Refugee Camp - Picture from Wikimedia Commonas

Nashville Somalis: Being Able to Vote is a Miracle

Refugee Camp – Picture from Wikimedia Commonas

The Tennessean had an incredible article today about Somali Americans who are able to vote in this election. Here are some quotes:

“Nashville’s Somalis don’t want to hear how inconvenient it is to stand in long lines at the polls.They don’t like conversations about how watching TV is ruined by all the political attack ads, how Facebook friends turn on one another during election time, how life will be so much nicer once election season ends. For them, American elections are a miracle, worlds apart from Somalia’s old two-wooden-box system of voting, where the dictator in power decided the outcome.”

“Somalis earned their refugee status with the same heartbreaking story, told with few variations from family to family. Relatives killed by warlords’ gangs. Homes uprooted in an instant with the sound of approaching gunfire. Days or weeks with little or no food but what they were able to scrounge from wild-growing fruit trees.”

A Somali voter the journalist interviewed said, “It’s amazing to be in a country where you can vote, where that one vote can make a difference, where you can do whatever you want, where your voice matters as a normal person — even as a woman.”

Can you imagine coming from her traumatic past, and being able to experience the triumph of exercising the right to vote, of having a voice in your new nation?

The first Somali student I had was back in 2004. I was teaching third grade ESL, and Amina* came in October, after the year was well underway. Her dark eyes darted back and forth like she was scared. She had had limited schooling, and barely knew how to hold a pencil. She had been in a refugee camp. There was no one else who spoke Somali in the class. I wish I could tell you that by the end of the year, Amina was speaking English fluently and I had forged a friendly relationship with her. Honestly, I think I was as scared of her as she was of me. I was kind to her, and I assigned her a buddy, even though the buddy was a Spanish speaker. I worked with Amina on letters and sounds and numbers as much as I could. But I’m ashamed to say that I felt frustrated by her sometimes. She probably felt the same about me.

The school I was at continued to get more Somali and Sudanese refugees, enough to get a part-time Somali translator at our school. I began to learn how to work with refugee kids. They were shell-shocked by American culture and conveniences. (I remember when I taught first grade, I had to teach my students how to use an American toilet.) Learning English, especially learning to read, was ten times harder for these kids. They were eager, but fragile. They were smart, but inexperienced with school. They needed me to be patient and gentle with them. I grew to understand and love them, and learned to celebrate every success they had, no matter how small.

I wonder where those kids are now. Did they make it through high school? Did they go to college or get jobs? Are they Americanized now, or are they still Somali at heart? Maybe they long for their old country, but in their dreams it’s a place of peace and beauty. Maybe they grab up America and hold it to their faces, breathing in its scent, its opportunity, its miraculousness.

*Student’s name has been changed for privacy.

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