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‘Warehoused’ film tells Minnesota Somali family’s story of separation, struggle

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WILLMAR, Minn. — Imagine living in a one- or two-room house made of mud bricks. The bricks are a terra cotta color, as is the dust that rises from the dirt path outside your door.

Your closest neighbor probably lives only feet away in a community of a half million people, smashed into an area originally intended for 90,000.

There’s never enough to eat, and, sometimes, the little basic food you have is the currency used to obtain “luxuries” like tea, or underwear. You’d like to have a job but that isn’t allowed.

Your entire family may be with you, or just a part of it. Or, you may be alone, with no family members nearby.

If you are a boy, you have a 50-50 chance of attending a primary school, about a 20 percent chance of going on to secondary school. The numbers for girls are much lower.

That is life in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. The name symbolizes several sprawling refugee camps that surround the Kenyan city of Dadaab. It is one of many such refugee camps that have developed in Kenya, Ethiopia and other countries during the 25 years of Somali civil war.

Now, contrast that with Willmar, with its quiet streets and green, leafy trees swaying in the breeze next to a lake reflecting a blue sky.

These are the two main settings in the newly released documentary film “Warehoused.”

The film follows the struggles of the Mohamed family from their arrival at Dadaab through the years it took to make their way to the United States and finally to Willmar. Much of the story is told through the voice of elder son Liban Mohamed and his brother Abdihalim. Liban Mohamed had to stay behind when his mother, brother and sister were resettled in America. Abdihalim Mohamed is a graduate of Willmar Senior High School.

Through the story of this one family, the filmmakers hoped to illustrate the plight of millions of people who have been forced to flee their homes because of civil war, genocide, famine or other situations beyond their control.

The film premiered worldwide June 20 on World Refugee Day. A free showing at the Willmar Education and Arts Center drew more than 600 people to the auditorium. The crowd shared in traditional food from the Somali Star restaurant afterward.

In the film, experts describe the living conditions of the camps and the various organizations that work with the United Nations to provide for them. The U.N. provides food and clothing, but refugees accepting food are not allowed to work.

The title, “Warehoused,” refers to people who have been in the camps for as many as 25 years, many with little hope of ever being resettled. Less than 1 percent of Dadaab’s residents are resettled each year. In some families, generations have been born in the camps.

Liban was prevented from leaving with his family because they had started the intensive refugee screening process while he was out of the camp.

Still a young boy, he sneaked away from the camp after his father’s death with a plan to get a job and support the family. Instead, he was enslaved for months in Nairobi, washing dishes in a hotel kitchen he couldn’t leave. When he escaped and returned, he was not allowed to join his family after missing the initial interview. He waited more than eight years to join his family in Willmar.

In the film, Liban often spoke of joining his family in America and getting a job to help support them. It finally happened, and the film shows the family welcoming him at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and closes with Liban gazing at a clear Willmar lake.

The crowd gave the movie sustained applause, and many people said they found it interesting, informative and moving.

“We enjoyed it a lot,” said Sheldon Groff, a retired missionary who used to serve in Bolivia. “It gives us a better understanding.”

For Nagi Abdullahi, a Somali immigrant who works as a cultural liaison for the Willmar Public Schools, watching the movie brought back some difficult memories. While she never lived in Dadaab, she does recall her family fleeing to Ethiopia and not having enough to eat, she said. The story of family separation made her think of her own mother still in Africa.

She spoke of the culture shock and her surprise at the cold weather when she arrived, she said, but she concluded, “We are in one of the greatest countries in the world.”

People come out to see “Warehoused” on June 20, at the Willmar Education and Arts Center in Willmar. The documentary about refugees was screened at the WEAC auditorium on World Refugee Day. (Briana Sanchez / Forum News Service)

Abdullahi’s friend KerriAnn Mahon said she appreciated the movie but had found it difficult to watch Abdullahi “knowing how much she misses her mother.”

Mahon, a pediatrician, said, “I think Willmar is such a remarkable place,” with ethnic businesses and schools where students from different cultures are friends.

“This is how it can work,” she said.

Willmar Vision 2040 plans to show the film at least four more times. The times and dates are still to be determined.

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‘For My Ayeeyo’: Two young women learn Somali poetry from a distance

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Somalia is often called a land of poets, a place where everything from teenage romance to legal disputes has been recorded and passed down through poems. As conflict and drought have driven hundreds of thousands of Somalis from that homeland, the poetry has travelled with them. But here in the U.S., Somali-American poets must find new words and metaphors to describe their new environment.

Hamdi Mohamed

Amal Hussein and Hamdi Mohamed have a lot in common. Both were born in Kenya, where their parents had fled as refugees, and both came to Boston when they were just a few years old. They’re both 23 years old, they’re both poets — and equally important for this story — both their grandmothers are poets. This video shows a style of Somali poetry called gabay that both their grandmothers perform. As you can hear, the poem is as musical as it is lyrical.

