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Lost In America (Somali Children)
Lost in America
(Somali Children)

By Ibrahim Hassan Gagale

In the old days or during colonial times, only Somali adult males used to travel abroad for better life opportunities and were known as "sea men" or "sea fairers". Although travel restrictions were imposed on Somalis during colonial era that limited their overseas travels only to Britain, Italy, and France (Colonial Powers) and to some colonies of these powers like Aden (Southern Yemen) and others, the intention of these men was never to resettle permanently in foreign lands but to work hard there temporarily for future investments in their motherland. They were proud of their land, people, and culture, and used to come home once several years for the purpose of traditional marriage or visiting families in order to keep their own identities, bringing interesting stories with them that some became part of Somali folk tales or fairy tales. For having strong traditional values, they had retained their social and cultural heritage through difficult times in foreign lands.

During civil wars , which ravaged Somalia in the last two decades of the 20th century, times have changed, and circumstances of life have altered the nature and objectives for Somalis going outside. Thousands and thousands of families with children fled the civil wars that caused death, destruction, fear, famine, and hopelessness in the Horn of Africa. Many of these refugees were generously resettled in the West - U.S.A, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Now, the intention is to live permanently in these countries, acquire citizenship, and become an integral part of these societies.

It is inarguable that these families have almost recovered from the hardships inherited from civil wars back home, and raise their children in safe environment with available life opportunities, depending on personal experience and education. However, there is a major problem that was unexpected to many Somali diaspora. The families are facing cultural crisis in the West today, their children are fast losing the most invaluable thing of their cultural heritage: The language. Somali identity, marriage customs, history, and personal pride of these children are also threatened. Without proper remedy for cultural restoration, these longtime-held social values may become history in the next or third generation. According to cultural, educational, and behavioral adjustments in the U.S.A, these children could be classified into three (3) categories or groups by age.

The First Group

This group belongs to those who came to America at the age between 15-17 years. Because of their bigger age, this is the luckiest group in terms of retaining Somali cultural heritage. Most of them retain well their culture and traditions such as language, religious values, traditional marriage, and are proud of their origin and identity. They speak both Somali language and English well. Most of this group is not affected by the negative culture on American TV such as violence, drugs, and sex, and most of them have commendable conduct. The only problem that many of this group has is related to academic achievements. Their age makes them miss elementary and middle school education and they directly go to high schools in America. Although many of them have not high performance in schools, they manage to finish high school and receive diploma but their low academic skills discourage them to apply for higher education (colleges and universities) and mostly end up in workplace to support themselves and their families. They also offer financial support to their relatives back home. In this group, girls are more dependable than boys for family support and they are much less involved in legal troubles than boys. Another characteristic of this group is the will and eagerness to invest in their country of origin for future life.

The Second Group

The children discussed in this group are mostly boys . This group came to America at the age between 7-14 years and has the most difficult time in the U.S.A. They are much less familiar to Somali culture than the first group because they were either born in crowded Refugee Camps in Kenya or Ethiopia where conditions of life were very rough and poor or came to these camps at very young age (1-4 years) . Many of these boys were immediately exposed to cultural shock after arriving and are astray or totally lost between two cultures. At schools, many have negative attitude. They skip school, lack desire for learning, have low academic performance, and are usually rude to their teachers. Some are diagnosed with learning disability and qualified for Especial Education which is regarded as stigma by many Somali parents usually . Some of them become dropouts and others hardly graduate from high school. Many do not have high self-esteem and are not interested in higher education. Apparently,they may not like working or even showing ambitious goals for better life.

Many boys in this group covered several or many juz of the Holly Koran in Africa but today they barely recite Juz Amma because they have been brain-washed by TV, video games and peer pressure. At home, they are stubborn, disrespect their parents and do not listen to them. Single mothers with large families have the hardest time with boys in this category for missing father`s role because boys are much more troubled in America than girls. They usually come home between 11:00-12:00 at night - some are seen sitting in parks late at night, around 3:00-4:00 am. Some children publicly admit that they have hard time of following or respecting the traditional values of their families - It is an omenous sign that they dislike their own culture. Some Somali girls kick off their marital traditions too by having relations with non-Somalis, especially with Hatians and Jamaicans, others secularized themselves by throwing traditional headscarfs behind them.

