I have a new class of English language students. Ten from Somalia, three from Mexico, and two from Togo, all mothers of young children.
I like to get some background on my students, and so, on the first day I handed out a brief questionnaire. It asked how long they had studied English and how many years of education they’d received, both in their country and here in the U.S.
My Somali students hesitated on the years of education question. Instead of writing anything, Halima, with huge, expressive eyes and a big smile, told me, “Well, my brother taught me the Somali alphabet.”
“Okay,” I replied. “And what else? How about school?”
Ayan, my youngest student, nodded at this and wrote a zero down on her paper. Fatima did the same.
I collected the questionnaires in a funk, wondering how I was going to teach students who were so different from me.
Minnesotans have expressed negative feelings toward Somalis. Some years ago, it was reported that several Somali taxi drivers complained about Minnesotans returning from vacation with bottles of liquor; they didn’t wish to transport alcohol in their cabs. This caused an uproar. A small number of Minnesota Somali youths have returned or tried to return to Somalia to rejoin the war there, in violation of U.S. laws. Some people find the hijab annoying. These negatives are counterbalanced somewhat by news that several Minnesota Somalis have become community and state leaders.
Later in the class period, we were going over comparative words like “better,” “smarter,” “stronger,” etc. The words “nice” and “nicer” came up, and then the phrase, “Minnesota Nice.”
“Do you know what that means?” I asked. They didn’t. I explained that it refers to how Minnesotans usually present a calm, pleasant demeanor, but might be hiding negative sentiments. And that Minnesotans tend not to go out of their way to make new friendships. Both are generalizations.
Halima raised her hand. “Teacher, we are supposed to get to know our neighbors, but my neighbors close their doors and I don’t see them. So I don’t know them at all.”
“Are your neighbors Somali?” I asked. I was picturing all of Minnesota’s 20,000 plus Somalis living together in the same apartment complexes.
“No,” she replied. “There are only two Somali families in my building. We want to know the people living near us,” she went on. “Because if they’re in trouble, we have to help. If they don’t have enough money, we have to offer it to them.”
Ayan interrupted, “Our religion says we have to do this.” The others murmured their agreement. Clearly this issue was bothering them.
“Well,” I said, “if you see someone in your building and they look sad, you could say, ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘Are you okay?’ That would be good.”
My students nodded, but my answer didn’t satisfy them. They weren’t talking about visual clues. They were completely unfamiliar with the people next door to them and had no idea if problems existed. “In Somalia, everyone knows their neighbors,” Fatima told me. “We all help each other.”
I observed these same kinds of generous impulses during my years in Yemen and Turkey. And also the openness. Here I was, a brand new teacher, and my students were already asking me for help with a problem. Help, I realized, in dealing with “my” people.
“I can’t just go and knock on my neighbor’s door,” Halima continued. “They might not want to meet me.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, trying to think on my feet. It occurred to me that perhaps new State Representative, Ilhan Omer, and Minneapolis Council member, Abdi Warsame, are also trying to help their neighbors, but are doing it in a more formal, indirect Minnesota way. But what about my students?
“I know. What if you made some sambusas [little fried meat and vegetable pies], maybe for a holiday, and brought some of them to your neighbors. Would that help?”
Halima thought for a moment and then nodded.
“You know, we Americans are really hungry,” I quipped. But really, I felt touched. My new students are amazing! How sad that hijabs and headlines are so much more visible than hospitality.