Bridging Borders with Words: Writing with Immigrant and Refugee Students
This article is part of a series in Teachers & Writers Magazine on working with immigrant and refugee writers. Related content includes One Day You Will Be One of the Happier: The Voices and Poetry of Teen Immigrants, Two Poetry Prompts to Inspire Immigrant Teens, Poems Without Borders: Writing to Bear Witness, Better Advocacy for Undocumented Students, and our interview with 2018 National Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning.
by Margot Fortunato Galt
“The city of Mogadishu turned into a gangland. You found your brother, son, husband, or relative among the brigands, in a city shared out by gangs and militia vigilantes…”
—from Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora by Nuruddin Farrar
During my many years as a Minnesota writer-in-the-schools, I have driven all over the state, first in a frosty Volkswagen Beetle, and later in a Toyota Corolla with a blessedly working heater. That peripatetic life introduced me to students of many backgrounds, including immigrants who came here from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Most recently, I’ve worked with a number of Somali immigrants whose presence in my classroom has brought particular rewards and challenges.
Minnesota has the largest Somali immigrant population in the United States. On the face of it, this seems very strange indeed. Minnesota is cool and wet; Somalia is hot and dry, a desert country in the Horn of Africa. Yet over the last three decades, a significant number of Somali people, fleeing war and famine, have come to populate the Cedar-Riverside area in Minneapolis, on the West Bank of the Mississippi River. In 2018, Minneapolis elected one of the first two Muslim women in the U.S. House of Representatives, a Somali-American woman named Ilhan Omar.
In the fall of 2017, I was preparing to teach an introductory writing class at Metropolitan State University, a public university in the Twin Cities referred to as Metro State. The start of a new class almost always feels like a challenge, and despite my years of teaching experience, I was nervous. As I approached the classroom on my first day, I noticed a young woman sitting on the floor in the shadowed hall. Seeing me, she rose to her feet. She was clothed in long flowing skirt, patterned top, and a head scarf, or hijab: a young Somali woman. I thought I saw defiance in her face, as if she were afraid I would challenge or reprimand her. I greeted her and she followed me into the large, well-lit classroom. Trying to make her at feel at home, I swept the empty classroom with my hand and said, “Sit wherever you like. You have first pick.” She said nothing in response but took the seat closest to the door, pulling out a chair and arranging her slender body in it.
In the early 1990s, when drought destroyed crops and threatened the Somali people with famine, the country began to dissolve into civil war. The US government, under President George HW Bush, sent food and peacekeeping troops to alleviate the disaster. Though large-scale starvation was avoided, the intervention stoked rivalries among the country’s clans. In the ensuing civil war, hundreds of thousands of Somalis were displaced to refugee camps, and many eventually immigrated to the United States.
Over my years of teaching in Minnesota classrooms, I have read essays from a number of immigrant students that describe harrowing flights from their countries of origin. One that sticks with me was written by a Hmong student who chronicled the disaster that forced his family to hide in trees, eating bark and grubs in order to survive. Given the presence of five Somali immigrants, as well as other students of varied backgrounds, in my Metro State class, I decided to start the semester with a drawing and writing exercise called “Map of the World,” drawn from my book The Story in History: Writing Your Way into the American Experience. The exercise serves as a way for the students and me to introduce ourselves to each other and to talk about where we are from.
I begin the exercise by drawing my own map on the chalkboard, adding little stick figures that suggest the cows and prairie of my mother’s German-Swedish North Dakota. Then I add the hills and railroads of my father’s Italian-Sicilian Pittsburgh. Finally, I add details drawn from my own childhood in South Carolina, like the Atlantic Ocean beach where my sister and I used to try “digging to China.”
As I draw I talk about what I am putting on the board and why. Then I deposit a large sheet of drawing/writing paper on each student’s desk and invite them to draw their own Maps of the World, labeling the things they’ve drawn. I also ask each student to write their name, country of origin, and how many years of school they had before entering Metro State.
Once the students are finished with their maps for the moment, I ask them to share them by passing them around. At a certain point I ask students to stop passing and study the map they have in front of them. Once they have had a chance to look at the map for a few minutes I ask them to take out a sheet of paper and write at least five questions they have about the map and drawings.
When every student has written five questions, I ask them to write their own names on their question sheets, as well as the name of the person who drew the map they were studying, then to pass both map and questions back to the map artist. A few of the more talkative students are eager to show their maps and read aloud the questions from their classmates. After they do so, we return to my essay from The Story in History and talk about the various ways they might shape an essay from the things they have drawn and labeled on their maps and the questions they have received about it from the other students.
