureate for London

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THE GUARDIAN — The 24-year-old Somali-British poet Momtaza Mehri, who has been chosen as the new young people’s laureate for London, is hoping to spend her year in the role convincing young people “to see poetry as part of their every day, rather than in some dusty tome, or academic niche interest”.

Mehri, who has a background in biochemical science and wrote the poetry chapbook sugah. lump. prayer, has been shortlisted for this year’s Brunel African poetry prize and won last year’s Out-Spoken Page poetry prize. As laureate, Mehri hopes to encourage young people to voice their concerns and experiences through poetry.

The poet, from Kilburn in north-west London, was selected for the role by a panel of arts organisations and poets, and is, according to Spread the Word’s chair of trustees Rishi Dastidar, “an inspired choice” and a “poet to watch”.

“For young people to have an artist who is an ambassador for them, who brings their concerns, struggles and joys to those in authority, and the wider world, is vital,” Dastidar said. “Her poetry is precise and powerful, and rich with images that are haunting. She is not afraid to tackle the biggest of subjects, which, combined with her talent, is going to give the role a renewed sense of purpose and visibility.”
Mehri said she was exposed to oral forms of poetry by her family when growing up, but only began writing for publication around four years ago. “Over time I honed, or found, my voice, and that allowed me to feel comfortable, finding the poetic voice I felt was most suited to me. Obviously at the beginning you’re very much inspired by your influences,” she said. “I think the poetry I write is interested in questions or ideas around disruption or movement, whether it’s movement of people or places, movement between different ideas, between how things change over different generations, and in themes of migration and urban spaces.”

During her time in the role, Mehri will be looking to amplify the voices of Londoners aged between 13 and 25, “to let them lead conversations, to be as inspired by them as hopefully they can be inspired by me”. She will work with writer-development agency Spread the Word on youth-focused residencies across London, head a tour to six outer London boroughs, and co-host a special project for young London poets called The Young People’s Poetry Lab.

According to research from the National Literacy Trust, 84% of teachers who participated in a poetry programme for disadvantaged children in London schools over a five-year period said their writing skills had improved.

Outgoing young people’s laureate for London, Caleb Femi, said that “poetry has the potential to play a vital part in self-expression and artistic enjoyment in the lives of young people”.

“We need a dedicated person who can assist in integrating the joys of poetry into the everydayness of young Londoners,” he added. “We are extremely lucky to have a talented and dedicated poet such as Momtaza Mehri appointed as the new young people’s laureate for London. Her tenure is sure to be an extraordinary one.”

Mehri said that she wanted to: “Reach everybody, to allow people to see poetry as part of everyday living in London, and all the different poetry traditions that people bring to London.”

“I am very much aware of the fact that I came out of a very different poetic tradition, and what that’s brought to my writing of the English language. So I want to be aware of the fact that people are carrying different poetic influences, whether they consider themselves poets or not,” she said.

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‘I grew up in a refugee camp, now I’m on the cover of Vogue’

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BELFAST TELEGRAPH — Halima Aden is used to firsts. She was St Cloud, Minnesota’s first Muslim homecoming queen, and St Cloud State University’s first hijab-wearing student senator. She was the first hijab-wearing contestant to compete in Miss Minnesota USA — she wore a burkini in the swimsuit round — and the first to be signed to a major agency, IMG, the industry colossus that also represents Miranda Kerr, Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne.

And last week the 20-year-old became the first hijab-wearing model to appear on the cover of British Vogue. “It’s taken 102 years for there to be a hijabi model on the cover,” Aden says. “People are very proud of this moment.” Indeed, by the time the issue appeared on news stands last Friday, the cover had already gone viral.

Alongside Aden, a Somali model born in a Kenyan refugee camp, appeared other faces rarely seen on the cover of a mainstream, European fashion magazine — the mainstream European fashion magazine — including South Sudanese Adut Akech, Indian Radhika Nair, Korean Yoon Young Bae and mixed-race, plus-size Paloma Elsesser. “I think the cover really was true diversity,” Aden says. “Not a matter of ticking boxes but really people from different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, all thriving in an industry that has brought us together.”

Officially she works in this industry: she has walked Milan Fashion Week catwalks for MaxMara and Alberta Ferretti, and for Yeezy, Kanye West’s fashion line, in New York. She has appeared on the front cover of Vogue Arabia.

