"My hope is that through dialogue we can shed some light on misconceptions."
Photos by Megan Monday
Mohamud | Barron, WI
“I grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia. Somalis have a very close culture, we take care of each other. If someone doesn't have a car, you take them to work. If someone is not making enough money, we help them with the rent by chipping in. If something tragic happens, like someone becomes sick or gets a major illness, we help that person and family. If you need something that I have, you don't need to ask, because I'm going to get offended by you asking. Just use it! That's how we are as a culture.
My family left Somalia 1992 when I was seven years old. That's when the civil war broke out and the government collapsed. When the civil war was happening, you could hear the constant gunshots. It was not safe to do things that we liked to do as kids, like to go outside and play soccer.
My father was in the government, in the military. Everyone who worked for the government at that time was fleeing because the opposition groups that were overthrowing the government were killing everybody that worked for the government. So we left. Not just us, everyone that worked for the government fled the country. The people who were overthrowing the government killed my father before we could escape.
We left Somalia and went to Kenya. I have three sisters and two brothers. One of my sisters supported us during the time we were in Kenya. She was visiting California during time of the civil war. It was not safe for her to go back home. So she stayed and requested asylum because she could not go back. From there she worked and sent us money and she sponsored us to come to the U.S.
When she sponsored us, while the process was going on, we were living in an apartment in Nairobi. We went to a lot of interviews, a lot of screenings, and went through a lot of vetting. People may think that anyone can come into America, but it's not that way. The process can take 10 years or longer for refugees.
We came to America the end of 2000, when I was 14 years old. I started high school in Owatonna, Minnesota because there is a Somali community there. My struggles started when I came to the U.S. not knowing any English. My first challenge was going to school, sitting in a classroom, and not knowing what the teacher said. Like a leaf...I was just sitting there and smiling but I did not know what anyone was saying.
When I got to America, I knew I would need to work twice as hard if not more than the students who knew English. I didn't have anyone that could tutor me at home. We left Minnesota and moved to Ohio, a city called Hilliard, where I finished the next three years of high school. My sister moved from California to Ohio to be with us but all she did was work, work, work and support.
It was a struggle for the first few years, but every year it was kind of getting better. But then I found out Ohio has a requirement for state tests; in order for a student to graduate they have to pass five exams. That's reading, writing, science, social studies, and math. You have to pass all of those exams to graduate. This is different than other states. There were times I thought, 'Man, I should move to Minnesota, it doesn't have those requirements.' It was going to be hard, but I set my mind to passing those exams.”
“Moving to America at 14, I had to learn English very quickly to graduate from high school. By my senior year, I knew if I did not pass the five state exams that Ohio required, I wouldn’t walk at my graduation. I was worried I would have to leave the country. I had to graduate in order to stay.
I passed social studies the U.S. government test, passed the science exam, passed the math, passed the reading test. My senior year the only thing that was I failing at was the writing test. So I took an extra class to prepare and I passed that, too.
It was very, very tough, but I graduated from high school in 2005. I was the first Somali to graduate from my high school, and I remember when I walked across the stage I felt so accomplished. I felt I achieved something big and I was motivated to do more. That experience inspired me to continue my education later and to go for my Bachelor's degree.
After high school, I moved to Barron, Wisconsin to work for the Jennie-O turkey processing plant. There are many Somalis living and working in Barron, over 800 of us. I was working at Jennie-O as an interpreter and I was also working as a legal aid. I also enrolled the University of Wisconsin in Barron County, in 2006. When I first started at UW-Barron there were not many Somalis enrolled, but soon other kids started enrolling, too, and had some success in getting two-year degrees.
My mom had moved back to Kenya, and I decided to go visit her. While I was there, I saw Naima. She was a friend from my village in Somalia. I used to play with her when I was very young. She went to Europe for school, she was going to university in London. She was visiting Kenya for three weeks when I was there, and then we got to know each other again. We decided to get married. It took a couple years. She finished her college degree in accounting and finance in London and then we moved back together to Barron.
The joy for us is that Barron is a small town. All the years I've been living here, there haven’t been any major crimes. It kind of feels like the community I left behind in Somalia. It's not like a big city, like where you have a lot going on. It's very simple. I love the simplicity and the fact that it is safe. It is a nice place to raise our kids—we have four now.
Right now I work full-time at the Mayo Clinic and am back in school working to finish my Bachelor’s degree. I try to set the bar high for my kids. That if I did it, they can do it. They have to work hard and they don't have to go through what I went through. Sometimes I call them unlucky because they have no excuse. But the thing is, the first generation always has to go through the most struggles in any culture. All the excuses, I lived through it. So, to show them how important it is to get an education, when I'm dropping my daughter off I give her a kiss and say, ‘I'm going to work and school.’ And she’s like, ‘You're gonna go to school?’ I say, ‘Yes I'm gonna go to school, too!’”
