Teaching Somali children is not a common experience throughout the United States. Classroom teachers and ESL teachers new to teaching Somali students may initially be anxious about the customs, attitudes, and behaviors of Somali students. The following information is provided to help teachers eliminate unease and to answer questions you have about Somali culture before you begin teaching Somali children.
A Brief History of Somalis in the United States
In 1991, Mohamed SIAD Barrefor’s authoritarian government collapsed in Somalia and sent the country into a free-fall with clans and various factions within the nation taking up arms. The country split into two regions. The Independent Republic of Somaliland is in the north. Puntland is the southern region. The first wave of Somalis seeking asylum came to the United States during the violence and the collapse of the Barrefor government. The majority of these people were in the middle to upper class. They could see that their country was collapsing. Factions fighting within Somalia targeted country leaders, educators, and dissidents and therefore, they needed to leave.
As war and civil unrest continued to decimate the area thousands of refugees left to find safety from the bloodshed. These later refugees were often from the middle and lower economic classes who lost their livelihood as the region floundered through long-term conflict between clans, droughts, loss of food supplies and jobs. According to the Word Factbook as of 2016, more than 1.1 million Somali refugees were hosted in the region, mainly in Kenya, Yemen, Egypt, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Uganda, while more than 1.1 million Somalis were internally displaced. Since Between fiscal years 2001 and 2015, the U.S. admitted more than 90,000 refugees from Somalia. The 2015 Community Survey indicated 119,421 Somalis with only Somali ancestry are living in the U. S. In all, 7% . Most Somalians live in three states-Ohio, Minnesota and Washington. The same graph reports up to 10,000 Somalis living in more than 20 different states.
According to the International Institute of Minnesota, refugees spend an average of 17 years in camps before arriving in the United States. After decades of waiting, refugees arrive eager to start their new lives. Attending school is one of the first steps towards normalizing a new life in the United States. Students living in refugee camps usually have experienced little or no formal education. Some camps offer beginning English classes, others offer literacy instruction in the student’s native language. A Somali refugee without major gaps in academics is extremely rare. Students new to the United States will be experiencing culture shock along with the inability to understand English. A priority when teaching Somali children is to help them feel emotionally safe and as comfortable as possible in the classroom.
Here are some tips specific to teaching Somali students based on the work of Jessic Monney and Gillian Shepodd.
General Cultural Information:
- Somali students have three names. The given name is their first name. The second name is their father’s name and finally, the third is their paternal grandfather’s name. Boys and girls in a family will have both the same middle and last names. Females will not change their name upon marriage.
- Religion: The vast majority of Somalians are Muslims. Their first language is Somali. yet, frequently, they are fluent in Arabic so they can study and discuss the Quran.
- Attire: Somali girls and women wear a hijab which is a dress. Wearing pants is not considered acceptable for females unless worn under the hijab. A maawis is the traditional clothing for a man. The snug-fitting hat that men wear is a qofe. These clothes can make the new student stand out even more to his or her peers. Finding a way to include how clothing can be a part of a person’s culture will help classmates accept the new student and prevent bullying.
- Somali culture highly values right-handedness. The right hand is considered the clean hand and is used for eating, writing, and greeting people. Parents will retrain a left-handed child into right-handedness. This is common in many Islamic cultures.
- Parents do get involved in their children’s school when an issue arises. Somalis are vocal and do advocate for their children. Homework is considered the children’s work, so they do not always understand the need to be involved with it. Teaching is the teacher’s job.
- Public displays of affection are strictly forbidden. It is also viewed very negatively for two people of the opposite sex to stand too close together.
According to Minneapolis Public Schools Multilingual Department here are some further
Classroom Tips for Teaching Somali Children:
- Language barrier: families may not able to express themselves and communicate so they may feel powerless and disadvantaged. Don’t talk to parents as children even if they don’t speak English because it’s rude and disrespectful.
- Watch your body language. Families may misunderstand your nonverbal behavior for something that you don’t mean. It is important to see others’ expressions and different ways of communicating. Be cautious with touching or hugging. It is not encouraged in Somali culture.
- Traditionally speaking, no birthday celebration or party exists in the Somali culture. Only EID which is religious Celebration.
- Calling to people with your finger, Somalis consider that to be very rude and a disrespectful way of communicating. Please wave your hand or approach the person if you want to call.
- Nodding head is another of saying “YES” or I got it.
- Sharing a meal is showing of respect and it is part of the culture.
Tips for Teaching Somali Children Based on Personal Experience:
- Somali students are not used to being viewed as black. Somali students tell me it is one of the most difficult parts of learning to live in America. The color of their skin doe not define them.
- A priority for many parents is teaching their children the Quran. Therefore, many Somali children take classes to study the Quran outside of the school day.
- Some educators think a student is being disrespectful because the Somali student will not look directly at them; whereas. Somali culture doe not require direct eye contact. The student is not intentionally being disrespectful or inattentive.
- Most Somali students place a high cultural value on education, hence, work diligently to successfully complete all school work.
To summarize, Somali students bring a new dimension and cultural diversity to the classroom. Encouraging other students to accept the newcomer with limited English and wearing different clothes can encourage a positive long-term academic outcome for the new student. The United States continues to welcome approximately 9,000 Somali refugees every year. You never know when a family will move into your school district.