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Teaching Somali Children: What Perceived Challenges Do Somali Students Face in the Public School System?



This article reviews the literature on the experience of Somali immigrant children and their lives at school. A semi-structured, open interview provides insights into the historical and personal backgrounds of Somali children. Data explores issues of language acquisition, religion and familial connections in relation to their schooling experience. Suggestions are offered to educators for improving the educational experience for Somali children and families.
International Journal of Education
ISSN 1948-5476
2010, Vol. 1, No. 1: E12
Teaching Somali Children: What Perceived Challenges
Do Somali Students Face in the Public School System?
Teresa M. Kruizenga
University of Wisconsin – River Falls
410 S. Third Street, River Falls, WI 54022-5001, USA
Tel: 1-715-425-3738 E-mail:
This article reviews the literature on the experience of Somali immigrant children and their
lives at school. A semi-structured, open interview provides insights into the historical and
personal backgrounds of Somali children. Data explores issues of language acquisition,
religion and familial connections in relation to their schooling experience. Suggestions are
offered to educators for improving the educational experience for Somali children and
Keywords: Somali refugees, Bilingual education, Immigrant education
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2010, Vol. 1, No. 1: E12
1. Introduction
Through an interview with Mohamed Saeed (pseudonym), I learned that February 16, 1993
was a date he and his family will never forget. This is the day that Mohamed, his wife and
their seven children arrived in the United States, one of the first immigrant families from
Somalia to arrive in the area. “First of all, I want you to know that I thought I would never
immigrate [sic] from my country. It is really an experience in life—life is unpredictable”
(personal conversation with Mohamed). Mohamed would be the first to tell you that he and
his family were one of the lucky ones. As I listened to his story, of the escape from Somalia,
it is hard to imagine that anyone could think of themselves as being lucky after experiencing
such violence. His description of the city in which he lived being in flames, “the shelling,
the shooting, and the horrors of a civil war” happening right outside his door (Fared, 2004, p.
vi), would make anyone of us wonder how lucky one really is. Mohamed and his family felt
lucky to be alive. After coming to the U.S., Mohamed was not able to get a job in his
previous profession, banking. Five of his seven children were attending a public school in
the area. The principal at the school in which his children first attended noticed that
Mohamed could speak English. With no Somali translators available the schools were
desperate to find someone who could help these new immigrants, the principal invited
Mohamed to come to the schools and help. Mohamed turned down the position. It was
not until after he received encouragement from a professor at a nearby university that
Mohamed went back to school to become a bilingual teacher of Somali. A few years later
he returned to the university to earn a masters degree as well.
Google Mohamed Saeed (pseudonym) and you will get 4,800,000 hits. However, Mohamed,
author and educator, is one in a million (or shall I say 5 million). Mohamed, an extraordinary
man, who has dedicated his life to advocating for Somali children and families agreed to meet
with me to discuss Somali culture and the experiences of Somali children within schools in
the United States. Was I nervous calling a strange man’s phone number with no real assurance
that he was indeed the man I was looking for? Yes would be an understatement.
Narrowing my Google search to Mohamed Saeeds’ living within the area, revealed to me,
through the magic of the internet, a home address and phone number with no guarantee that
this was, in fact, the person I was looking for. Worried that I might appear as a stalker or
worse a telemarketer, I dialed the number. Despite my trepidation, the voice on the other
end reassured me that indeed I had found the right man. This paper is an attempt to better
understand the Somali culture and the experiences of Somali students within US schools
through a literature review and the voice and words of Mohamed.
As you can see in table 1, prior to 1991 very few people of Somali decent resided in the
United States. However, with the onset of the civil war in 1991 Somalis were fleeing their
country in great numbers. The privileged and the educated people left first (Farid, 2004).
Their connections, resources, and language skills provided them with opportunities to escape
the bloodshed and horrors of the civil war. Since that time tens of thousands of Somali
refugees have relocated to the United States making them the largest African refugee group in
this country and one of the most unique sets of newcomers to enter this nation (Condon, 2006,
as cited in MPR News Q retrieved September 24, 2009). “Minnesota has an estimated
40,000 Somalis, with most living in Minneapolis or St. Paul” (Bigelow, 2007, p. 11). This
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influx of people from a very unique culture, arriving with little knowledge of English, has
challenged the current school system to address the social, emotional and educational needs
of the Somali children and families.
