Minneapolis Public Schools' Somali counselor has a story to tell

Ali Kofiro is a translator of sorts – not the kind he used to be in Texas, where he worked for Catholic Charities, using his little bit of Arabic, little bit of English and fluency in Somali to help refugees like him get to the United States. Now he’s a translator of culture – the kind of translator that requires a college degree, that piece of paper for which he zigzagged first the continent of Africa, and later the United States of America. His search bore fruit; now he’s college-educated and a Somali school counselor in Minneapolis — possibly the first Somali school counselor in the state. He uses his experiences to help immigrant kids get educated, and to help teachers and administrators do the educating.

This is the third story in a three-part series looking at Somali families’ experiences with the education system. Click the links for parts one and two.

Kofiro’s main charges are the students of Wellstone International High School, which serves some of Minnesota’s newest immigrants, all English Language Learners. He hopes they can see themselves in him and that that mirror will help them get through school. “I wasn’t much older then you when I got here,” he tells them.

Somali students in Minnesota are struggling. Low-income, ELL and non-white students score lower than average on state tests, and they graduate at lesser rates. One in three Somali students in the metro area attends a charter school. Many of them used to attend district schools.

Staff like Kofiro help Minneapolis Public Schools hold onto their Somali students and assure that families’ needs are being met.

Accommodating Islam

Kofiro is often called on to explain new immigrants to Minnesotans. For Somali students, that means explaining Islam. Practicing Islam in school requires self-advocacy and help from mediators like Kofiro.

One time Kofiro got a call from a suburban high school. The principal noticed that Somali students – nice students – were leaving the building at odd hours. He couldn’t figure it out.

The students explained to Kofiro that they had to leave for Friday prayers. On Fridays, Muslim men over 15 are obligated attend a prayer congregation, and women often do the same. Friday gatherings do not require a church or a mosque, and they don’t need the presence of any formally trained religious leader. Even a high school student can give the 15-20 minute sermon delivered before Friday’s midday prayer.

The principal couldn’t just let them leave, and he did not think it was appropriate to give the students space to hold the gathering in the school, as Wellstone does. The students said they were considering dropping out because of the conflict. They needed a space and permission from the school to leave.

Finally, the principal said if the kids could get parent permission and an adult supervisor, and tell him exactly when they’d be coming and going, they could leave for prayer. With Kofiro’s help the students gathered everything the principal asked for and arranged to pay rent on a room in the community center next door.

Those kinds of arrangements are hard for school administrators who are used to the idea of clear separation between school and religion. That idea, Kofiro pointed out, masks a multitude of accommodations built into school schedules for followers of Christianity.

Hard years

Ali Kofiro was born in the same year as the Somali written language – 1972. He was one of the last graduates of Somalia’s state education system, where parents could drop off their kids and know that they would not only be schooled in academics but also in morality and good behavior. Kofiro graduated from high school in 1989. Civil war broke out in 1991.

Kofiro only passed a few short stints in the sprawling refugee camps that still house thousands of Somali families, but he remembers them well. “Nobody can explain them,” he said. “No running water, no schooling, no housing – forget it – under the shade of trees.”

For a while, he hid in a home in Kenya, trying to stay away from the corrupt cops who were known to extort money and favors from illegal refugees like him. He feared for his safety as he travelled between Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea on roads traversed by criminals who, he said, would steal everything you owned and beat you up.

Finally, at age 22, he arrived in New York as an asylee. “I came to the U.S. expecting everything would be different. I was thinking like, I’m getting into paradise. I landed in JFK airport at nighttime. I spent that night in a friend’s home. In the morning, he took me out of the house,” Kofiro said. “After a few blocks we saw someone who was hanging a poster, begging for food. I was like, what is going on here? My friend said you have to work very hard, otherwise that will be you.”

Somali but not from Somalia

One of the hardest parts of Kofiro’s job is translating transcripts. “Everyone will bring a different transcript that will be very difficult for school counselors,” he said. “You will find Somalis from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Europe, South Africa.”

Kofiro got a call from a counselor once who suspected that a new student was 26 years old. His transcript said he was in the 12th grade in 2003. It turned out, the student was from Ethiopia, where the calendar is seven years behind. Ethiopia’s 2003 was Minnesota’s 2010. That was an easy one, Kofiro said. At Wellstone, sometimes he gets transcripts in Hindi, Uzbek, Chinese.

Inversely, Minnesota’s school system can be confusing for immigrant parents. One thing that trips up Somali parents, said Kofiro, is the rarity of holding students back a grade-level. In Somalia, he said students had to pass a test to move up. If they didn’t pass, they sat in the same chair the following year. “If they just move along, when it comes to 12th grade, they won't graduate,” Kofiro said. It catches parents by surprise. “If they’re not ready, why were they moving?”

Heading North

Kofiro lived for a while in Texas. He drove a taxi, worked as a translator and thought about how he could get to college.

At the Dallas/Fort Worth airport on his way to Minnesota – a state that housed many Somalis who could maybe point Kofiro in the right direction – he picked up a book. It was written by a father to a son, listing the steps he needed to take to get to college. “That father also became my father,” Kofiro said.

He was right about Minnesota. Few of the Somalis he met had graduated college, but they did put him in a car and drop him off at MCTC. He went on to get an economics degree at the University of Minnesota and was recruited to work at Wellstone, where the school counselor he worked under encouraged him to get a counseling certificate at the University of Wisconsin’s River Falls campus. Years later, he took over his mentor’s job at Wellstone.

Educating the rest of us

“I try to educate the public – that’s one of the reasons I’m here,” he said.

There are things that non-Somali community members might not understand, he said, besides religion. “They are coming from a culture that says people of opposite sex should not handshake with each other,” he said. “Wait until they extend their hand.”

Sometimes, he said Somalis will not look people in the eye right away. “In American culture, you would feel dishonest. At first you would think they’re not listening to what you are saying,” he said. “Know if they’re not looking at your face, knowing that’s not disrespecting.”

It’s not necessary for Minnesotans to avert their eyes, though, he said. “They can bring their ideas and their culture to the table, but I don’t want American people to change,” he said. “I want the Somali community to be part of larger society and integrate the whole system and learn the American culture, because we live here.”

He’s not sure if charter schools are good for Somali students, but he sees the district schools struggling to serve Somali kids. “Right now it’s a crossroads, saying what should we do? Nothing has worked for us.”

So counsel us, Kofiro

Advice for Somali parents? Kofiro sees a lot of kids transfer schools in the middle of the year – sometimes he attributes it to the high mobility that comes with poverty, other times it’s because a kid is not doing well. “If I was a preacher I would preach to the East African community, don’t move, for the sake of the education of your children. And even if you have to move, move when it’s summertime.”

Advice for educators? “Reach them out. Somalis will feel honored if you tell them you will come and visit them at their house. They will prepare food and Somali tea,” he said. “When a teacher or counselor is calling home – the first thing I do is say, ‘Your child is not in trouble.’ Usually, they have this perception that if there’s home-calling, there’s a problem.”

Advice for the district? Kofiro listed a handful of East African and immigrant teachers and administrators he knows. “Not only East African kids can relate to them, but the immigrant students can see themselves through them – through us,” he said. “The district needs a lot of those kinds of things. If they do that, I think they will be very successful to meet the needs of East African, Somali students.”

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Alleen Brown's picture
Alleen Brown

Alleen Brown (alleenbrown [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net or Twitter @AlleenBrown) is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.