"When I came back to America, I became more confident in who I was."
Photos by Kara Counard
Yasmin Nur | Green Bay, WI
“My mom and dad are both from Somalia, and they came to the United States with their families when they were really young. They were fleeing the civil war in Somalia.
For the first 14 years of my life, I lived in Minnesota. In Minneapolis there’s a huge Somali population, but my family lived in the suburbs. I was mostly surrounded by people who were not Somali.
When I was growing up, one of my favorite things was when my mom would take me and my siblings to the Mall of America and Nickelodeon Universe, the theme park. If you’ve lived in Minnesota, you know what I'm talking about. Mall of America is such a big part of children's lives. I remember having so much fun. I would go on all the rides ten times.
I’m Muslim, and my religion is very important to me. It’s kind of who I am. At a young age, I was reading and writing in Arabic and learning the words of my religion and the words of God. In my daily life I pray five times a day, and I follow simple rules like don’t eat pork, be nice to your neighbors, give to charity once a year. I fast in the month of Ramadan.
In Islam, the hijab, or veil, is very sacred. Wearing it is like the next step to stronger devotion. I was pretty young, probably at the end of elementary school, when I was like, ‘Maybe it’s my time.’ I asked my mom, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, I think it’s time for you to wear it, too.’ So I put it on. Once you put it on, it’s kind of like you never take it off unless you make a conscious decision to. And I never felt the need to.
It’s part of who I am now. It’s just another piece of me. It’s a constant reminder of who I am, my devotion, my plans, and my goals.
As a kid, I was always really outgoing, and I never really had problems with making friends. Most kids were nice to me, but still, some kids would say things—just passing words, like ‘towelhead’ and stuff like that.
During my seventh-grade year, I remember one kid saying something mean about me. I turned around, and he was shorter than me, so I was like, ‘Say that to my face.’ He got really quiet. I thought I would feel better after confronting him. Like, ‘If you face people, they'll be quiet.’ But it just made me feel really bad. I was like, ‘Now everybody's going to think you're mean and aggressive.’ I’m not like that. I didn’t want people labeling me or stereotyping me like that.
Since then, if anybody looks at me wrong, I’m still very, very nice. I've just trained myself to be nice. Or it's in my nature? I don't know if it's nature or nurture at this point, but I'm just very nice. If anybody says anything, I just walk away.
I want people to know my story, because I kind of do represent my people, in a way. I want people to be able to relate to who I am.”
“My mom left Somalia and came to America for a better life. She wanted us kids to be assimilated, and to have the opportunities that she didn't. But then she was kind of disappointed when we perfectly assimilated. It wasn't that we didn't want anything to do with our culture, it's just we were children, and we couldn't care less about anything that wasn’t in our direct vicinity.
I didn't know how to speak Somali. I understood it, but my mom would speak to me in Somali and I would speak back in English. My mom felt really bad because we couldn't talk to my grandmas, and we didn't really know anything about our family in Somalia. We have a lot of family back in Somalia; all my mom's siblings are there. So she's like, ‘Okay, let's go.’
When I was 14, we went to Somalia for two years. We lived in a nice neighborhood where it was mostly family, because in Somalia you mostly live with your tribe. I think my siblings and I spent one week in a Somali school. We left immediately because we didn't understand anything, and the kids were staring at us a lot because we were from America, and we were quiet. I started going to an international school, instead.
I was a little bit of a rebel in Somalia. I remember my freshman year, my classmates and I wanted to have a big shebang at the end of the year. We were like, ‘It's exam week, let's do something crazy.’ We were all in our Jilbaabs, which is like a hijab that goes all the way down to the end of your knees, like a long dress. We're covered head to toe and it was super hot, so we were like, ‘We're going to have a water fight.’ We were throwing water balloons and getting big trash cans full of water and throwing them at each other. It was crazy, and we all got in trouble. They called my mom. But it was so worth it. My mom was like, ‘That's kind of cute. I'm not mad at you.’
In America, I always felt different. When I went to Somalia, it was so weird because I looked exactly like everybody else. When I came back to America, I became more confident in who I was.
