This story has a little bit of language and a lot of heart. Tricia, a Spanish teacher in Minnesota, and I collaborated on this story as well. Tricia, thank you for trusting me with your story.
It was the end of May. It was a long, but good school year and I was looking forward to the carefree summer days…waking a little bit later, time at the splash pad, playing with my boys in the yard... My daydream was interrupted, however, with an email from my school’s dean informing me that my lunch duty was changing. I was no longer going to be supervising in the cafeteria, but rather supervising students in the den who were fasting.
Ramadan was already in full swing, per the Islamic calendar. It was a time of the school year that created some challenges, both scheduling and otherwise. As a courtesy to our Muslim students, most of whom are of Somali descent, our school provides a space for them in the library to meet together during lunch time so they can observe the fasting that is the major tenet of the month-long celebration without having to be around the food in the cafeteria. Fasting from sunup to sundown is a challenge when the days are short during our cold, Minnesotan winters, but it becomes almost unfathomable when the days are as long as they are during this time of year, and when the temperature creeps up. The fasting is complete: no food or water during the time between dawn and dusk. I watch how middle schoolers typically devour their lunches, so I can only imagine how the Muslim students must fare during this month.
As I thought about my oreos and leftover homemade Mac and cheese waiting for me during my own lunch, I considered those kids who would have to wait until after 7PM to break their fast. I also thought about how surly some of them could be - even without fasting - and I started to dread the next 30 minutes. Still, I steeled myself and opened the door to the media center, where they came to fast.
At first I saw Yuunis, an 8th grader born to Somali parents who were relocated here in the mid 1990s following the civil war in their country. Yuunis had always been tall for his age, making him even more of a presence than his sagging pants and hallway swagger. But now, at almost 14, he towered over everyone in the school at 6’5”. It was difficult sometimes to remember that he was still a kid.
Yuunis sat with two of his friends, Hamza and Ayoub. They were joking and talking about things that middle school boys talk about: video games and sports. They were laughing and carrying on, but Yuunis kept his eye on me the whole time. For reasons not quite clear to me, he had learned to be leery of women in general, and especially, of white women in particular. I was both. I tried to give him a smile, but he was having none of it. I sighed, this was going to be a long month, and at the end of the school year, no less.
Then, in an instant, I decided to change tack. “I’m a language teacher. All day long I use language to connect with students, I teach my kids the value of being able to communicate with someone in their own language.” I said to myself, “It’s time to practice what I preach!” I was going to see if I could do the same with Yuunis and his pals.
That first day in the library, I approached the boys and began a conversation. I asked them to teach me phrases in Somali. I knew one already, “I love you, baby,” which I learned at the Festival of Nations on a school field trip earlier in the year. Very proud of myself, I showed them my skills with that one phrase, and thus began what became a daily session of the boys teaching me more phrases in their language. We all had a great time - they for being the teachers and I for learning something new. The fact that they were better behaved as a result? Bonus!
My favorite phrase became, “I swear to god, I am going to beat you up!” In Somali, it sounds like this... waa la hee waa cu dee lah. The sounds didn’t roll off my tongue easily at first, but with practice, I got the hang of it. I then started taking those unfamiliar-to-me sounds into the hallways during passing time to elicit reactions from the Somali students. As I always said it with a huge smile, it was fun and rewarding to interact with the students, who ended up laughing pretty hard when they heard the phrase. Were they laughing at the meaning or at my pronunciation? I didn’t care, and it really didn’t matter. The connection was made.
Then, one evening I was able to test my skills in a more real-life (read: out of school situation). Two Somali men came to my house to look at my minivan for sale. They test drove it, liked it, and then tried to offer me a price considerably less than what I was asking. Without missing a beat I looked at them, and fired off - again, with a smile - “waa la hee waa cu dee lah!” You could have picked up their jaws off the ground. They were impressed that I knew a little something in their language, and they, too, were all smiles. I then shared with them my entire body of knowledge of Somali, gleaned from my lessons in the library with Yuunis and his friends. In the end, the men didn’t buy my minivan, but they did call me their “sister” and seemed to feel so much more comfortable with me after I joked around with them in their language.
The story continued the next day. At lunchtime I pulled aside the boys who had been teaching me for the previous week. They thought I was about to yell at them for their behavior. Imagine their surprise, then, when I told them the story of my experience with the men wishing to buy my vehicle. At that moment, I thanked them sincerely for teaching me their language, as they had given me a gift. I will never forget the look on their faces. Typically these boys were getting into all sorts of trouble with adult, white women, but this time, they were being thanked by one. It was a meaningful moment - for all of us.
