Ode: A Somali refugee vs. Iowa weather, who wins?

Jan 4, 2017


Credit Ally Karsyn

When I was in school in Somalia, sometimes my parents would pick me up early before classes were done. We would wander through back streets and alleys – this way and that way – just to get home. On weekends, my siblings and I had to stay in the house. I didn’t know why. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. Why were we being kept in the house? I didn’t know it wasn’t safe outside. I didn’t know about the constant gunfire, gang fighting, the massive death and displacement of the Somali people, caught in the middle of a civil war.


My parents did everything in their power to shield us from the violence, the fear, and the sadness that was their reality.


In 2003, while I was still young, my father left Somalia to find work. He travelled through Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya and Malta – usually on foot, but sometimes, if he was lucky, by car – then by boat. Finally, he arrived in America, six years later, in 2009.


Since there wasn’t an American Embassy in Somalia, my mother had to take us to Ethiopia to get our American Refugee Visas. We waited four long years. By the time we got to America, we had not seen my father in 11 years. My youngest sister didn’t even recognize him. She was 6 years old when he left.


But finally, in 2014, all of us were in the United States. We were safe and happy, together again.


It was a nice moment, but very quickly, I realized that living here required one very important thing. I had to learn English. It became clear one day when I was watching TV with my brothers and sisters and the man kept saying, “Tornado, blah, blah… Tornado…”


I had no idea what he was talking about. I asked my sister, "Do you know what he is saying?"  She said, "Maybe he is talking about rain or snow." We had never seen snow. We didn’t know it doesn’t snow in the summer.


I called my aunt, who spoke English and asked her what the word "tornado" meant.  She said, "Oh! Tornado is dangerous!" I told her the TV said, "Tornado is coming. Go to basement."  She told me the TV was right and that we should go to the basement. Right now.


When we got down there, all of the neighbors from our apartment building were already in the basement. Everyone was lined up next to the back wall and looked very nervous. One man wanted to talk to me – I guess he thought I spoke English. He was telling me something that to me sounded like bvioasgggasbvbvihiavi…


So I smiled at him and nodded. I had no idea what he was saying. He soon realized I didn’t understand and just turned and walked away quietly.


After a while, people started to leave. Another man tried to explain what was happening. What I heard was “Tornado… blah, blah… GUN… It is GUN.”


I was confused and scared. Did someone have a gun? We left Somalia to get away from the guns and violence! What was this man trying to tell me? I finally figured out that he was saying that tornado was GONE. I had nothing to fear.


Not knowing much English also made it hard to get a job. I actually got to the second round interview to be a delivery driver. I was only asked two questions. Do you have a driver’s license? Yes. And are you familiar with Sioux City?


My interpreter asked me the second question in Somali and used a word for “familiar” that had a very different meaning in Somali than it did in English. I answered as best I could.


The interpreter told the interviewer, "Mahamud doesn't feel comfortable in this city,” which made them think I would leave soon. No one wants to hire someone who will leave soon, but that’s not what I meant. I didn’t get the job.

Now that my English is much improved, I realize what exactly they were asking me. I was being asked if I could find my way around Sioux City, if I knew the different streets and neighborhoods, but that was lost in translation.


Not knowing English limited what I could do, and I wanted to change that.


In the last two years, I’ve completed the ESL program at Northeast Community College and, more importantly, passed the proficiency test so I could finally take regular college courses. Thanks to everything I’ve learned, I can write a research paper, including citations in MLA format – all in English.


One year ago, I even joined the Toastmasters Club. This amazing group of people has taught me how to give presentations, speeches, and even tell jokes – in English. I can be here tonight and tell my story.


I continue to learn that language is more than just the literal words written or spoken. It is the ability to share history, feelings and ideas, even the hopes and dreams. English is an especially expressive language and my English-speaking experiences, community and knowledge continue to lead me on an adventure of a lifetime.


Oh, and also to look out for tornadoes.


Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.


The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, February 3 at {be}Studio in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Be Moved: An ode to transitions and transformations.” Tickets are available at kwit.org.

For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.