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Somali woman uses her book to spur unity and understanding

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Stephanie Dickrell
sdickrell@stcloudtimes.com

Fear lives in the gaps between us — the gap between what we know and what we don’t know.

Hudda Ibrahim sees that clearly. As a Somali woman who came to the U.S. 11 years ago, she’s faced a lot of uncertainty. She now hopes to lessen that uncertainty for others, for Somalis and for non-Somalis.

Her new book, “From Somalia to Snow: How Central Minnesota Became Home to Somalis” is one tool she’s using.

In it, she explains elements of Somali culture and Islam that can be confusing to non-Somalis and non-Muslims.

Almost 1,700 Somali refugees settled in the city of St. Cloud between 2002 and March 2017, and that does not count secondary refugees, who come to the area to find work or be with family.

The community hasn’t always welcoming to the newcomers. At local meetings and rallies in the past few years, anti-immigration and anti-resettlement sentiments have flared up, invigorated by the contentious political climate.

But others, like Ibrahim, are trying to bridge that cultural gap and connect local residents with newcomers.

“We appreciate being part of this community. I always tell people this is my home and I’m not going anywhere. And we’re not going anywhere, but we are open to discussion and having a dialogue where we learn from each other,” Ibrahim said. “And really, get rid of this fear of unknown, because that’s the problem. … People think we’re here to do something else. We are not here to convert people.”

Ibrahim has also started a consulting company, where she acts as a cultural navigator and communicator for employers or employees that can’t resolve conflicts. She wants to be the person employers go to for help, because she has the expertise to navigate those problems.

(Photo: Courtesy of Hudda Ibrahim)

“I want to see employers reaching out and partnering with not only me, but organizations that serve the immigrant community or minority community in this town and see where we can bridge that gap,” Ibrahim said.

She can help with recruitment, education, how to have effective communication and relationships.

“I do believe the employers, their intention is not bad, but they just don’t know how to talk to these people,” Ibrahim said.

She sees the damage ignorance and fear can do. In Minnesota, that fear can manifest itself as avoidance, because people are so afraid of offending one another.

Ibrahim hopes the book can give people confidence to get past the “Minnesota Nice” tendency.

“I said stop being Minnesota Nice. … Offend me if you want to. Just ask,” Ibrahim said. “Seriously, who is going to tell these people this is right or this is wrong if they don’t communicate. … People have to open up. It’s OK to offend people.”

In the book she weaves in interviews from 35 Somali people, young and old, who describe their lives, their decisions, their hopes and their dreams.

“The 35 people we interviewed for this book agreed that they love this country and they want their neighbors to know that they’re here to be a part of the fabric, to contribute, whether it’s economically, politically or socially. And that they’re here to be a part of a whole.”

Ibrahim took two years to write the book, from researching and interviewing to transcribing, writing and editing, helped by Abdi Mahad.

To know the Somali community, you need to know about their past. The simple “where are you from” question can elicit a complicated answer. Ibrahim outlines Somali’s history briefly, including the most recent conflict that has raged for more than a decade, displacing hundreds of thousands of Somali people.

One of the major factors in causing misunderstandings is the type of culture each group values. Somalis live in a very collectivist culture. In the U.S., the individual is held above everything else.

So where Americans may try to solve a problem by themselves, individually, the Somali man will solve it with the help of family, friends and members of his clan.


This is what food you’ll find at a traditional Somali meal. Wochit

Basic to complex

Ibrahim answers the basic questions: Everything you wanted to know about Somalis but were afraid to ask.

  • What’s the difference between a refugee and an immigrant?
  • Why did so many Somalis come to Minnesota?
  • Why did so many Somalis come to St. Cloud?
  • What are clans and why do they matter?

Some of the tips are just practical.

  • What foods do they eat and why?
  • How should you greet a Somali or Muslim person of the opposite gender?
  • Why don’t many Somalis make eye contact when they’re speaking with you?
  • Why are so many Somalis and Muslims named Mohammed?

But the book goes beyond that, too. She tries to dispel stereotypes and show that just like any group of people, the Somali community has a range of opinions on every topic.

“There are some issues in the book that we will never agree on,” Mahad said.

Because — and this should be obvious — all Somali people don’t think alike. Some are more traditional, or more conservative. Some have adopted more American values than others.