On the street, they usually hangout with gangs and dropouts. Many imitate what they see on American TV and video games and act on it sometimes. They love Rap Music, wear pants halfway down their butts, and put gang-sign red bands around their heads. When the boys of this group greet each other, they say, "Hey yo, waz up man? or " Yo, gotta my money fu?", and many even do not know how people are related to them. Some of this group have trouble with the law by drinking alcohol, using illegal drugs (usually marijuana), making shop-lifting (stealing in super stores) or committing serious crimes, ending up in detention centers, youth alternative places, or correction facilities. Both boys and girls in this group speak English fluently, and Somali fairly. Sometimes, they speak sort of Somalish (A direct translation of English to Somali.) Examples of the Somalish language are: "Hargab baan haystaa ama aniga waa jirrantahay" (I have cold), "Shaadhkaygii guriguu joogaa" (My shirt is at home), "Berri iskuul waa haystaa " (I have school tomorrow.) This group, both girls and boys, are very good at one thing: They have broken off with the evil tribalism.

The Third Group

The children of this group are probably the most quiet, polite and respectful at home, school, and on the street. They were either born in America or came to it at very young age, between 1-6 years, and start preschool or kindergarten. This group, which is most Americanized, has good academic achievements and ideal behavior in schools. The future of both girls and boys is very promising and their high grades permit them to obtain higher education after high school. The major problem of this group is the inability to speak Somali language. They have totally lost their mother language. They understand when their parents speak Somali but they can not respond or express what they want in Somali. like the second group, these young children are also free of tribalism influence. The second and the third groups of Somali children in America are almost lost culturally and many are in dire need for cultural restoration, and drug rehabilitation for some.

Cultural Trauma in America

The dreadful cultural erosion of Somali children in America has troubled many parents and inflicted Cultural Trauma on them with increasing stress, anxiety, and depression that they already brought with from Africa. Tears in their eyes and laments in their words reflect the regrets they have in America. The fear of the situation prompted many families to move recently to Malaysia, Syria, Gulf countries etc to restore their children culturally. Others take their children to Somaliland Republic, which is quiet stable and peaceful for the last 13 years, during summer vacations. The prolonged civil wars in Somalia are detrimental to the cultural restoration of Somalia`s children for not being safe for vacations.

American families and other immigrant communities share the cultural woes with the Somalis too. Since 1980s, a negative-cultural revolution of violent movies, video games, shootings, sex, and nudity is taking place in America and is constantly played on American major networks. Abundance and accessibility of drugs on American streets is also taking heavy toll on children. Unchecked freedom of children and the diminishing of traditional parental control over children is another factor contributing to the cultural erosion of American children. Children have inadequate critical thinking and reasoning capacity to make good choice for their own lives and that is why traditional family rules of child raising is much more important than child excessive freedom and government interference that prevail today in America. Many parents blame Hollywood (American Entertainment Industry), gun ownership business , drug dealers, and government interference on traditional family values for the deterioration of cultural values in America by creating a violent, negative culture in the minds of young generations.

Currently, children of all races are at the mercy of these powerful businesses. Their families and the rest of the society look to the American Congress to ban this negative-cultural revolution sources which destroys the fabric of longtime-held American Social values. If human greed of money-making is not controlled by the moral authority of the business, then it should be regulated by law to avoid cultural erosion that threatens the ideal values of a society.

Somali communities in America are much less organized than other minority immigrant communities from South America and Asia. These communities are unified and have strong leading committees that advocate for their social and educational developments as well as sustaining and strengthening their cultural heritage while Somalis are more committed to tribal issues rather than communal issues. This tribal attitude prevents Somalis from having strong, unified community with representation selected or elected on education and experience. The tribal arrogance of ignorance denies Somalis of the chance that could minimize the effects of the cultural erosion of their children. In some states, where Somalis have large communities like Ohio and Minnesotta, there are some Islamic and language schools that help children preserve their cultural and traditional values.

The apparent remedy or solution of this cultural problem of the Somalis in America could be either organizing Somali Culture and Language summer schools for the children or relocating them temporarily back home during school vacations for cultural restoration, and drug rehabilitation for some, if security and financial possibilities permit.

(Dal-kaguur waa dhaqan-guur)
(This story is based on seven-year old personal observations by the writer.)

Written by: Ibrahim Hassan Gagale.
Email: ibrahim_hg@yahoo.com

Copyright 2003- Mareegta Raadraac ee Farshaxan. All Rights Reserved.