Our interactions continued. And they became more positive each time. The boys began saying hello to me in the hallway and smiling like only they can: hugely and happily. Yuunis, who might have been used to being seen as intimidating and cranky, seemed to have softened a little. He is still very tall (of course!), but grins like a little boy when he walks past my room and says hello back to me with a distinct lack of surliness; an attitude different than the one he presents to others.
Toward the end of the first week, the Somali girls started getting in on the act, as well. For the first few days, they observed my interactions with the boys and must have decided that they, too, wanted to take on the role of teachers. Amiira and Nasro, in beautiful hijab, pulled me aside one day and asked if they could teach me some phrases in Somali, too.
“I would love that,” I said to them. “I guess you heard me talking to the boys. I’m having a good time learning your language. It’s hard for me, but I love the way it sounds.”
Amiira wanted to be the teacher first, “I am going to teach you how to say, ‘Hello’”. Then, she repeated the phrase over and over, carefully enunciating the syllables so I would say it right. Nasro helped me, too. Saying the phrase repeatedly, only a bit quieter.
“Salam a lay koom,” I said. And both girls grinned. No, really, they beamed. The pride, both for having been allowed to be the teachers and for someone showing interest in their language, their culture, in them. Nasro responded to me with “Waa a lay koom salam.” I asked her what that meant. She said, “It’s like a way of saying I receive your welcome and hello.”
“Well, that’s beautiful!” I replied. “I love how your language is so responsive to what has been said. In our language, we say ‘Hello’, and someone says ‘hello’ back. I like the way your language does it better. It seems beautiful to me to think of someone saying hello, and someone saying back that they received the hello and acknowledge feeling welcomed.” The girls faces lit up. They weren’t used to being complimented on their language.
“I can’t wait to practice my Somali skills on more people!” I exclaimed. Then I asked them to tell me more about Ramadan ending and what they do to celebrate. For ten minutes they regaled me with stories about what they eat, where they go, what they wear, who they see, etc. They taught me to say “Eid Mubarek” which is like saying “Happy Eid”. They then told me that on June 14, they’ll be celebrating the end of Ramadan at Mall of America, along with hundreds of other Somalis. Their faces brightened with an idea, “You should totally come to the MOA that day! You could meet our families and practice your Somali!” They gave me their phone numbers with the plan that I would text them on June 14 when I got to the MOA to find them.
“People won’t believe it when they hear you speaking Somali!” They exclaimed.
“Why not?” I asked.
“No one from Minnesota wants to learn our language.” Whether that statement was true or not, it was their very real perception. And with that statement, I finally understood. Here were people who had been displaced from their country. Put into a foreign land with unfamiliar language, customs, weather, food, and clothing. And while we were looking at them thinking how lucky they were to leave their refugee camps, and judging them for all the government aid they were receiving, and wondering why they weren’t more grateful - they were feeling unwelcome, unaccepted, and unknown. While the Minnesotans were doing their best to be welcoming with financial aid and resources, our lack of trying to understand their culture and trying to learn their language was speaking so much louder. No wonder these young ladies and young men were so happy that I was learning a few phrases of their language - I was the first to try. So “saad tah hai” was a much bigger statement than simply, “Hello.” It was really saying, “Hello there human being, you’re worthwhile, your language is worthwhile, your customs are worth learning about, and yes, I SEE YOU.”
The end of school seems interminable, and this year has been no exception, but what I imagined would be a challenging supervisory duty has actually become a highlight of my day. Yuunis, Amiira and Nasro and the rest of the kids in the media center, while they’re still overly chatty middle schoolers, seem to have found a new groove - one that allows them to be themselves just a little bit more.
The end of that first week, though, was simply the best. Amiira and Nasro walked into the media center during lunchtime and greeted me with “Buenos días.” My own jaw must have hit the floor when I heard them, because without missing a beat, Amiira said, “If you can learn our language, we can learn yours.” As a Spanish teacher, I thought about my relationship to that language, which was not in fact my own - at least not originally - and how much I love it just the same. It is a language that has opened so many doors for me and for my own children, and has allowed for so many human connections. I then think about how the few phrases of Somali and how they have helped with those very same connections, and I, too, smile.