“It’s human nature,” Mahad said.

“No, we don’t think alike and we don’t do alike,” Ibrahim said.

The differences have caused headaches for Ibrahim. One person on social media chosing to focus on the fact she was wearing pants — something he thought Somali women should not do — than what she was discussing in a video.

It gets more complicated, too.

Ibrahim explains the complex forces that impact the health care choices Somalis make. They may avoid Western medicine because they don’t understand the system or think they can’t afford it. They may rely first on traditional methods of healing, more homeopathic remedies, exhausting those before seeing a Western doctor. They may be shy to explain their health condition through an interpreter who is a family member or person of the opposite sex.

Why can’t they be like us?

Ibrahim also dives into the difference between assimilation and integration. She pictures assimilation as the so-called American melting pot, where individual identities are erased to become part of a whole. She prefers another metaphor.

“Because in the United States, it’s a salad bowl, where everybody can believe whatever they want. At the same time, they’re part of the fabric of the whole. They’re not interested in the melting pot.”

That’s one of the things may Somalis love about America.

“They think what makes American unique is that diversity,” she said. That diversity includes freedom of religion.

“You can believe in whatever god you want to believe. At the same time, who you are can be part of this community and contribute economically, politically, and socially while maintaining some of your values,” Ibrahim said.

For many Somalis, assimilation can feel like they have to give up their Muslim faith.

“They are not interested in leaving their faith. They are not interested in leaving their values and culture,” Ibrahim said

And of course, as with many things, there’s a range of how much Somalis integrate or assimilate. The younger generations are very quickly assimilating.

“They are saying we speak the language, we know how to write, we know how to communicate, but we can’t leave our moms and dads here,” Ibrahim said. “They want to stay in this community and contribute and work at all those companies. But there’s this gap of disconnections.”

At the very least, Somalis need to integrate enough to care for their families.

“We need well-paying professional jobs. We want to be a part of this community. We want affordable housing. … We don’t want to be isolated from the rest of the group,” Ibrahim said.

The degree of a family’s integration is impacted by their time in the country and their socio-economic status.

“These people are new to the country. They are working seven days a week trying to feed their kids, trying to feed their families back home,” Ibrahim said. “But yet they want to be a part of the whole, part of the fabric, part of the community. They, too, want to lead a nice life, a legacy. They want to make differences.”

Some non-Somalis fear the immigrant community because of misunderstanding about Islam, she said.

“Somalis are not interested in converting anyone,” Ibrahim said. “They want to be a part of this community and contribute. They want jobs, they want to take their kids to better schools. They want the kids to go to the same schools that the other non-Somalis are going to. They want them to have the same opportunities other kids have. They really value this community and they appreciate that they’re here. Because, they don’t have to worry about someone coming to their door with a gun or harming them, right.”

The groups have more in common than they think. One man in a Somali culture class Mahad and Ibrahim helped teach said he was only the second generation in his family in the U.S., coming from Europe. His parents were so worried the kids wouldn’t learn the language, their native language wasn’t to be spoken at home.

Some Somali families are the same way, hoping their kids can more easily integrate, Ibrahim said. Others hope to retain whatever Somali culture they can, starting with the language.

The one benefit of English is that it’s fairly universal. Any place you travel, you’re more likely to find someone who speaks English than Somali.

“Some Somali families are saying we need to hold on to our culture, our faith, our religion,” Ibrahim said. “That’s because it’s our values. And they’re passing that on to their children.”

in the book’s postscript, Ibrahim references the attack at Crossroads Center mall in September 2016, a series of stabbings committed by a Somali man.

“This event shocked and disturbed everyone in St. Cloud, including members of the Somali community. Somalis’ hearts went out to the victims of this type of violence, from which they themselves had fled in Somalia.”

But she was heartened to see the community’s response, which, for the most part, was seeking unity, not division. Still, because of this event, the 2016 election and many other events, Ibrahim believes there’s a lot of work to do.

She wants to see more partnership between the Somali and wider community. She wants to see more friendships and relationships that cross cultural and religious boundaries.

She wants to see more Somalis in the professional and leadership jobs in Central Minnesota. She doesn’t want to find herself as the only person of color or only woman on a nonprofit board.

