ASK A SOMALI | We love our neighbors!

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I read and hear a lot about how the Somali community is not interested in getting involved with the other communities in Minnesota. I don’t know where this is coming from.  Let me tell you something, we love our neighbors.  Really.

For example, if I want to eat at a Somali restaurant, I get the usual “what can I get for you?” and “here you go.” I won’t see that waiter until way past my time to pay for the meal.  If I go with my White American friends, African American or Asian (my roommate of seven years is Asian), I get top-of-the-line service.  I mean the restaurant owner will come over and welcome us, we get samples of different dishes and the service would just be amazing. They want to and will do anything to welcome outsiders and make them feel comfortable. I believe they get so tired of seeing the same Somali customers that this is a chance for them to serve and entertain new faces.

If you don’t believe me and you think I am making up this stuff, come with me to dine in a Somali restaurant, or I can give you a list of places to eat around town and you can go and see for yourself. Also, go to the Somali mall, or better yet, let me take you there and show you. I bet you anything people will be handing you free stuff while I won’t get a scarf, although half of my pay check goes to those malls.

Some of my friends and I sometimes complain to businesses that treat non-Somalis better than their Somali customers. One restaurant owner, Sade Hashi, owner of Safari, actually said to me, “They are our guests. If the service was bad, you would come back and complain to me, but for them, if they receive bad service, they won’t come back.  I have to make sure they receive the utmost respect and service every time they are here.”

A person commenting on a previous column quoted a Somali person who works at Macalester College, saying that we are not interested in integrating. Well, that is one person’s opinion.  I might be doing the same thing the commenter did by giving you an example of how the Somali community is interested and is, in fact, integrating from one individual’s perspective (mine), but I will try to give you examples that will back up my claims.

I came to this country when I was 19 years old.  I did not read or write in any language, including my own. I learned how important education was when I found out I couldn’t fill out a job application. To fix that problem, I decided to go to school. I attended Roosevelt High School and graduated four years later with the top 20 percent of my class and a full scholarship to St. Thomas.

My first year of high school I was taken in by a German- and Norwegian-American family. I lived with white American family for more than nine years and I still sort of live with them. They are the best thing that ever happened to me. They are my family and I love them dearly.

I attended a Catholic school, where we were required to study theology. I had the opportunity to study the Old Testament, the New Testament and Islam, all at St. Thomas.

Being an observer between my two lovely worlds, this is what I noticed:  Each community in Minnesota has assumptions about the others. And they are not all true. In fact, people, there is no difference between Somalis, Asian, white, black or Hispanic. We’re all after the same things: to live our days, to raise our children, to look for what’s best for ourselves. Yes, we do have little cultural differences, but we have to look at the bigger picture.

It is not that Somali people don’t want to integrate. More likely, out of respect, they want not to burden people. I had the experience and the privilege of people from my community confiding in me that they really want to talk to a white person to say something, but they are afraid they might say the wrong thing or pronounce something incorrectly. English is a hard language — take it from me! When they tell me that, I really understand what they mean.  I make mistakes all the time, but having lived with Americans and gone to school with them, I understand they don’t really mind. They will gladly tell you, “No, that is not how you say it,” or they will explain how to do it.

Being new to this country people make assumptions. It is part of being human. New immigrants don’t know the American culture, and it will take time to learn — just like any other group of Americans who came to this country.

I work at a rental property. It is very mixed, but I constantly have Somali women ask me to thank the property manager because of one reason or another. I usually advise and encourage them to speak for themselves. I tell them that it will sound better if they do it themselves. I’ve had some instances where people had me write down for them what they wanted to say, before they said it out loud to the manager. People are truly trying to let others know they appreciate them.

Integration will take time. It is not that Somalis do not want to integrate. It is just that they are new and they are still settling in.

Another thing people are afraid of is rejection. I know there is a “Minnesota nice” and all, but there are still rude people who judge others without giving them a chance.

While I don’t know about how well “the Somali Community” (whatever that means) is integrating in Minnesota, Somali people certainly are.  We go to your restaurants and even night clubs; we shop in your stores; we work in every conceivable job in town; we live all over the city (not just in Riverside, but in everywhere from Anoka to Hopkins to Burnsville); we vote (those of us who can), and we run for office; we have among us conservatives and liberals, religious scholars and comedians and rappers.

Don’t believe Somalis are a part of Minnesota?  August 31 is Eid Al-Fitr, a time when every year hundreds of Somalis descend upon the Mall of America to shop, mingle, ride the rides and generally celebrate the second most important holiday in their religion — in the most American way they know how, by going to a gigantic mall.  If that’s not Minnesotan, I don’t know what is.

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