Pirates, Sexists, Terrorists: Is this all there is there to know about Somalis?

Who are they? Can you tell just by looking?
Who are they? Can you tell just by looking?

I’m exhausted by hearing the same questions and answers about the Somali community over and over, as if they only contribute sexists and terrorists.

A few weeks ago I went to a talk by a local Somali community organizer, who helps with women’s health. During the question and answer time, the well-educated, well-intentioned audience asked two questions:

  1. How is the Somali community reacting to terrorist recruitment?
  2. Do Somalis treat their sons and daughters the same?

Right on script.

When I write a blog post and look for related articles, all that I can find concern terrorism and occasionally piracy. I see the top three articles right now are,

  • “Somalia – News website editor gunned down in Mogadishu
  • “Minneapolis: 3rd of 8 Muslims who plotted in mosques to join ISIS to plead guilty,” and
  • “News website editor gunned down in Mogadishu.”

I thought I saw a different sort of story, about “building community reslience,” and then discovered it was an anti-radicalization, anti-terrorism grant from the US Justice Department. Even the good news is about terrorism.

I read about how many Somalis are on welfare in Minnesota.

Many people like the refrain of how Somalis “refuse” to assimilate to US culture. They’ve repeated for eight years the story of Somali taxi drivers who refused to transport passengers with alcohol or dogs. I also hear the trope of the Somali cashiers who won’t handle pork products.

When I look up popular Somali musicians or artists in the English-language press, I find that we only know one: K’naan. (Better than nothing, right?)

So here is a “typical Somali” based on what I read in the media:

  • pirate/thief
  • potential terrorist
  • sexist
  • unproductive
  • repudiators of American culture
  • without contribution to arts and culture

Is that really it?

Since I started learning the Somali language in the Twin Cities, I cannot avoid a big lesson in the complexities of the Somali community and culture, both here in Minnesota and in the history of Somali culture.

In order to find public places to practice my language, I am able to frequent the many Somali businesses around town. I learned that so many Somalis are successful entrepreneurs thanks to their tight-knit community and strong beliefs.

Googling “Somali” reveals “a nation of poets.” When I went to the internet to learn more about Somali language, the Somali people‘s deep love of poetry contstantly confronted me. This language has poetry that has lived longer than its written alphabet. The American Somali poet, Hersi and the Canadian poet, Boonaa Mohammad write and perform profound poetry in English. The great Somali poet, Hadraawi, creates fantastic poetry in the Somali language, which you can find in English translation.

Any overture I have made in the Somali language has been met with kindness. I can’t speak to the entire culture, but I have never personally experienced prejudice, discrimination, or even ill-will from Somalis. When I have been the only white person in a Somali cafe, or sitting next to Somali folks on public transportation, Somalis have been nothing but generous and open with me, chatting in Somali and English. When I visited the local mosque for a funeral in the Somali community, I felt fellowship with everyone.

Where can I find more articles about Somali artistic endeavors? Where can I learn more about the Somali community’s strong faith, which shuns interest and so encourages generous lending to one another? Where can I read about the generosity and solidarity among Somalis as they fight the tension that tears communities apart? Who writes about the strong Somali abbee, engaged in their children’s education, and the powerful hooyo, helping their family navigate the diaspora without forgetting their ancestors’ home?

Without the Somali language, I cannot know my Somali brothers and sisters, but I only know the caricature the Western media present me, and the tired tropes that turn them into villains.

With the Somali language, I discover how much I have in common among the members of my community, and how much I have to learn.

How has language changed the narrative for you?

Photo credit: erlin1 / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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9 thoughts on “Pirates, Sexists, Terrorists: Is this all there is there to know about Somalis?

  1. Thanks so much for writing this. I interact with Somali families on a daily basis as a tutor and the parents often talk to me about the “perceptions” (or should I say “miss-perceptions) of their children and themselves because of stereotyping by the broader society. All I can say is represented by a Somali proverb which says, “Nin aan dhul marin dhaayo ma leh.” or “Nimaan dhul marin dhaayo malaha.” roughly means “The person who has not traveled has no insight.” While it is a good thing to travel (literally) and it certainly can give you opportunity for insight and perspective, I am talking more about an attitude and intentionality towards learning about others (which takes some effort) as important for a whole picture of who people are – especially those we consider “different” from ourselves. The big problem is that very few Americans really ever get to know any Somalis as people in different life contexts, including work, home and school.
    Here are a couple of links to articles I really like about the Somali family and its strengths: http://www.brycs.org/documents/upload/SomaliFamilyStrengthReport.pdf This one is kind of centered around an English translation of the Somali proverb: “Ilko wadajir bay wax ku gooyaan.” which they translate as: “Together the teeth can cut.” but it may be a bit better translated as: “The teeth working together can cut something.”
    The other one is in a book called: “Strong Families Around the World” and the chapter is called: “Strengths in Somali Families” by Hawa Ibrahim A. Koshen (pp.71-99) (unfortunately I have not yet found the article as a PDF on the web but you may be able to find the book in a library near you or you could purchase for about $5+shipping from Amazon.com as I did recently) at: http://www.amazon.com/Strong-Families-Around-World-Strengths-Based/dp/0789036045
    I really like this article because she includes a lot of Somali proverbs to make her points about the Somali family and its strengths and weaknesses. Hope these are helpful to you and once again thank you for asking this question and raising this issue.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. I think it’s a little different for an outside woman to express interest in Somali culture and language. Not that it actually would be, but that we perceive it would be, thus my half of the population is already “thanks but no thanks” when it comes to looking beyond the stereotypes. I think a lot of women automatically feel it’s too unrelatable or that Somali culture doesn’t empower females (think: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali)… and then on top of that, we hear all the news articles that you mentioned. How do you think your studies and integration into all-things-Somali would be if you were female? I would feel really uncomfortable approaching unknown Somalis, especially males ones, to start a conversation for language practice. Is it just my ignorance or would that be an unwelcome approach?

