A crowd of around 70 Richfield and other area citizens silently listened Thursday to Abdimalik Mohamed Askar tell his story of growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya, unable to return to his homeland of Somalia due to the ongoing civil war that has so far killed between 350,000 and one million people since 1991.
Explaining the plight of many Somalis who are now living in Minnesota, many of whom are known by their head coverings and modest clothing, Askar said that in a refugee camp you loose everything, leaving only your belief in God intact.
“The only thing you go back to is religion,” he recalled from his time in the refugee camp.
While his mother and friends went to a separate refugee camp in Ethiopia, Askar was brought as a young teenager to the Liboya camp. There, he connected with the Red Cross, which helped him finally come to the United States.
“I was lucky—it was only two years that I was stuck in this camp,” he said.
Coming to America
Askar said the transition of being forced to leave your native home to come to a completely different county—one with towering skyscrapers and functioning bus systems—left many Somalis bewildered and shaped the way the East African community would interact with Americans.
For example, Askar said, Somali people are generally coming from a very shy culture, and may feel uncomfortable saying what they want or need outright. Instead, they tend to talk around a situation for a while before finally asking for what they need.
In addition, Somali people are more inclined to ask each other for help, rather than regular American citizens. That’s why Somali people will take other Somali’s—many of whom have no familial connection—into their homes until they find adequate housing.
“You don’t see a lot of Somali’s in the shelter because they take care of each other,” Askar explained.
Unfortunately, this has created problems in many apartment complexes that house a large number of Somali people. In the Cedar-Riverside area, which is known for housing mostly immigrants and refugees, some families are forced to cram many children, grandparents, and friends into small apartments, sometimes violating the law.
There were a number of Minnesota apartment owners that voiced their concern over this practice during the event Thursday. Askar explained that in Somalia, people tend to have large families, with many generations living under one roof. That compounded with taking in friends or others needing shelter, housing can become an issue.
Multiple Wives, Religion and Education
“When your brother dies and he has three children,” Askar said. “You need to support those three children. You need to marry that wife and then you have two wives.”
Some in the crowd seemed upset by this practice, as they said they believed children were being neglected by having such large families.
Other concerns that arose during the event were prayer times—Somali’s tend to pray during certain times of the day, sometimes conflicting with Western clocks and calendars.
A number of education professionals in attendance also said they were upset many of their Somali students were falling behind in classes. At times, these educators think this is because parents weren’t attending meetings or encouraging homework completion.
Askar had a number of thoughts on these issues, particularly, that East African cultures tend to emphasize recitation and memorization rather then critical thinking in their work. Students can become frustrated when they have memorized their homework, but can’t truly understand or explain what they’ve completed.
While Askar addressed heavy topics, he also took some time to joke with the crowd.
“The letters, P,V and Z don’t exist in Somali language,” he said. “So people become confused when one says, ‘I’m taking a ride in my fan,’ when they really meant, 'I’m taking a ride in my van.'"