Refugees are people: men, women, old people, young people, teenagers, children, infants.
I typed and retyped the introductory sentence for my post and settled on that one, because apparently there's some controversy about that point. Now I'll move on.
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Mark and I decide yearly where to send our family's charitable donations. The summer's news moved me to look this year into helping and welcoming the families who are being directly resettled here after fleeing the violence in Syria. Of course, there are national and international organizations who could use our money, but I also wondered who, if anyone, was doing that work locally.
Although Gov. Mark Dayton sharply criticized those state governors who refused to accept people from Syria, I discovered, nobody in Minnesota really expects anyone from Syria to be directly resettled here. There isn't an established community. But Minnesota does expect to have welcome an increased number of refugees by the end of 2016. The largest number, as for the last few years, are from Somalia.
I knew this, of course, because I live in South Minneapolis, which is home to one of the largest communities of Somali people outside Somalia itself. The greatest concentration, as well as the most visible cluster of businesses owned by and catering to Somali immigrants, is the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood a bit north of us. But many Somali people live in our neighborhood as well. Yesterday evening, a Tuesday, I was at the YMCA a mile from our house, running around the track that circles the second level of the gym; the gym was crowded, half by badminton players and half by basketball pick-up games, and the basketball side was (I estimate) 90 percent Somali. Mostly young men and teenage boys, but a few little girls in brightly colored hijabs darted in and out, and there were a couple of teenage girls, too, practicing free throws. Much of the signage in the YMCA is printed in English, Spanish, and Somali, and you'll see this in other places too, like on bank machines and sometimes shop windows. In the winter, when everyone else at the bus stop seem to disappear under fluffy parkas, the distinctive skirts and hijab of Somali women still stand out above and below the winter coats, orange and green and turquoise and purple against the snow and the gray pavement.
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We will probably make a donation this year to one or more of the local organizations that work with refugees. (See below* for a list.) In the meantime I realized how very little I know about the community of refugees that already lives all around me. I decided to change that.
I picked up a book published in 2012 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, part of the People of Minnesota series: Somalis in Minnesota by Ahmed Ismail Yusuf. It's less than 70 pages long and well footnoted. The book describes the history of the nation of Somalia, how the fighting started and how its refugee crisis began. It tells how Somalis began to be resettled in the United States in the early 1990s, almost all in the San Diego area, where there was already a small community of ethnic Somalis that had settled there from Ethiopia earlier. But at the time, job prospects in the area were poor.
Minnesota, at the time, had relatively low unemployment. So when the owners of a single poultry plant in Marshall, MN wanted to expand operations from two shifts to three, they advertised in other states, hoping to draw workers with a starting rate of $6.95/hour (forty percent higher than the federal minimum wage at the time) plus benefits. A few young men drove to Minnesota to check it out, an event which Yusuf places neatly in the context of the Somali nomadic tradition, in which a few members of a large group would travel ahead to scout out a new, high-quality living site that would support the community. Those young men were hired immediately; they passed the news to the rest of the community in San Diego; more followed; and that became the cradle of the Minnesota Somali-American community. Once that community had become established, additional refugees from Somalia began to be settled directly in Minnesota.
Yusuf goes on to describe some of the challenges that this first generation of Somali-Americans has had as it integrates into the wider communities of the local public school system, the Twin Cities, and the state of Minnesota. Some of these early difficulties, I remember from the local news (kids fighting at Roosevelt High, some taxicab drivers -- Yusuf calls them "ignorant" -- who wouldn't transport dogs or alcohol from the airport) but that publicity had mostly faded away by the time the situations had been resolved. These conflicts, Yusuf frames optimistically, pointing out that similar conflicts have marked the arrival of many other communities of immigrants who are now well accepted in American society. He argues that the rapid growth of Somali-American businesses and the emergence of political and social leaders in the first generation is evidence that Somalis are doing relatively well, considering that they have been here less than 25 years and face significant cultural and language barriers.
The most serious problem at this time is one that Yusuf treats at some length, and that is the active targeting of Somali boys and young men by paramilitary and terrorist organizations overseas. Not long after I began reading the book, a 20-year-old Somali man injured 10 people in a mass stabbing at a St. Cloud mall before being shot by an off-duty police officer. (As I write this, the nature of the attacker's connection to overseas terrorist organizations has not yet been clearly established.) St. Cloud is 65 miles northwest of here, a much smaller city; earlier this year, a local and widely-read free newspaper proclaimed it "the worst place in Minnesota to be Somali." But dozens of Minneapolis parents have lost sons, some only teenagers, directly to recruitment from an al-Qaeda affiliate organization in the Horn of Africa. One became the first American citizen to commit murder-suicide by bomb in Somalia. The FBI counterterrorism investigation in Minnesota is large and ongoing, and the topic casts a dark shadow.
