Somali Muslim students
Part one: Ana
August 8, 2018 | By Gale Cady Williams
She is 27 years old, but her wide-eyed face appears far younger – 20, 21, maybe. The petite Somalian immigrant is perhaps 5 feet 2 inches tall, although it is difficult to make an accurate guess based on the floor-length black abaya she wears. The plain-colored hajib she wears frames her face, emphasizing large brown eyes that are the focal point of a face full of compassion and intelligence. She emanates a calm, gentle poise, and when she speaks, it is in lowered, measured tones. She chooses her words carefully, and self-confidence and determination shine through her shy demeanor. She does not want me to use her name, does not like to talk about herself, and does not want her picture taken. Yet, when pressed, she will tell her story.
The mother of two young girls, Ana [not her real name, at her request] has typically American dreams for them, and for herself. She wants her girls to go to the Columbus School for Girls, a five-star private academy in the nearby state capital. Like many immigrants in this and centuries past, she and her husband live sacrificially to provide this part of the American Dream for their daughters. Her husband, also a native of Somalia, is an accountant. They work hard and live what she calls a good and happy life. After a year of rigorous preliminary study, she has earned entrance into the highly regarded cardiopulmonary sonography program at the local technical college. She dreams of a successful American life for her daughters, possibly in medicine. She’d like for them not to have to work in the restaurant business, which is how her mother survived after their flight from Somalia. She’d like for them not to have to wait on people.
Her family escaped the violent civil war in Somalia in 1990 when she was only a few months old. She relates with surprising calm the story of their journey from Mogadishu to Nairobi, Kenya.
“I was born in1990 during the civil war in Somalia, when in the midst of the war, my mother gave birth to me, her seventh child. We lived in a nice home, living a middle-class life, and my father had a good job. My mother stayed home and took care of us, but that changed when the civil war brought much violence to Mogadishu, where we lived. To keep us safe, my father decided to take us to Nairobi to escape from the war. We were loaded into a big truck with many other people. Before we reached Nairobi, my father was murdered when he left the truck to get milk for me, his infant daughter. Soldiers ordered him to stop, and he was shot. The shot went through his head and he bled out, and instantly our lives changed forever. My mother, who had never worked her whole life, had to take responsibility for seven children and was now a widow.”
After her father was murdered with his wife and children looking on, the family continued on to Nairobi with nothing but the clothes they wore and the grief of their murdered father burdening every step. When she is asked how her mother found the strength to go on to unknown places alone with seven children, she replies that her mother couldn’t think of anything else to do. Behind them lay civil war, violence, and the bloodshed of Mogadishu, with no man to support them in a country whose culture is based on traditional gender roles. Ahead lay the unknown. Knowing that behind them lay almost certain death and more likely starvation, her mother went forward. Ana reflects that her mother was very brave to go on under these circumstances, when it may have seemed safer to return to their home and to her uncles, despite their fear of the consequences. Thus, they persisted, although her mother had never worked in her life, since it was the way of her Muslim people to have the mother stay at home and care for the children and husband, cooking and preparing traditional foods.
“When we arrived in Nairobi, we lived on the streets and were starving,” she says. “Years later, my mother told me she did not think I would survive because I had been without food and drink for five days. She created a way to earn a small amount of money by cooking food in a small oven on the street, which she sent the children out to sell. Eventually my mother encountered a man who helped us get food and opened our way to a refugee camp. When we later came to the refugee camp outside Nairobi, life became somewhat better for us, as we had food and a tent to live in. My mother got a job and signed up for the lottery to go to the United States of America, a country foreign to her, but she took the opportunity she had for the sake of her children. Living the refugee life was different from everything we had known; in our tent, we had no mattresses, so everyone slept on the dirt floor.”
From there, with help from strangers and a lucky placement in the refugee lottery, her family journeyed first to live with an uncle in Minnesota, then to another relative in Michigan, finally landing after six years in an apartment on the outskirts of suburban Westerville, Ohio when she was six years old. She says she hated the weather in both places because “I was always cold,” adding that she’s not sure if the humid weather in Ohio with slightly warmer temperatures makes up for the bitter cold of her previous homes – “it’s either too cold or too hot,” she says with a smile and quiet laugh. Life in Ohio was better; they were placed in a one-bedroom apartment. Despite the fact that
they still slept on the floor when they first arrived, life seemed good: “We had walls and a roof over our heads, and carpet on the floor. This was much better than dirt.”
Ana is driven to sustain her 4.0 average, driven to complete college, driven to be successful in life by American standards. Like many immigrants before her, it seems that every life goal she achieves puts more distance between her and the dirt floors she slept on, near starvation, and the possibility of death on the streets. That will to succeed also drives her to visit the college writing tutoring center where I work, which is where we came together as tutor and student. Over the past two years, we have talked of many things. She was surprised when I asked her questions about her Muslim faith and beliefs, but not offended, and willing and pleased to answer my many questions. I was eager to discover the truth about Islam, not the half-truths and myths in the news. We discussed the similarities in stories and people in the Quran and the Bible, and she pointed out that many Christians do not know that the Moses, Abraham, and Jesus of the Christian Bible all people the landscape of the Quran, as well. I told her about the Bible; she told me about the Quran. I worry for her safety in this world of ever-growing violence and hatred towards all people of color, and towards Muslims. I worry that she may make a target of herself by wearing traditional hajib. I ask her if she would consider wearing American-style clothes to blend in better, but she is quite firm in that response. She says she used to wear her hair uncovered and wear “American clothes” throughout grade- and middle-school, but America’s growing prejudice against Muslims only served to strengthen her faith, spurring her decision while she was in high school in a high-end middle class suburb of Columbus, Ohio to start wearing full hajib, or the full-body layers of coverings that Muslim women wear for modesty.
Things have been more difficult for them in Central Ohio since 9-11, she acknowledges, and more so since the presidential campaign of 2016. The Twin Towers went down when she was just ten years old, when her family had lived in America for nearly ten years. She declines to talk about acts and words directed her family’s way in 2001 and afterwards, preferring to focus on a more hopeful future.
A few weeks ago, I helped her shape a scholarship application, and in that, she wrote:
“I learned from my mother to take whatever life gives and make the most out of it. Education for me means so much more than a degree; it is a way to a better future for my children and me. It is the chance to be the first in my family to be a college graduate, and also my way of thanking my mother for all the sacrifices she has made in order to give me the chance to be here and attend school. Working in healthcare after I earn my degree in cardiopulmonary sonography is something I want to do to help people in any way I can. As a woman who once lived in a refugee camp, had nothing in life, and slept on dirt, I am grateful to now have the chance to do something in my life that can help better my future and my family.”
She is now into the final segment of her college work, happily involved in real-life, hands-on patient care. On a recent visit, she explained with obvious excitement how fascinating and important the work is that she does. She wants to save lives. I tell her that she is exactly the sort of healthcare provider that I want to care for me in a hospital situation: A savior, not just a technician. Someone who pays attention to every detail. Someone who wants to save my life. Because it is quite clear: Ana will be saving lives, because this is where her journey has led.