The five young Somali women all sit together, including the woman I met when I first arrived. Several of them whisper and laugh together as they begin drafting their essays, and I’m happy to see them feeling at home in the classroom but also worried about the distraction for the other students. Later, reading the Somali students’ papers at home, I am given a glimpse of the hardship that famine and war created for some of them and for their families. Some write that they had a high-school writing class in Minneapolis, and before that only a little schooling in the many places they lived during or after the war. One student describes how her father was killed in the fighting, and how she and her mother and older siblings had to hide under a tarp in the back of a truck as neighbors drove them to a place from where they eventually escaped to Kenya.
Slowly I begin to grasp the immensity of the suffering experienced by many of the Somalis who immigrated here, and decide to do some research on what this background might mean for the Somali women in my classroom. In a handbook called Accommodating and Educating Somali Students in Minnesota Schools created by two Minnesota educators, one from Somalia, Mohamed Farid, and one, Don McMahan, who was born in the US, I discover that thirty-five percent of Somali refugees were tortured; hundreds of thousands lost everything. Women were often gang raped and killed in front of their children. In the midst of this chaos, word began to reach Somalia that Minnesota had good jobs and good human services, and thousands of Somalis did whatever they could to immigrate here. Many were helped by the Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture.
Working with the Somali women in my Writing I classroom that fall, I sometimes feel as if I am walking into a poorly lighted room—it takes time to feel my way around and to discover what is smooth or prickly, and who exactly is in there with me.
As the weeks of the Writing I class flow by, the attendance of the Somali women becomes spotty. When they do attend class, I sometimes struggle with how to respond to behavior of theirs that I find troubling, such as not following directions or failing to listen quietly when other students read aloud. I sense that the Somali students might be creating a separate enclave for themselves in the classroom, enacting a kind of protective, passive resistance to a setting that, in fact, may be quite unfamiliar and daunting to them.
Given the horrors they may have witnessed, their need for psychological protection does not surprise me. “Fear and distrust, infused with more than a generation of torture and instability, has been…passed on to the next generation,” Farid and McMahan write in their handbook. The book describes how immigrant Somali students in Minneapolis/Saint Paul schools sometimes exhibit fear, uncontrolled anger, or weeping and general depression. Some fight with fellow Somalis or other classmates. Yet even knowing this, I find it is difficult to predict which routine classroom practices will upset my Somali students. When one of the Somali students hears me say that if students don’t turn in their work within a week, their grades may drop a level, she gets up and leaves the room.
This is enough to make me decide that I need to arrange a private meeting with each Somali student, before or after class. Their responses when I attempt to do this, however, surprise and confuse me: One young woman looks down and I cannot meet her eyes. Another begins to weep. Trying to console her, I remind her that she can get help from the university’s writing center, or that she and I can meet before or after class. She wipes her eyes, but doesn’t arrange for help.
Over the next week, I reflect on where I went wrong, and what other approaches might be more helpful. Finally, casting around for some strategy to bolster my connection to the Somali students, I write them each a short letter thanking them for their work so far and inviting them to meet with me as a group after class next week. I tell them that I have some ideas that might help us make the most of the rest of the semester.
I receive a note from one student saying that her mother does not let her stay after school. The other four tell me that they will come to the meeting. As we gather in the empty classroom, the atmosphere seems tense. I sense that they are anxious to know why I’ve asked them here. I tell the women that I’ve been reading about their country during the civil war and how many hundreds of thousands suffered. I tell them that I am very sorry for what may have happened to them and their families. “It is up to you whether you want to talk about this hard time or write about it,” I say. “But I am here to listen if you would like to meet before or after class.” I also let them know that if they choose to, they may write their research paper on the civil war in Somalia, and that I am eager to learn from them. I wait to see how they will respond. When they remain quiet, I look around and say, “Thank you so much for listening to me.”
We are approaching the largest unit in the semester: a research paper. Two of the Somali students have missed multiple classes, and I worry about their ability to catch up. And two other Somali students who have selected a topic are late in handing in their drafts and resistant to the idea of revising what they’ve written. They send notes to me saying that they are satisfied with their current drafts, and the “C” grades they have received for them.
One of the suggestions Farid and McMahan offer for working with Somali students is to link them with other students in the classroom. Hoping to facilitate this, I pair the Somali women with some of the US-born students in my classroom. A few of these pairings are quite successful. An Asian-American woman who wants to write about making her own clothes clicks with one of the Somali women. These two make a good pair, interviewing each other and taking notes for their research papers. Eventually, they become each other’s peer reviewers. In the end I am relieved to see that two other Somali students who were behind have been able to catch up and profit from revising their work, bringing their grades up a whole step.
The slender young woman in the hijab who was waiting in the hallway months ago now shows herself to be one of the more diligent writers in class, but I still sense her discomfort with me. At one point, she stays after class and insists that I tell her what her final grade will be. She has done a lot of research about her country’s problems, and has written a well-organized first draft of her essay, with good quotations.