“Who else is going to do it?” Ibrahim said. “So sometimes, yes, it is intimidating, but I know our community is also trying … to help others come along. But we have to meet in the middle, right? That’s what I’m right now actually doing.”

Books

CANADA: Edmonton author aims to boost diversity in children’s book publishing

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EDMONTON—Two years ago Rahma Mohamed’s then four-year-old daughter saw an Elsa costume, complete with blond braids, and pleaded with her mother to buy it so she would look “beautiful.”

That’s when Mohamed decided her kids needed more cultural inspiration than the blond princess from Frozen.

After a year of work, the first-time author published Muhima’s Quest, a children’s book that tells the story of a young African-America Muslim girl who wakes up on her 10th birthday and goes on a journey.

Now, Mohamed’s at work on her second book, which is due out at the end of the month. She’s on a journey of her own, she said, to boost diversity in children’s publishing.

“I wanted to create a character who had African descent and is a Muslim in a children’s book because I just found out that there were none that were available in the mainstream,” she said.

Her books show kids it’s OK to be different, she said. Take her first book: some Muslims don’t celebrate birthdays, she explains, and the little girl in the book struggles with her faith and questions why she doesn’t celebrate like her classmates do.

“The overall message is that we do things differently, but that part is what makes us beautiful,” Mohamed said.

She said she felt it necessary for her kids to see themselves represented in the books they read in order to “enhance their self-confidence, as well as bolster their sense of pride.”

Mohamed, who writes under the pen name Rahma Rodaah, self-published her first book and since last summer, has sold 200 copies locally.

“It does take a lot of resources and you have to self-finance, but I believe in the end it’s worth it,” she said.

She hopes to go bigger with her second book, which focuses on the universal concept of sibling rivalry, and features a young girl who plans on selling her little brother because she believes he is getting all the attention.

“My overall goal is to portray Muslim Africans who are basically a normal family.”

Mohamed says her previous book was well-received by parents at readings she had done at public libraries and schools.

“Most of them who are Muslims really loved that the kids could identify with the characters,” she said.

The books also acted as a conversation starter for non-Muslim families, she said.

She said, for her, the most exciting part of the journey is knowing that she is making a difference in shaping the minds of young Black Muslims.

“We are underrepresented, misunderstood and mostly mischaracterized. It is time we paint a different picture.”

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Two Sisters by Âsne Seierstad review: one father’s hunt for his daughters lured into IS

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Two Sisters is a grimly informative study of how not only societies but families too can be riven and sundered by unquestionable, fanatical belief, says David Sexton

Asne Seierstad made her name with a series of closely reported books set in conflict zones, including her 2002 bestseller, The Bookseller of Kabul, followed by One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, and Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya. Then, in 2015, she turned to events in her own country with One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway.

Her latest bestseller, Two Sisters, is the story of two Somali teenagers, Ayan, 19, and Leila, 16, who, in October 2013, having become radicalised in Oslo, secretly left the family home and made their way to Syria. Their father, Sadiq Juma, followed them three days later, first to Turkey and then into Syria, to try to bring them home. With the help of local fixers he made contact with them but they told him they had not been kidnapped, they had planned it for a year and had done it “100 per cent for Allah’s sake”. They were with Daesh — and Ayan was already married to a Norwegian Eritrean jihadist.

After appealing to a local Islamic court, Sadiq was allowed to meet Ayan again for just four minutes, and then, lured by the promise of another meeting with his daughters, kidnapped by IS, accused of being a spy and beaten and tortured for 13 days in a prison adapted from a sewage plant. Only after he had convinced a sharia prosecutor that he was simply a father looking for his daughters did he somehow manage to escape.

Sadiq returned to his broken family in Oslo, still trying from there to rescue the girls, who did not want to be rescued. Meanwhile, IS set about the creation of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, making Raqqa the capital, taking Tikrit and Mosul, and proclaiming the caliphate in June 2014, soon following up with the release of the horrific beheading videos of Western hostages, starting with James Foley.

Both Ayan and Leila, now herself married to a British Somali jihadist, remained in Raqqa, both having baby daughters. Seierstad’s book, published in Norwegian in 2016, leaves them there. Although the city fell last autumn, they are believed still to be in Syria somewhere.