Still, Yusuf's book is optimistic and informative, and it left me wanting to know more still.
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The next thing I wondered was whether I could learn any of the Somali language. Signs everywhere around here bear phrases of Somali -- some repeat the information on public signage, others are the names of shops and restaurants, still others appear in advertisements. Qoraxey is the name of a home health care agency. Dayax is the name of a grocery store. I couldn't find any online tutorials; neither Duolingo nor Rosetta Stone nor Pimsleur offer courses in Somali. The only textbook I found was kind of expensive, more than I wanted to spend for a brief introduction, so I started with a slim phrasebook and dictionary by Awde, Axmed, and Orwin.
I started at the pronunciation section. Somali has used a Roman alphabet since it was imposed in 1972, which makes it a bit easier on English speakers, but there are some phonemes not found in English.
Got all that?
I did find a helpful video online called "Somali Pronunciation: Just The Tricky Ones." The narrator, who has a British accent, demonstrates how to pronounce the graphemes x, c, kh, r, q, dh, and d/t. I only find c and dh hard, though; the r is just a trill, the kh is the familiar ending of loch and ach! , x is just a throaty h and q just a really-far-back-in-your-throat k. There's a glottal stop too. Nothing complicated. I think I can get the dh with a little practice. The c will take a lot.
(It also left me wondering why the Somali spelling reformers decided to go with the c instead of something else.)
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I've been driving around and noticing signs and looking them up in the dictionary. The Dayax grocery store is named "Moon." The Qoraxey home health care agency appears to be named something like "sun" or "sunrise" (qurax). The Gargar clinic's name means "help," I think -- at least, that's what the dictionary says gargaar means. Clearly I have a lot to learn.
Somali isn't Indo-European -- it is a Cushitic language, which means that it is in the same language family (Afro-Asiatic) as Arabic and ancient Egyptian but on a branch between them. The grammar, therefore, is something entirely foreign to me, but maybe not so foreign as (say) a Sino-Tibetan language would be. But there are words that leap out at me when I go through the dictionary: aadami means human (hello, Adam!), roodhi is bread (must be a cognate of India's roti). Colonialism and technology has left the language with many Western loanwords: capsicum (sweet) peppers are berberooni, which has to be from the Italian peperoni; a physician is a dhakhtar or dhakhtarad; cheese is farmaajo; oven is foorno.
The other day, while I was running around the lake, I practiced the consonants, pronouncing the Somali word for "beautiful" over and over: quruxsan, quruxsan, quruxsan. A soft "k" in the back of the throat, the vowel of "put" twice with a trilled "r" between, then a throaty "hhh-san."
I haven't even started to look at how to put together a sentence, or assign the right endings to nouns and verbs, or differentiate between masculine and feminine nouns (except to delight in the trivia that a masculine singular noun often has a feminine plural, and vice versa). I have to start with words and spellings and pronunciations, and then move on to a little grammar. I know many people would start with "Hello" and "My name is" and "Thank you," but I'm a visual learner and an analytical one; I'm going to try to get an idea of the way sentences are put together first, and how words can vary; and I'm going to remember these things better if I think of the words as things that are spelled and seen rather than spoken and heard. I know, it's not natural-language-learning, but I know myself -- when I hear words in English I see them inside my head, behind my eyes -- and I need the spelled-out words to be the hooks on which I can hang and remember spoken ones.
So this is my tiny side auto-didact project for the fall. I can already tell that I am going to need another book, probably the textbook that I'm now going to be willing to invest in, because the Awde book's grammar section emphasizes the importance of nouns' gender while its dictionary section does not list the gender of the nouns (!). As soon as I can find a Somali-language newspaper in a rack of free publications at the front of a coffee house, I will be snatching one up. And I'll visit the library around the corner, which boasts a small section of Somali-language children's books.
I'm a long way from even saying "hello," but I hope to crawl a little farther along.
*Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis serves refugees through their Reception and Placement program, to which donors can designate donations. The Minnesota Council of Churches provides refugee services as well. ECHO Minnesota provides multilingual broadcast programming and communication. I'm particularly interested in finding out more about the International Institute of Minnesota, which I noticed when I lived near it in graduate school and looked into when I was considering taking Spanish classes myself; they provide immediate resettlement help but also offer job training and ongoing language education.