“I see myself as someone who knows both cultures—American and Somali. I try to be a bridge that connects the communities. I also try to help the youngsters, help them achieve with school, encourage connections between the cultures. There is a lot they can learn from each other. A lot that they can teach each other.
The first Somalis that came to Barron came in 1998. They couldn't find housing here. The people who were there didn't know them, and wouldn’t rent to them in Barron, so they went to Rice Lake. But as more people in Barron got to know Somalis, we don't have that issue anymore. People actually come to us and say, 'We want to rent to you because you will rent for a long time.'
Most Somalis here in Barron are here to work and support their families—their family back home and their families that they have here. We have been blessed—we've been noticing a lot of enrollment to the university. Those kids are graduating from high school and then they’re moving on to further their education. For my kids, I want them to get education, because I believe that in order to get somewhere, you need education. Without education, I don't feel you're you're going to reach anywhere. That is what I want for my kids, and for our community.
Because learning between communities is very important, the Somali community here started an exchange with people from a local church group. We sat down and we had lunch together. We had a conversation at their church, and then they came to talk at our mosque. We were talking about what we stood for. We had a dialogue and we discovered that we have a lot in common. We often were saying to each other, ‘Oh, yeah. That's true. I feel that way, too.’
For us Somalis, some examples of things that are important to us are to do good work, to help the poor, to help the homeless, and to volunteer. The members of the church said they also stood for those same things. We talked about how you should have compassion for each other, and no hate. There were so many things we shared in common. It was an important dialogue and we are hoping to have more exchanges like that in the future.
In May of 2017 there was a tornado in Cameron, a town near Barron. It touched down over a trailer park area. A gentleman lost his life and many others ended up in the hospital.
After the tornado happened, me and a couple other friends talked and decided we should do something about it. Most people affected by the tornado didn't have insurance and they needed support, so we went out and asked every Somali to donate what they could to support the community. Everyone was so welcoming and did what they could. We raised $1,700. There was a wealthy man from the Methodist Church who said he would match every dollar we raised for tornado relief. Our $1,700 was matched and we were happy. Several us went to the church to deliver the check.
It was a good feeling, sharing my culture. We're a community of givers, we support each other and that's what we believe in. I think people learned something that they don't know about us. Even though we don't have much, we like to share what we have when someone needs it.
There was a story in the paper and a lot of people came to me afterwards. A lot of people said, ‘I recognize you from the newspaper, it is great you guys do that.’ The lady who was accepting the donations at the church said, ‘If something happens to you guys, we will do the same thing, just let us know.’
They kept their word. A couple of weeks ago one of the apartments where the Somalis live burned down, and people came from the community, from the church, and brought them food and other items.
It was wonderful to see different communities coming together to help each other in times of need.”
”My freshman year of high school is when September 11 happened and everything changed. That's the day that as immigrants who are Muslim, we realized that we will be looked at differently, and with suspicion.
People can have judgments when they see someone who is different from themselves. Language can be a barrier. Not knowing anything and not communicating, people can just assume things, and a lot of the time people only know things through what they see in the media. They start to think media messages are the truth and that causes problems.
Get to know a person is my message. Get to know a person before you judge them, and don't judge a book by its cover. Creating a bridge between our local communities is very important to me because people need to know each other as individuals.
For instance, me and my wife, we are going to Walmart, and a gentleman walked up to us and said, 'Why did you make her wear this clothing?' And instead of answering, I said, ‘You should ask her if I make her do it or if she did it.’ She said, ‘No, he didn't make me do it. It's my choice.’
She said, ‘You know Jesus’ mother?’ He said, ‘Uh, yes, Mary.’ She said, ‘Mary, she dressed in a similar way. You can go back and look and even read the scripture and read statements of how she's dressed. But by the way the media portrays it, it's only depicted as oppression. But it’s my choice. I want to dress modestly.’
He said, ‘Oh...I've been going to church for all these years and I never thought of it this way. I’m sorry. If I get asked or hear something, I will share what you said.’
I feel that each one of us wants to better our communities, to stop violence, and to better ourselves. And most of the time when people sit down and talk about it, what they find out is they have more in common than they thought. They want a better life. They want a better future for themselves, a better future for their kids.
It’s important to create opportunities for people to talk and know more about their neighbors. You know, we might have misconceptions as well on the other side. In my community or the immigrant community we might have a misconception, too, about, ‘Oh, that's how they think,’ or, ‘That's how they are.’ But it's not always true, the dialogue is just missing.
My hope is through dialogue we can shed some light on the misconceptions. I believe no question is a silly question. Even if you think the question sounds stupid, ask the question. If people are interested in learning about the Somali culture they can come to us with their questions. I have a plan in the future, especially if the weather is nice, to host a picnic, an event where people can come together and eat and talk, so people can learn from each other. I love our town. Building bridges between cultures here, it is a work in progress for sure, but it’s important to me to keep working at it. I’m hopeful for the future, very hopeful.”
-Mohamud | Barron, WI