Seierstad announces her story as a “documentary account”, based always on testimony, whether in the form of extensive interviews with the girls’ family and friends, written records or retrieved texts and emails. She has shaped this enormous amount of material into a quasi-novelistic form, taking the liberty of reconstructing not just conversations but thoughts.

Beginning with the night the sisters ran off and Sadiq’s initial pursuit of them, it then loops back to look at the girls’ upbringing in Norway before returning to take on the story of Sadiq’s misadventures in Syria, all this part evidently based mainly on Sadiq’s own account. Thereafter the book lacks propulsion, since the basic situation alters little, and Seierstad has to rely heavily on the intermittent text and email exchanges the sisters had with their family, including their sceptical brother Ismael, back in Oslo.

Seierstad claims impartiality. “I offer no explanation, neither of what attracted them to Islamic radicalism nor what propelled them out of Norway. I relate my findings. It is up to each reader to draw his or her own conclusions.”

Nevertheless, a short final section, boldly taking “hell is other people” as its epigraph, offers a summary of what the girls sought, and closes with an appalled guess at what the lives of their baby girls will be in the aftermath of the caliphate. “They will discover that hell is here. Hell is us. If they survive.”

Despite attempts to contact them, the sisters did not participate in the book. “Is it ethically defensible to focus on the lives of two girls when they have not granted their consent?” Seierstad asks. “My answer is yes. The entire world is trying to understand the reasons for radicalisation among Muslim youth.”

Her book gives as detailed an explanation as we’ve yet had. It makes it all too clear how helpless to argue against extreme Islamism other believers can be — since the extremists’ appeal is always to the Koran and to Allah, appeals which other believers cannot simply refuse or deny. The sisters’ parents were initially delighted by their strict observance. “It was gratifying that they did not melt too much into Norwegian ways.” Even after they have disappeared into Syria, their mother believes “they just needed to be led back into the path of true Islam”.

Their brother Ismael, meanwhile, lost his faith entirely. He told his fanatical sisters: “I believe in Allah about as much as I believe in the spaghetti monster.” His older sister, Ayan, who believed the caliphate would soon take over the entire world, broke off contact with him first; his younger sister, Leila, followed, after he had told her IS would be defeated.

Two Sisters is a grimly informative study of how not only societies but families too can be riven and sundered by unquestionable, fanatical belief.

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Local children’s book honored for its focus on Somali culture

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REAL CHANGE — Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan declared Feb. 9 “Baro Af-Soomaali Day” during a celebration at the New Holly Gathering Hall honoring the families who created a children’s book for the Somali community. The celebration was the culmination of two years’ work by local Somali families, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) and the Seattle Public Library (SPL).

Over the past few years, organizations working with the Somali community became aware that many families in the community were worried about the loss of the language and culture, and that parents were concerned about their children not being given educational materials that reflected the Somali culture.

The book was a joint effort, involving the Somali Family Safety Taskforce, SPL, SPS and the Seattle Housing Authority. The project also received support from the Seattle Public Library Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a Race to the Top Deep Dive 3 grant from the Puget Sound Educational Service District and the Community Center for Education Results.

Over a four-week period, local Somali artist and poet Mohammed Shidane worked with four families to create “Baro Af-Soomaali.” The families were given a group of Somali letters and asked to select some items from their homes that illustrated the letter. The families decided as a group the layout, the illustrative photographs and the title.

The project allowed the families to explore their culture and language together. The parents and grandparents told stories about their home country of Somalia to their children and grandchildren, and, through the process, the children reported that they were proud to speak Somali.

The families and all the people involved in the creation of the book hope people enjoy reading it as much as they enjoyed making it.

In presenting the proclamation, the mayor cited the many contributions of the Somali community to the city of Seattle. “Somali-American families contribute to all sectors of our society, and we believe in ensuring that our public institution, our schools, our libraries and our community centers are responsive to and reflect the many diverse cultures that make up our city,” she said.

Applewood Books is publishing the book, and Ingram Distribution is helping get the book to libraries and schools across the United States and around the world. The book is currently available on Amazon.com. Royalties go to the Seattle Public Library Foundation and Somali Family Safety Taskforce to fund similar projects in the future.

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