Unofficially she is also a full-time ambassador for her faith, and for the hijab. This is inevitable, as Aden observes, matter-of-factly. “I’m the first high-fashion hijab-wearing model. Automatically, I know there are a lot of girls looking at me. I need to be a good role model, a good representative of my faith, a good ambassador to my community.”

Being this in the hyper-visual, exposed and exposing world of fashion does, though, invite scrutiny — from within and outside her community.

Aden admits she recently cleansed her Instagram (where she has 577k followers). “I really wanted to explore a new look,” she explains.

“But I noticed that my younger followers were messaging me and saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t stuff I can wear. You’re the only person in fashion that I can look to, and you’re wearing stuff I can’t wear’. When I noticed that, I was like: ‘OK, it’s true’. I was still covered head to toe but I was trying out shorter dresses with knee-high boots. Those pictures got 60,000 likes but I wanted to stay true to my original followers. There are a million other models who can rock the same outfit but there’s not anyone besides me who can say, ‘I’m going to wear modest fashion’. I owe it to these little girls.”

Aden was born in Kakuma camp, in Kenya, in 1997. “I grew up in a refugee camp — there weren’t really many highlights,” she deadpans.

“I remember having malaria what felt like every other week. I remember scorpion bites and my mum having to apply Colgate toothpaste. It had a cooling effect.” She shrugs off any sense of victimhood. “I remember a lot of good things. When you don’t know ‘the other’, you tend to appreciate life.”

When she was seven her family went in pursuit of this ‘other’ life: Aden, her mother and younger brother were granted refuge in St Louis, Minnesota. “It was such a big deal,” she says. “A lot of Africans have the misconception that in America money grows on trees. But the neighbourhood we were in was very impoverished. You heard gunshots at night. The school I went to didn’t have an English language learners’ programme so I just went to school and listened and went home.”

After six months her mother moved the family to St Cloud on a word of mouth tip. There, teachers “would always help me, after school, during my lunch hour”. Her English is natural, her accent American.

“My mum made this quick call,” says Aden. “’I raised these kids, I went through hell and back for them, and I don’t want to risk them ending up in gangs, or in prison, or not getting a proper education’. It was really brave. African mums — I’m telling you,” she laughs.

Being crowned her school’s homecoming queen was “a big deal”.

“I’d never seen kids who are Muslim up for that, so I didn’t even think it was a possibility.”

And indeed, symbolically, it resonates: a prom is the gala event for the all-American teen experience, and she is a young Somali-American wearing a hijab.

She’s diplomatic about racial politics in contemporary, supercharged America. “Because Muslims are such a small number — one per cent in America — a lot of Americans never get to interact personally with a Muslim person.

“If you see horrible stories day in and day out on TV, you’re going to have this deep psychological fear of Muslims. It’s not right but that’s the hardest thing to show people — we’re not all the same. But fear is also human nature.”

She entered Miss Minnesota USA partly because there were scholarships up for grabs, but: “I also wanted to show other women in my home state that I didn’t conform in order to fit in. I wore a bathing suit — but it was a burkini.”

What happened next is one of those star-crossed fashion coincidences: Carine Roitfeld, former French Vogue editor, saw the pictures of her at Miss Minnesota USA and asked her to appear on the cover of CR Fashion Book, her new project and an influential countercultural industry tome. Roitfeld’s endorsement led to the IMG contract, which led to everything else.

Still, Aden was “shocked” to get the call from British Vogue editor Edward Enninful. “I met him at the British Fashion Awards in December. He was like: ‘I know we’re going to work together’. But I never imagined it being a cover story.”

For her portrait inside the magazine, Halima’s aesthetic is arch fashion: she slouches and pouts, staring down the camera in a mohair cape and woollen trousers — both Dior — and Altuzarra cowboy boots. She says it is “one of the biggest blessings that has come in my career” — though her favourite moment of the two-day shoot was off-set, shooting the breeze with fellow cover star Adut Akech.

It transpired the pair had been born in the same refugee camp. “We had a moment like The Parent Trap: ‘How old are you? What do your parents look like?’ And it was our first time meeting. Just imagine — these two girls from this camp, reunited for the first time on the cover of British Vogue. I can’t make that up.”

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