I try to encourage her by saying she is doing good work, but that the final draft still has to be completed. I also tell her that I don’t hand out final grades until students finish the final assignment, which is an in-class writing response to a movie we will see in class. She returns to her seat. I sense she is angry with me and am both frustrated and confused by her reaction. Later, I have a conversation with the head of the writing program who helps me to see the student’s response in another light: as stemming from fear and anxiety rather than from anger. That night I email all my students to let them know their standing in the class at that point, in the hope that this will relieve some of their anxiety and help them focus on the final project.
Farid and McMahan emphasize how the young Somalis who immigrate here were born as crisis turned their country into a horror, upending patterns of acquiring food, of worship and education, and of Muslim family life. Many entered Minnesota schools with little or no educational background, and with war and extreme dislocation rattling their ability to concentrate and adjust. A friend who is teaching Somali students in high school reminds me that in addition to these difficulties, Somali students here in Minnesota also face entrenched, systematic racism. Somali boys and other boys of color in particular “are often seen as problems,” she says, no matter what they do. It is no surprise, then, that many of these students act out their fear and terror in ways that are not always easy for teachers to grasp. In hindsight, it seems clear to me that the Somali women in my class are most likely suffering from a form of PTSD.
Their guardedness and skepticism, their tendency to insularity when something in class makes them nervous or fearful, also puts me in mind of the immigrant clannishness that my newly arrived Italian Protestant grandparents experienced in New York City, and later Pittsburgh. Though they did not have to escape a full-fledged war, their Protestantism had drawn the ire of their Sicilian, Catholic neighbors who had twice burned down my grandparents’ church. Yet, in the US, my grandparents chose to live with other Italian immigrants who could pour a glass of homemade wine and sit gossiping under a grape arbor. Not until the next generation would my father and his three brothers become more fully integrated into US society.
Despite my initial concerns, I realize that my Somali students had done the right thing by sitting together. They not only spoke the same language, but shared expectations and even a kind of bond. I think it was important for them to be able to help each other hold on to what was familiar, to calm their fear of the unknown, and to build on the strength of their community.
When it comes time to give my current class of Metro State students their final grades, they all pass Writing I. We have all learned quite a bit about each other: I believe I have gained a better understanding of the ways in which my Somali students’ fraught history might influence their manner of being and responding in my classroom. I have begun to see that their need to sit together can be seen as an expression of solidarity, a desire to be protected from behaviors they don’t know how to interpret, and a potential source of help for me as their teacher. And I believe the Somali students have learned how they might begin to safely venture out of the insular group they formed by trading papers with, offering suggestions to, and interacting with other classmates.
In future classrooms, I’d like to try to ease us all into the enjoyable part of being together in a large, airy classroom where we can experiment and have fun without every activity resulting in a grade; without every direction from the teacher making students’ stomachs ache. For many of my students, life is so full of struggle and chaos that the chance to be creative is sometimes lost. Perhaps I’d even ask students to invite family members to a party toward the end of the semester where we could enjoy some treats and listen to the students read from their work so that we would become, briefly, like a small neighborhood, sharing our stories together and seeing how, within our diversity, we still have so much in common.
Now as I write this a year later, I come across an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about increased US air strikes against al-Shabab militants in Somalia. There are reports that a “massive car bomb in Mogadishu killed more than 500 people.”
Less than two weeks later the same paper features another, very different article about Somali Minnesotans. This one, titled, “Free Somali Tea Buys Connection With Youth,” describes how Abdirahman Mukhtar, a Minneapolis parks community outreach and access coordinator, has been giving Somali boys free pizza and hot tea in an effort to make them feel welcome and safe here, and to keep them from harm.
As I muse on this act of generosity, and on the youths’ need for connection, I imagine doing something similar in a writing classroom, gathering Somali girls and boys inside a warm, well-lighted place, and giving each of them a large sheet of drawing paper. When relatively new immigrants to the United States meet those of us who’ve been born here or lived here a long time, it is natural for them to feel “other,” or different. I suspect that the Somali young women students I taught felt this way, though they did not say so. I’d like to think writing together could be a way to help to ease that sense of alienation.
“Fold your paper in half,” I would direct my students. “On one half draw something beautiful you’ve loved, here or in Somalia or elsewhere. It could be a flower or a human face or a beautiful animal or scene. Then, on the other half, tell me everything about it.”
About the Author:
Margot Fortunato Galt is the author of five books of nonfiction, including two from Teachers & Writers Collaborative, The Story in History (1992) and The Circuit Writer (2006). Two other books of her creative nonfiction were nominated for Minnesota Book Awards: Turning the Feather Around: My Life in Art (Minnesota Historical Society), a first-person narrative of George Morrison, one of the most prominent of Native-American artists; and Up to the Plate: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (Lerner). She has taught writers from K–12 to adults; been an administrator for The Loft, Minneapolis’ center for writing and the arts; and also published three books of poetry, most recently The Heart Beat of Wings (2018), from Red Bird. She lives in St. Paul, with her librarian husband.