Our Refugee Family-Update
June 14, 2017
We brought along a little bit of backyard Americana today— cornhole! We taught the kids how to play in the backyard and were able to coax everyone to give it a try. They also enjoyed a few rounds of keep away (which they knew how to play) and soccer in the sweltering heat of the afternoon. We finished the day with what has become our favorite for laughs: Jenga.
Hamdi and her bilingual friend Lee taught us more about the traditions of Ramadan and Eid, which we found had many parallels to Lent and Easter including fasting, prayer, and a celebration with family/friends, food, and small gifts. We think we confirmed the kids will be going to summer school beginning Friday, but aren’t 100% sure the translation went through on that!
We discussed how it was a challenge to communicate when we didn’t share a common language. Through Lee, Hamdi replied eloquently: for communication we just need to be two humans interacting with one another.
Update May 8, 2017
As Ifrah’s twelfth birthday approached, our group debated back and forth over what sort of celebration–if any–we should have. Did Somalis traditionally note their birthdays? Would we be offending Ifrah by offering a present? What gift would be appropriate?
We researched birthday traditions and discovered Somalis more commonly celebrate the death date of an honored relative than commemorate the date of their birth. But we also learned some Somali girls like to have Chicken McNuggets on their birthdays. In the end, we decided to proceed, figuring that it’s better to make a mistake in doing something than err by doing nothing. Besides, any mistake would be made with the best of intentions.
The celebration was a success: We helped the girls bake and decorate cupcakes before everyone gathered around to sing Happy Birthday–a song with which the family was familiar–and watch Ifrah open her small gift.
Besides celebrating, it was a very busy day: The group played several rounds of Jenga and began preparing for summer: Abdifatah and Abdihakim learned how to use the donated reel mower on the back yard. A neighbor stopped by, introduced himself, and finished the job with his gas mower. We helped hang a new clothesline in the back yard and helped the family prepare pots for tomato and other plants.
The birthday girl and the entire group enjoyed the day of celebration. And probably the best gift of all came thanks to continued generous donations: Today, we purchased and arranged for Friday delivery of a washing machine and dryer: a welcome addition for Hamdi who has been hand-washing all of the family’s laundry.
Update May 1, 2017
On our way to the Abdi house today, we discovered the library was closed. What to do with the two hours suddenly spread out before us? We sat in silence on the couch, nodding and smiling, racking our heads over how we might pass the time. And then, we remembered the word puzzles a parishioner had donated to the family just this morning. We found the picture for sun and matched it up to its word. Sun, we said. And Hamdi replied: qorrax.
With the translator’s help, we demonstrated how to use the microwave. We sat in a circle on the floor and introduced the family to Uno. We set the donated PS3 back to factory defaults so the family could access YouTube. And suddenly, the house was filled with Somali music. With every hand of Uno, our circle got a little larger. And the children sang and danced and we were astonished to find that two hours had passed so quickly.
* Thanks to the parishioner who donated the clothing. They’re a perfect fit for Abdifatah.
Update April 22, 2017
On Sunday we brought the family more furniture and their school uniforms. Having guessed on the sizes, we made mistakes: a skirt that was too tight on Ifrah. A shirt whose sleeves came up to Abdifatah’s elbows. Pants that refused to button. But that’s par for the course: Already we have accepted that we will make many mistakes.
It is difficult to get to know someone without shared language. At least four times we spoke by phone with the translator who told us that for every hundred words we say, the family understands two. And so we adapted. Pointing at words in a sticker book and saying them in English. Listening to Somali words and trying to repeat them, amidst laughter at our efforts to wrap our mouths around the language. Trying to fit Hakim’s wide feet into our own shoes so that we might judge his size.
We are learning to speak slowly. We are learning to improvise. We are learning that it is not only the refugee family that benefits from our efforts: By trying to understand the world through another culture’s eyes, by having the opportunity to learn about another way of life, we benefit just as much.
It will take us months before we can hold a meaningful conversation with this family. And that’s OK. They and we will keep trying until something…somewhere…
Update April 10, 2017
Born in the land of poets in the small coastal city of Kismayo, Hamid was forced to flee her country twenty-five years ago: Somalia’s civil war had killed nearly her entire family, leaving the then-teenager and her brother to find their way, driving when they could, walking when they had no other choice, to first one, then a second, refugee camp in the city of Dadaab, Kenya, over two hundred miles from home. Composed of five refugee camps encompassing twenty square miles, Dadaab is home to over 260,000 refugees, the majority of them Somalian. For comparison, the population of the city of Toledo is roughly 282,000 and spans over eighty square miles. In fact, Dadaab has often been called a city, with its hospitals, churches, graveyards and the market, where Hamid worked selling produce after having locked her children, each of whom was born in at Dadaab, inside their home for their safety.
On April 10, we met with our refugee family in their new Cleveland home where we were welcomed with murdui, a traditional coffee infused with ginger and cardamon. In our ninety-minute meeting, our interpreter translating from Somali to English and then back again, we learned about Somali wedding traditions. We learned that Hamid’s husband died when she was pregnant with her youngest child. We learned about the family’s surprise when they opened the box of macaroni and cheese and found a foil packet inside: Cheese is unheard of in the camp. Best of all, we learned that smiles and laughter are a universal language.