But there’s one crucial difference in the two women’s stories. Hamdi grew up with her ayeeyo (grandmother) in the house, whispering poems in her ears. Amal has only known her ayeeyo on the phone — she stayed behind in Somalia when the rest of the family fled. Nevertheless, it is the distant words and stories of her grandmother that inspire Amal to take on the challenge of writing her own gabay.

Amal Hussein

From the Poet’s Notebook

In the story, we hear excerpts of several poems. Here is the full text for two of them, both written by Hamdi Mohamed. The first is written for her grandmother — “ayeeyo” in Somali — who lived for many years with Hamdi’s family in Boston, but has since returned to East Africa. The second is about water, and the fact that in Boston, people are quick to complain about the rain, even as Somalia endures years of drought.

For My Ayeeyo
by Hamdi Mohamed

Worn brown hands claps black prayer beads
A golden chest, a haven for dust
And memories
You whisper behind a veil
Wrapping proverbs like gifts
It is the festival of ‘Eid

I sat between your brown thighs
You twisted my thick hair
Into rows
To remind you of home, you say
You miss weaving baskets
For the harvest
The way the rain smelled like perfume
And clung to the skin like fresh honey
You say Hamdi, our skin and bones
Always know where they came from
Don’t forget you kin

Your eyes are pearls
Molten silver
Even the cataracts
Can’t subtract from you

At the airport
My hands crushed yours
I was the spoiled child
In every supermarket
Crying for something I couldn’t have

Still you didn’t scold me and
Shushed my mother
You were the strong oak tree
Under whose leaves I sought refuge in
It is winter now,
The leaves are almost gone
The rest are brown and worn
I wish they would stay

I feel heavy Ayeeyo
When we speak on the telephone
My memories of your hands are fading
Henna we used to wear black and red
Now gone
Make a prayer Ayeeyo,
With your black prayer beads,
God is closer to you than I

I am coming soon Ayeeyo
Listen for my skin and bones
They always know
Where they came from

Lifeblood
by Hamdi Mohamed

I watch as the raindrops glaze off
Rain clothes, rain boots stomp out the water
Collective indifference
No one listens
To the sounds of rebirth
As the rain makes a new earth
Flowers gather dew like diamonds
The hushed silence
Between the pitter patter of rain
This sound is sweeter than any music
The fluid movements bringing
Grass and tulips

Back home,
Trees wither and wisp away
Bones protruding
Shepherds wailing for the rain
I can’t complain of water
The taste of hunger is much sharper
When lives depend on the grass
When lives depend on the herd
It’s absurd
My people carry weak collars,
bony hands clutching
Blood soaked dollars

How much is water worth?
How much would you pay for wet dirt?
Oil rainbows on sidewalks
The sound of rain on your rooftop?
How much is life worth?
Can you gather your lifeblood in your hands?
Watch as the heartbeats devolve, deteriorate into dust
How much water will be brushed away?
Like it ain’t the fabric of our bodies
Like it ain’t the fuel of our cells
Like water ain’t worth a damn thing anymore

I pray for months of monsoons
For hailstorm of water droplets
Soaking into the earth
Soaking onto their faces
May god grace us
With rain

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Kenyan-Somali, black, Muslim and Canadian: new doc explores Canada’s hyphenated identities

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Short documentary ‘Hyphen-Nation’ by 22-year-old Torontonian puts five black women in conversation

A new documentary by a 22-year-old Toronto filmmaker is analyzing what is means to be an immigrant in Canada.

Directed and produced by Samah Ali, Hyphen-Nation features a 14-minute conversation between five women of colour that is inspired by her own cultural experience.

The women discuss how their cultural heritage influences their identities as Canadians and immigrants.

“The whole conversation is what’s your hyphen?” explained Ali, calling her debut film a “nuanced” discussion about what black Canadian identities look like.

“And that’s what opens it up to so many people to identify with because whether it’s themselves or their family members who have an immigration story, everybody typically has a hyphen.”

The women are asked if they identify with being black Canadians.

Ali explains this is both liberating and tragic. She identifies as a Kenyan-Somali woman, along with a Muslim woman and a black woman.

“I don’t know if I identify strongly as a Canadian, but definitely when I leave Canada I identify as a Canadian,” she said despite being born and raised in Toronto.

“The other parts of my identity, the ones that are more visible, the ones that I practice everyday are definitely the ones that are on the forefront of my mind. Compared to my Canadianness, it’s something that I’m not really aware of until I have my passport and I’m travelling to other countries.”
Sojin Chun, programmer for Regent Park Film Festival, says the short documentary captures the theme of the festival.

“We really want to show different narratives that you wouldn’t normally see through other means, through the mainstream media,” she said.

The three day event is free and showcases the work of women of colour which reflects Toronto’s east end neighbourhood.

“We really make sure we represent all the cultures that are present in Regent Park,” said Chun.

Ali explains this is why she wanted Hyphen-Nation to premiere at the film festival.

“I want this film to foster a greater community, not only in Canada, but also worldwide.”

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Arts & Culture

The Othering of Neighbourhoods by Mustafa Ahmed (Walrus Talks)

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