In February of 2017, the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (MVUUF) welcomed a Somali family of 5 and journaled about their experience each time they met with the family. With their permission, we’re sharing some excerpts here. It paints such a real and touching picture of one family’s adjustment to life in the US and the relationship they formed with their American helpers. We’ve drawn out a few stories that really spotlight the epiphany moments where volunteers and family members learned about the different lenses through which they view the world.
February 7: Welcoming the Family
The family arrived! It has been a busy week for them and all the volunteers who helped set up their apartment.
The family is a widow and her 4 children ages 18-24. They came from Egypt where they lived since leaving Somalia in 2009. They were part of a refugee community in Cairo. The children all speak English, the older ones better than the younger ones. Muna, the mother, speaks no English, but she is very eager to learn.
Last week on Tuesday, 2 of us spent 10 hours with the family. First we picked them up at 8:00 am and headed to the Social Security office where they all applied for their cards. Then we drove to the MN Council of Churches office where they had over 3 hours of orientation. It was intense. At the end of the session, the Somali interpreter came with them to the bank to teach them how to cash their checks. We had brought some snacks just in case we didn’t get a lunch break and by 4:00 everyone was very hungry. We went to a Middle Eastern restaurant with a buffet, owned by an man from Egypt. Back at their apartment we said goodbye and took some pictures and I am sure everyone was glad to relax.
This has been a busy week for the family. They had their physicals at the clinic. On Monday we went to visit Muna and bring them a blender, another bed, and some English books. We visited an hour and had tea with them.
Another woman and her children were visiting and we had many exchanges about new experiences and how when this family came 15 years ago, there were not the friends and services there are now.
On Thursday we took Abdi and Mohammed to the post office to finally pick up their mail box key. This they could not do until their lease was signed, which happened Wednesday. From there we went to the library to sign them up for the library cards. It was very user-friendly and Abdi and Mohammed filled out a postcard to themselves which the library mails to them and they bring that back to the library to get their cards.
While filling out the cards, Abdi’s phone rang and the U.S. host family called to say Abdi needed to be at school to take his assessment exam in 20 minutes. It was a good thing we had a smartphone so we could navigate the route to the school! Off we went to school to register him for classes . He was given an assessment test and signed many forms.
Here is an example of the importance of good communication. One morning the fix-it person knocked on their door early and no one answered. He had a key to the apartment and thought no one was home. Sara heard someone and thought it was her older brother coming in. When she went to the door, this big, tall man was standing there with tools and when Muna came out she thought this was the end- they would all be killed. Tears were shed and finally there was understanding about who this person was who had a key to their apartment. As they told us the story they were all laughing, but you could just imagine what they were thinking at the time they confronted this worker.
We already feel we have bonded with the family. Each time we are with them we have new experiences, understanding and connection.
On Monday, we went with Muna and Mohammed to Open Door School. After taking a little exam, Muna was registered for the beginner ESL literacy class. Mohammed will also take classes at the same school so they will ride the Metro Bus together and come home together. Mom will be happy she does not have to do this by herself yet.
Today the family had their in-home cultural orientation which lasted 3 hours and was held in their apartment since they already had some English knowledge. But, even with that Minnesota Council sent an interpreter to help explain some of the more detailed information and there was a volunteer trainer who explained the various areas of cultural orientation- banking, documents, money, safety, budgeting, insurance, expenses, what to do “if”- and a lot more.
Mohammed said he was ready for some sightseeing after all the serious stuff is out of the way. Karen has made a list of many places to visit and things to do, so we too will look forward to the fun excursions.
This week began the second full week of school for Abdi. He continues to meet new friends, Somali, Hmong and Karen students.
Muna began school Monday. Nan received a call at 9:00 from Mohammed who went with Mom to the bus. They got lost walking to the bus and wanted me to help get them on the right path. After mapquesting and a nice person stopping to help them they made it! Even though we had driven this route twice, actually walking the route makes the whole world look very different.
Muna has met a few Somali women in class who have helped her along with beginning English. Nan picked her up at school on Tuesday and managed to talk about school, clouds, wind, her emergency trip to the hospital with an asthma attack (she is OK), the new paint on their hallway door and walls, and a volunteer’s delivery of a vacuum. It is amazing what a few words and hand signs can do to help get your point across. Charades anyone?
Another funny story. A week ago they picked up their mailbox key at the post office. No mail came for a week. Finally someone told them they needed to write their names on the INSIDE of their box or the postman would not deliver. A little bit of information that had a big impact.
Tuesday and Thursday Muna and Mohammed had their employment orientation at Minnesota Council of Churches. Muna told Nan she would laugh with all the things they had to learn about and papers they had to sign.
And their aunt showed them how to use the washing machines in their apartment building- something we thought about but assumed they already knew. Now they do! Muna said the machines are AMAZING! It used to take them all day to do their laundry- by hand. It is hard to believe a month has passed since their arrival. They have already learned so much!
We took Mohammed and two of his cousins to the Somali Museum on Sunday. The museum is a good place to learn about Somali culture. Our tour guide was excellent. The cousins had been in the U.S. since mid-2000s and the younger boy was born in the U.S. Muna and her family were from the city and didn’t experience the nomadic life of the Somali people, which we learned about at the museum. After we explored the museum, we went to the Midtown Global Market for a bite to eat.
Driving home in the snow was an experience. Since the family arrived only one small flurry had happened. Minnesota weather had been mild and unusual. The snow was new for Mohammed, but not the cousins. Mohammed said, “Here it is sunny one minute and cloudy and snow the next, hot one day and cold a few hours later. This is not like Egypt.”
Last Sunday we took Muna and Mohammed to the Science Museum and saw the film Everest as well as many exhibits. They loved it and had never been to a theater in the round before. We all got dizzy!
This has been another busy week. The dinner at our Unitarian Fellowship with Muna, Mohammed, Sara and Abdi with our volunteers who helped settle them in was such fun. Sara told the stories of their trip and a few were so humorous they had us all laughing. Muna told many stories, some of them quite heavy, and Sara interpreted for her. Mohammed told about adjusting to life in the U.S. and how it is different from his life in Egypt. Abdi told me he was too shy to speak in front of a group but I see this changing down the road. We had 16 members from MVUUF in attendance and everyone mentioned how much fun the evening was.
The story of this family’s adjustment to life in Minnesota and their relationship with their American friends continues on, but we hope you have enjoyed a window into their experience. To learn more about ways your church can become involved with refugees, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!