For the past ten years I have worked as a volunteer teaching English to Somali refugees in Lewiston, Maine. I work with people who are just beginning to learn English. Even though my ability to communicate verbally with them is very limited, I have developed warm and caring relationships with many of them. For people who cannot state their address or phone number in English, dealing with pharmacies, hospitals, landlords, and social service agencies can seem like insurmountable challenges. In class we act out everyday scenarios they encounter - shopping for food ("I want to buy a bag of rice? How much does it cost?"), visiting a doctor ("My eyes hurt? I do not have insurance.") We laugh when they say "mouse" instead of "mouth" or "zebra" instead of "zipper." When a Somali Muslim woman who prefers not to touch men says something just right, I have learned to give her an "air high five" to congratulate her without touching her. It is incredibly rewarding to teach courageous people who have endured challenges I can't begin to imagine a skill that will enable them to live fuller lives and contribute positively to the society they have been thrown into by forces beyond their control.
A Somali Fisherman Catches a Shoe
“Beat. Bite. Bat. Boat.” I was teaching a group of immigrants, most of them Somali refugees, to pronounce different vowel sounds during a beginning English class one morning at the Adult Learning Center in Lewiston. I asked if they knew what “boat” meant.
“Water,” said one person.
“Swim,” said another.
A Somali woman wearing a bright shawl over her head and a long dress picked up a yardstick and pretended to pole a small boat through the water. People began to laugh. Someone said, “Fish.” Suddenly the pole became a spear, and she began spearing imaginary fish swimming across the floor. She was back in the village where she was born, on the shore of the Jubba River, in southern Somalia.
She sat perfectly still, carefully searching the linoleum tiles. She jabbed the spear against the floor first to her right. Once, twice. Then to her left. Again and again. I took off my shoe and slid it toward her on the floor. She speared my shoe, lifted it up, and put it on the table beside her. The spear was now a knife. She chopped off the fish’s head, scraped off its scales, and began fishing again. Then she caught my other shoe. Another Somali woman came up to the boat. She wanted to buy a fish for dinner. She paid for it with a piece of paper ripped from her vocabulary notebook. “Ten dollars,” she said. Then she put the fish on a pan over the fire she had lit on the table. When I reached over to pick it up, she scolded me: “Hot! Fire!” Then she served it to me on a piece of paper. It was delicious.
By now the entire class had dissolved in laughter, smiling, joking, and speaking Somali together. It was eleven o’clock; class was over. One by one, they stood up, put away their notebooks and pencils, and left the room. “Good-by, teacher! Thank you! See you Thursday!”
A small miracle had just taken place. With a little imagination, a yardstick, and a shoe, the Somali refugees in our class had been magically transported back to their world, to a Somali village before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1991, before their houses had been destroyed and their family members killed. Before they walked for days to reach refugee camps in Kenya. Before hundreds of thousands of Somalis had died or been driven into exile.
I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like if a civil war broke out in Lewiston tomorrow. Armed men break into my house and threaten to kill my family unless I give them all our money and all our food. They burn down our house, and we start walking to Boston. After ten years in a tent in a refugee camp there, we suddenly find ourselves transported to a Somali village. We’re totally dependent on others. I can’t provide for my family. We have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. I don’t know how to speak Somali and I don’t know how to spear fish.
When this Somali woman was spearing fish – in her imagination at the Adult Learning Center or in reality back in her village before the civil war – she was fully engaged in her world. She was proud; she had valuable skills and a purpose in life. She was a fisherman; she could catch fish to feed her family. She was a merchant; she could sell fish to earn money for her family. She was a productive member of her society.
In Lewiston things are different. She can’t speak English; there are no fish to spear or sell. Some people resent the fact that she is here. They complain that she lives off government programs like food stamps and subsidized housing. But she is trying hard to learn English, acquire new skills, and find a job. Her children are going to school; they will grow up and make a positive contribution to their society – to our society – just as generations of immigrants from Canada, Ireland, Greece, and China have done before.
Loring Danforth volunteers as an English teacher at the Adult Learning Center in Lewiston.