Friday, April 4, 2008

Hanging Around: Somali Americans in Boston

I wrote this because I am starting a new job this coming week, and wanted to look back in preparation.

My new job is in Refugee and Immigrant Health, but not specifically with Somalis. I wanted to thank my coworkers and those who helped me to get involved at the organizations I've been involved in. I learned very much from you.


Jo Hunter Adams

I've been told that one can learn by "hanging around," and my own experience agrees. I owe much of my personal and professional growth to the Somali community in Boston, where I've been hanging around since 2001. I've measured the years by the events in the community—Somali National weeks, the end of bilingual education in Massachusetts, the arrival of Somali Bantus to the state, Somali women's nights, weddings and births. Somali-American perspectives became my lens: on the impact of colonialism and civil war, on the ways history is lived out, on being a "new American", and on being a refugee. The reality of my own growth does not diminish the pain of the civil war that sit at the foundation of the very existence of a Somali "community" in Boston.

My knowledge of Somalia was very limited when I first met Somali children in West Roxbury, Boston. Like many sub-Saharan Africans (and particularly white ones), I didn't know where Northeast Africa fitted in the history of the continent. Why do Northeast Africans look different? Are they still African? Were they colonized too? What did it mean for Africans to be Muslim? I was eighteen, idealistic and excited about what was before me in the United States, and quickly volunteered to tutor Somali youth in a bilingual program. It was a way to get off campus once or twice a week, and stay connected to Africa. But it was an Africa I had never been exposed to before. I began to discover that there are many Africas. My experience as an African didn't bring with it much advantage for understanding other parts of the continent.

My learning began soon after 9/11/2001, and so I caught glimpses of the prejudice that had resulted from 9/11, through the experiences of Somali middle-schoolers. Schoolmates targeted Somali girls particularly—who were usually wearing the hijaab—with taunts and racial slurs. The relevant questions in response were obvious: Why should refugee children, some right out of Dadaab camp, be associated with extremist bombers? Is the hiijaab inevitably a controversial statement?

Just two years later, Governor Mitt Romney signed away bilingual education. Somali children would now be immersed in English. Yet some Somali children weren't just struggling with English. They couldn't sit still because they hadn't been to school before age ten. They were living with families that were not their own. Being a refugee didn't only mean first-hand experience of violence. It meant missed educational opportunities, divided family, convoluted identity, and often, difficult adjustment.

A student once revealed that she wore a headscarf at school only, by her parent's directive, so that she didn't seem irreligious to the other students' parents. Another student said the same thing. These 10-year-olds abided by their parent's decision even when it resulted in significant prejudice against her.
By the time the after-school program faded with the end of the school bilingual program, I had insights as to what it meant to be a "new American". I also had an abiding interest in Northeast Africa. I had begun to work at the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center, a Somali-run community-based organization. I have been involved in this organization for over five years (a long time for a 24-year old).

It's clear that being Somali in 2008 is not always exotic or beautiful. The community can be suffocating or supportive. Not all Somali young people are doing well. I'm not certain that Somalis in Boston are doing better than they were a few years ago. But the Somali organization I work for is certainly much more deeply connected to other "new American" communities than it was in 2003. And if community members are able to reach out to those beyond their horizons, surely they will be able to negotiate more consciously between their Somali and American worlds.

After studying African history, I went on to study Forced Migration in South Africa, and Public Health in Boston. I believe this path was largely because I found an accepting space in the Somali community. This space was the end of white South African guilt, because I knew if I could contribute to one community, I could contribute as an African. Maybe I can even reach out beyond my community and negotiate more consciously between my own South African and American worlds.


3 tomato babies emerged this week, although there were still times when the temp went below freezing (I think). Also, 3 lavender, and there's evidence that a bell pepper seed is seriously considering life.