When my family came back from Somalia, my mom found a job in Green Bay, so we all moved there except my dad. He already had a job in Minnesota, so he wanted to stay there. Now he's always coming back and forth. I don't know how he does it. He's amazing.
In Somalia we lived in Mogadishu, the capital. It’s a big city. I was used to noise, people talking, people always coming over, people knocking on our door every ten seconds. In Green Bay, it’s super quiet. I was uncomfortable with that at first. I was like, ‘Wow, there's nothing to do here. I don't know anybody.’ But then I got used to it. I like the quiet now, actually.
I thought that Green Bay was something it wasn't when I first moved here. I was very scared about how I would be treated. But when I came to Green Bay, I was met with hospitality and kindness. I'm happy that I live in Green Bay. I just feel like this is finally a home. Even if I move, Green Bay will always be my home.”
“When I was in high school, I joined a group in Green Bay called the United ReSisters. It’s a group of Somali women. Some of us are in high school and some are in college. We get together to get to know each other and engage with each other through the arts.
Some of us, like me and my sister, were born in the United States. Others are from Somalia and came here as refugees, looking for a better life in a place with less violence and more opportunities for education.
At first it was a little awkward communicating with the other girls in the group, because I still mostly spoke English. But then we started opening up and becoming a lot closer. Some of them shared their experiences of being in the refugee camps. I’d heard some stories about the camps from my parents, but they’ve lived in the U.S. so long, they don’t talk about them much anymore. But these girls went into detail about how horrible it was living in those camps. It was just very sad.
The United ReSisters got a grant from the Woman's Fund that gave us the opportunity to write a book. When I found out, I was like, ‘What? Really? Us writing a book? Who would want to hear my stories? What should I write about?’ Diana, one of the leaders of the ReSisters, said to me, ‘Write about when you left America, or when you came back to America after leaving.’
We all wrote some stories about our lives, and shared them with each other, and then we put them all together. Now here we are, we wrote a book! It’s called The First Winter.
At first, I didn't think anybody would really care about the book. I thought it was going to be mostly for us.
But then people started asking us to talk about it on local news. I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually serious!’ I started going to all of these different places and doing all these events, talking about it.
We did this book event at Barnes and Noble. Katie, one of the leaders of United ReSisters, brought some students from COMSA, which is a nonprofit Somali organization that helps refugees. The kids were very young—kindergarten to sixth grade—and most of them, if not all, were refugees. We let them read some excerpts from the book aloud. It was very cool, seeing them so excited for us. They were really proud of us. It made me so happy, because I never had someone who looked like me to look up to in that way.”
“Right now I’m a sophomore at UW-Green Bay. I had a good ACT score and good grades in high school, so I could go to college anywhere I wanted to, but I didn't want to leave my family. Family is such a big part of my life, and I couldn't really picture myself living with a stranger. Plus, I wanted to stay close to my mom. Me and my mom are super close; we tell each other everything. My mom is my biggest champion.
I’m the oldest of six kids, and five are still at home. Since my dad still lives and works in Minnesota, I'm a second parent, in a way. I make sure everybody's fed, and I take my younger siblings to the library and help them with their homework. I make it all fit in. I don't think it's that hard, just because I'm so used to helping and nagging everybody.
I’m a human biology major. Throughout my education, a lot of my biology teachers have been super supportive of me, because I was really interested in it and I tried harder than most of the kids. I would always go to office hours and ask for help. Some of my teachers would seek me out and find ways to include me in things. One teacher asked me to help do research into beetles—how they survive, how they eat, their metabolism, things like that. My teachers really nurtured me, and that always made me feel really good. I think that's why I like biology so much.
My goal is, eventually, to become a physician. I always change what type, but it always comes back to emergency physician. Fingers crossed, maybe.
When I lived in Somalia, there was a lot of war and violence. Sometimes there were bombings. The hospitals are not equipped to help out, really. A lot of people die in the hands of inexperienced doctors, and a lot of them can't even get to those doctors or afford to pay for them. One day, I want to go back to Somalia and open a small clinic, educate people on safe health practices—anything I can do to help.”
-Yasmin Nur | Green Bay, WI