    All that said, I worked with a lot of Somali families in the classroom and as a refugee case manager. Out of all the nationalities we dealt with, the Somalis definitely had some of the biggest struggles to adapt to US life, but I have nothing bad to say about them. Their families were strong, they worked hard to carve out new lives for themselves in a new place, and they were always kind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points. Thanks for adding a female point of view.

      If I were a woman, I would talk to women a lot. I don’t interact with many Somali women–for the same reasons you talk about not interacting a lot with Somali men–but all of them have been very outgoing. You see them all over, however. They’re in every grocery store and in every park.

      If you have the courage to say a simple, “Nabad, walaal?” (Is it good, sister?) to a stranger, I would love to hear from you what happens. What sort of reactions do you get?

      Can you be more specific when you mention the struggles they have adapting to US life? What are indicators of easy adaption compared to struggles? I’m just interested in hearing more about what you’ve experienced.


      1. “Nabad, walaal?” I’ll try to remember that, thank you 🙂 There are a lot of Somalis here in Oregon.

        Every group had their own struggles. I remember showing several families (not Somali) how to use round doorknobs- they came from camps that used hanging plastic and sheets- and a Bhutanese/Nepali family used to cooking outside who put a hot frying pan on the floor, not realizing it would melt the linoleum. (Landlord = pissed!) Just different ways of life and living, habits that I’d have to change to fit in if I moved to the countries and situations where these families came from. And I must say that when I moved to Ukraine, it seriously took me a whole month to figure out how to lock and unlock the front door with an old Soviet door key and how to use the stove :p It wasn’t like that for everyone, though. We’d have people with PhDs from the DRC, students from Iran, young adults from Cuba, etc… for whom the change was more in a way of thinking than relearning physical habits. One of the saddest things I had to explain was to a family asking for extra food. They told me “We don’t need much, really. You can take all these fancy cans and boxes back. We just need rice and vegetables and fruit, that’s all”, to which I had to explain that- with that year’s budget- vegetables and fruits were the luxury and the cans and boxes were unlimited.

        The Somali families I worked with seemed to have to adapt to more physical things than other groups, maybe because they were all coming from refugee camps. Some would use the restroom by standing atop the toilet and squatting, some kids would urinate in public places. We showed how to use utensils and how to close sliding car doors instead of leaving them open. Other acculturation issues- The children had more trouble fitting in at public school at first and it was a challenge to get the parents involved or explain why they couldn’t use corporal punishment at home. Plus a lot of the Somali we were resettling were learning literacy from the ground up. I remember one man- a VIP in the local religious community- who would come to class every day and struggle so hard with writing. He never gave up 🙂 It was harder to get the women to attend consistently since they were usually caring for large families, but this was basically true of all women that we served. Sadly, I know nothing about this community except from what I learned on the job and what I’ve read in your blog, so this is all probably describing a tiny segment of the overall population, and only at a very specific point in time (0-3 months after resettlement).

        The local Somali community was just getting off the ground at that point (also, this was in Alaska so talk about a climate change!) and I think there’s more support now for new arrivals. And oh my gosh, this whole comment sounds so depressing looking back over it. But the work wasn’t- everyone was excited and hopeful and grateful and working very hard to build a new life in a new place. I’d hear later of their success stories, but by then would already be at the airport waiting for a new family to walk through the security gates.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Those are great, important stories to hear. It’s great to hear what people have to overcome when they come here–we shouldn’t take so much for granted. The amount of learning and adaptation is incredible. Yes, they may not be showing up to class, but yes, they are learning and thinking and rethinking all day long.

        I hope you learn about the success stories. I hope that non-refugees learn about their success stories. I hope that employers will look to these folks to find someone who can adapt their way out of any problem.

        BTW Would you be willing to tell me what refugee agency you work for?


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