Event encourages Somali education

by Amanda Grimm

It’s Friday night, but Hamdi Abdihoosh is in school anyway.

She meandered around the Washburn High School gym, collected a stack of pamphlets from one of the tables and thanked its attendant.

Abdihoosh is only a junior but said she hopes to come to the University to study computer science. She came to the United States from Somalia two and a half years ago and will be the first in her family to go to college in this country, she said.

Along with approximately 150 community members, parents, students and city officials, Abdihoosh attended Somali Education night, an event organized to underscore the importance of college and high school education for those in the Somali community.

Several area universities set up information booths at the event, which patrons visited between educational and sometimes emotional speeches.

“We invited all the universities in Minneapolis,” said Mahamoud Wardere, one of the event’s organizers. “We want the community to interact with universities.”

Safia Ahmed Omer, a Minneapolis resident, said Somali students must take advantage of the opportunities they have now that she never had.

But some of the students in attendance lamented the hardships the community still faces.

Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson met with a group of students at the event to discuss concerns, especially that some English as a Second Language teachers let Somali students fall behind because of cultural differences.

Johnson hugged Zuhur Ahmed, a junior at Roosevelt High School, while talking to her about a Somali student group Johnson is organizing.

University sophomore Abdirahman Adan spoke with students interested in the University about the program he works for called College Connections.

Adan helps students who have to take language tests such as the Michigan English Language Assessment Battery or Test of English as a Foreign Language before they can be accepted to the University. College Connections is offered through General College’s Commanding English program, offering courses for students whose native language is not English.

In the Washburn auditorium, a two-part program began with a short prayer. Following the prayer, Johnson, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and a representative from Minneapolis Public Libraries spoke about the importance of educating the Minneapolis Somali community.

“I consider you a tremendous asset to our community,” Rybak said. He also told the group education is one thing that cannot be taken away from them. “We need to make sure kids get through this school. We must demand that kids excel,” he said.

City Council member Dean Zimmerman said he agreed and addressed the community’s concern over the recent death of Abu Kassim Jeilani, a mentally ill Somali man shot to death by Minneapolis police.

“We are all mourning the death of Mr. Jeilani,” Zimmerman said.

He said police are still investigating and “working to make sure we change the way we treat people.”

But discussion during the first set of speakers centered around students’ concerns about English as a second language courses, and Minnesota’s mandatory basic skills test that all students must pass to graduate from high school.

“They can’t graduate without passing the test, and it’s frustrating to them because they may have a command of the language, but they don’t understand the nuances,” Johnson said.

The reading test comes straight from the Star Tribune, Johnson said. And even though students might understand the words, “the cultural context in which the test is presented holds the students back,” she said.

The test is given to students in the eighth grade Johnson said, and they have an opportunity to take the test again each year until they pass. She said while the test can be very difficult, Somali students have shown perseverance.

“Students are successful, though, because they are so eager to learn,” Johnson said.

She cited Ahmed, who has only been in the United States for three years and speaks nearly perfect English. Along with taking Post-Secondary Enrollment Option courses at the University, she is involved in programs at her school to learn more about health careers and has worked for a Hennepin County medical lab. Ahmed plans to study in the health care field after she graduates, she said.

Teachers and students in the Somali community have praised Johnson for helping students by bringing teachers who know Somali culture to schools.

Before the second half of the program, the Lake and Grand Market served free food. An assortment of rice and camel meat dishes were available.

Completely in Somali, the second half of the program opened with a prayer and continued with Somali community members speaking to the group about education. Audience members applauded and laughed as a lawyer, doctor, teacher, financial aid expert and students spoke.

Speaking so loudly at times people covered their ears, Mohamed Hassan, a teacher, asked the audience about the difference between Somalis and other Africans who’ve come to the United States.

“Did they have a language?” he asked in English and repeated it in Somali when no one answered. “Did they have culture?”

“Yes, they did,” he said.

As Hassan spoke, heads nodded in the audience and occasionally produced shouted responses in Somali.

“We must not lose our culture; we must not lose our language,” he said in English. “And we must educate Minnesotans.”