1870 Mag

Fighting for American-ness

Hamze Ahmed’s hands were shaking slightly as he spoke. He had a soft, caring voice and an enchanting leer—his words eloquent and collected, speaking positively about his experience as the vice president of the Somali Students Association at The Ohio State University. But when the conversation steered toward the attack, there belied a tinge of anxiety—a natural fear of rejection from a community and a country that he has embraced since he immigrated here as a child from the Netherlands.

“As Muslim folks, when we see an attack, we’re all praying that they are not a Muslim. Because we already know what’s gonna go on in the media. We know we’re gonna get painted with a broad brush, we know we’re gonna get attacked. It’s gone on forever. To find out that not only is this guy Muslim, but he’s a part of my community, was really shocking. I’m still processing it.”

These words echo the sentiments of an entire community, the Somali diaspora, who after the November attack have expressed concern about tension growing in the country they love. These, combined with the immigration rhetoric from president-elect Trump and his proponents, have Somali community leaders worried about unsavory depictions of their people and their values.  

“I think the biggest concern to me being a part of the community, being an educator, seeing the impact of the attack on third graders who are just living in their own world…it was concerning,” said Qorsho Hassan, OSU alum, educator, and researcher.

“I knew almost immediately there would be this image portrayed onto the community regardless of whether we take ownership of that image, regardless of whether we apologize or stay silent. I think that’s what’s frustrating about being a Somali American is constantly having to fight for my American-ness—having to prove the loyalty that I have to this country even though I was born and raised here. I think that was disturbing—to see the comments, to see the reactions…it shouldn’t be that way. So what I try to do to combat that is just my interactions with people. I think one-on-one interactions are really important.”

One of the ways Hassan decided to engage with her community was to throw a Somali-American Peace Feast at a traditional Somali restaurant, Hoyo’s Kitchen, mid-December. The dinner provided a safe space for members of the community to heal and seek reconciliation with someone from “the other” culture. Sharing food is an idyllic way to integrate ideologies and to spend time learning and caring about a culture that might be foreign to some.

“I think through that peace feast I learned that even though the people who came out were willing to learn, they didn’t know a lot. And I think it’s really important to foster those kinds of events, those kinds of interactions, on a day-to-day basis,” Hassan said.

Columbus is home to the second largest Somali population in the country, just behind Minnesota, home to an estimated 15 to 40 thousand people—some born here, others immigrating from other states and countries. As we met three OSU Somali students, and the community leader that brought us all together, we asked them about misconceptions concerning the Somali American experience.

“I would say one is that we all know each other,” said Ishmail Mohamed, a 3rd year law student, with a hearty laugh, mentioning how his last name has gotten him confused as a family member with many other Somali Mohameds. “I think another thing is that we’re very insular. And in some ways, I think we are because of recent events—because of racism and Islamophobia. But I also think that we are a very open community once you give us the chance and want to learn more about the culture. I think once you show that, you’ll see the beauty in the culture and the people.”

Hassan expressed concern about having to normalize the Somali experience for those who believe they need to apologize or amend the circumstances of last November.

“Talking about the event that happened in November—just like any other event where Muslims are involved—I think there’s this idea of wanting that community, whether it’s Muslim or Somali, to kind of rectify what happened; to almost make themselves out to be what they are, whether it’s a teacher, whether it’s a doctor, to kind of normalize their experience. It creates this idea that we have something to apologize for, that we need to humanized ourselves and make ourselves more approachable, which we shouldn’t have to.” But it hasn’t been all fire and brimstone for the Somali community. Ahmed confided that for every negative comment that he has encountered since November, he has received 10 positive ones.

“Maybe it’s me being a little bit naïve, but understanding there are systems of oppression, systems of marginalizing people, certain people will have it tougher than others,” he said. “But if it means that I got to go out there and be polite or be open to someone I’ve never met before, sometimes I’m willing to do that. I think a lot of times, I hope, many people don’t come from a place of hate, but just a place of not knowing. So, if it means taking that extra couple of minutes and sitting down with someone and explaining something to them—even though it’ll be frustrating— I will do it. Because everyone needs someone to talk to them.”

This spring semester, the SSA are busy at work engaging with their collegiate community. SSA at OSU will be participating in Taste of OSU again, organizing a fundraiser with EESO, and hosting the very first North American Somali youth conference of its kind, SSA National. They will be inviting SSAs throughout the US and Canada to the OSU campus in an effort to connect the various Somali communities.

To learn more about SSA and how they are involved in the OSU community, visit facebook.com/ssaatosu or ssaohiostate.com 

Danny Hamen

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