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A quick background of Somalis, their beliefs


BY TOHOW SIYAD, STEVE JOU
Sunday, May 31, 2015

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This is the first of a series of commentaries from people and organizations engaged with the work of Create CommUNITY. Create CommUNITY works to dismantle racism through systemic change with a long-term vision of providing a welcoming, non-discriminatory environment with respect and opportunity for all. Create CommUNITY focuses its work around awareness, educational attainment, health care access and housing access.

What continues to make America unique is it is a melting pot of different cultures coming together and wanting the same freedoms this country has grown to represent for over 200 years.

Being a melting pot has not been easy. However, communities that have learned to respect the unique talents and gifts each culture brings to a community often grow and prosper faster than those that get trapped in silos and build walls of separation.

At the Central Minnesota Community Foundation, we call this coming together across race and culture "building social capital" or more simply "building community." We fundamentally believe building bridges across race and culture strengthens our community. That is why the foundation is an active participant in the work of Create CommUNITY, which works "to provide a welcoming, non-discriminatory environment with respect and opportunity for all."

As the greater St. Cloud community continues to grow and its demographics change, it is important we continue to learn about each other. The recent events at Technical High School demonstrate the opportunity to learn more specifically about the Somali culture in our community.

According to research compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one should be cautioned to avoid stereotyping Somalis. Somali culture is dynamic and expressed in various ways, owing to individual life experience and personality. Some Somalis living in the United States may be more or less acculturated to mainstream U.S. culture.

Somalis consider themselves as sharing a common ancestor, Somaal, a mythical father figure. Somalis, the dominant ethnic group in Somalia, make up 85 percent of the population and share a uniform language, religion and culture. In fact, Somalia has been characterized as one of the most ethnically and culturally homogenous countries in Africa.

According to the CDC research, the universal language in Somalia is Somali, a Cushitic language shared by people of Eastern Africa. Somali includes distinct regional variations. As the majority of the population is Muslim, Arabic is the second most commonly spoken language. Those formally educated in Somalia may speak French, Italian, English, Russian or Swahili.

After 1972, however, when Somali became the official language of government and instruction, young people had little exposure to other languages so those who are at least middle-aged and educated are more likely than their younger counterparts to be proficient in English, Italian, Arabic or Russian.

Islam is the primary religion in Somalia, and the majority of Somalis are Sunni Muslims. Author I.M. Lewis, who has written several books about Somali culture, writes that almost all social norms, attitudes, customs and gender roles among Somalis derive from Islamic tradition.

As the CDC research noted, the five pillars of Islamic faith are: 1: faith or belief in the oneness of God and the finality of the Prophet Muhammad; 2: prayer five times a day; 3: giving 2.5 percent of one's income to charity; 4: making a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at least once in one's lifetime; and 5: fasting from dawn until dusk every day during Ramadan.

"The family is deeply valued in Somali culture, as are family honor and loyalty," reports the CDC. "In Somalia, nuclear families usually live together. Though not the norm in Somalia, some of the population live in polygamous (one husband, multiple wives) household situations, with wives having their own residences. Because they are seen as a way to establish clan alliances, marriages traditionally have been arranged, but naturally occurring marriages are increasing. Gender roles often take the form of men working outside the home and women caring for the children.

"Though women have an important economic role, it is important in Somali culture for the male to be perceived as the person in control. Therefore, viewed from the outside, Somali culture is often considered to be male-centered. The previous socialist regime made efforts to improve opportunities for women so Somali women generally have more freedom to learn, work and travel than most other Muslim women. Owing to recent war, drought, and male migration, many women today are heads of household."

Somalis and people in the United States share many values, such as independence, democracy, individualism, egalitarianism and generosity.

While Somalis may not express gratitude or appreciation verbally, they do so in other ways. The CDC report says Somalis are also known to respect strength and pride, and may challenge others to test limits. Sometimes, this can lead others to interpret their demeanor as boasting or opinionated. However, when presented with adequate evidence, Somalis are often willing to reconsider their views.

Before Somalia was colonized, most education was provided by Koranic schools. Educational opportunities and literacy expanded after the Somali script was made official in the 1970s. Also in the 1970s, the CDC says, the government sponsored literacy campaigns, and primary education was made free. However, secondary education still remained out of reach for most of the population. In 2000, the literacy rate in Somalia was 24 percent.

The Somali people who have come to the greater St. Cloud area are proud to call this community home. They have the same hopes and dreams most of us have in this community. Many are working hard to learn English to better communicate and interact in the community. They want to be successful in their careers, grow their businesses and give back to their community. They also connect the St. Cloud region to a much larger global community.

A noted Christian author Charles Swindoll has been quoted as saying, "Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it."

The greater St. Cloud community has an opportunity to react positively to the changing demographics of our community; an opportunity to choose to welcome and get to know our new neighbors. Change is happening in our community and will continue to happen. How we react will determine what kind of community we are building.

The work of Create CommUNITY in "building a community of respect and opportunity for all" has never been more important.

This is the opinion of Tohow Siyad, a local business owner and board member of the community foundation, and Steve Joul, foundation president.



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