Table 1.
Somalis bring with them a combination of a minority culture, religion, and race that provides
a different type of immigration issue. Somali values and culture have been passed on from
one generation to the next through the rich oral tradition of the Somali people. The rich oral
tradition, the fact that the Somali language did not have a written form until 1972 (Putman &
Noor, 1993), the closing of schools due to the civil war and the lack of educational
opportunities in refugee camps often mean that Somali students enter schools in the United
States with little to no formal schooling. In addition to arriving with little knowledge of
English, the “day-to-day lives and schooling experiences of these youth are complicated by
social pressures that are contradictory to their faith, such as dating, premarital sex and alcohol
use” (Zine, 2001, p. 401). Thus, demonstrating that many problems faced by Somali
children in school, stem from cultural differences different from other immigrant populations.
“In the world of public education, immigrant and refugee [students] are often characterized
by what they lack at school” (Bigelow, 2007, p. 7); students are often viewed from a deficit
model. For immigrant students where teachers may know very little about the lives of their
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students outside of school, an attempt to get to know their students and understand that they
come from a rich cultural and cognitive background is a crucial first step in creating a bridge
between home and school (Moll et al., 1992; Gonzalez et al., 1993; 2005). The process of
immigration entails a tremendous amount of stress for newcomers (Portes & Rumbaut, 1996).
The worldviews and cultural ways of being for individuals are often threatened when they
come into contact with the dominant culture in their host country. Previous ways of being
and relating to others become vulnerable as newcomers begin to navigate through the
demands of their new societal contexts (Oikonomidoy, 2007). Structural demands such as
race, religion, language, and status influence the patterns of adaptation of new comers. Thus,
as teachers we must care enough to attempt to learn, understand, and know our students’
political, historical and personal situations –‘funds of knowledge’ (Moll et al., 1992); taking
the important steps to use what the students bring from their backgrounds into the classroom.
Ladson-Billings (2006) states, “students [of color] look to schools as the vehicle for social
advancement and equity” (p. 32). In other words, reinforcing the importance of
understanding the experiences of immigrant students is a primary importance for educators.
I seek to explore and understand the educational experience of Somali children by examining
the research of the education of Somali students in the United States, Canada and the United
Kingdom and through a semi-structured interview with Mohamed Saeed. Focusing on this
specific group is important for at least three specific reasons. First, examining the education
of this community is necessary to give an overview of the issues and unique cultural
perspective that these new immigrants bring to the United States. Second, the examination of
current research on Somali childrens experiences in formal schooling is needed to determine
future directions in education reform to meet the needs of refugee children, and, finally, to
establish a knowledge base to determine future directions for research. In this paper, I will
explore the various explanations for the struggle, successes, and educational experiences of
Somali students in formal schooling.
1.1 History of Somalis Immigrating to the U.S.
Somalia is located in the Horn of Africa and is a little smaller than the state of Texas.
Somalis are an ethnic group that is almost entirely Muslim (Wilder 2000). Most of Somalia is
rural and nearly 80% of the people are pastoralists, agriculturalists, or agro pastoralists. The
vast majority of people are ethnic Somalis who practice Islam and speak dialects of Somali
(Putman, 1993). Their society is clan based with most families having many children and
including extended family members in the household (Masny, 1999). Oral language is the
main form of communication with no written language until 1972 (Crabb, 1996).
“Between 1991 and 1993, the war created more than 1.5 million refugees” (Gardner, 2004, p.
81). Somalis were forced to leave their country due to influences of colonialism, communist
military dictatorship, and religious persecution. Years of oppression eventually drove the
Somali people to war. The civil war had a devastating effect with an estimated 400,000
people being killed, dying of famine or disease; almost 45% of the people were displaced
inside the country or fled to other countries (Putman, 1993). Desperate for a place of peace
and prosperity Somali refugees flocked to Minnesota. Due to word of mouth, Minnesota
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was proclaimed as the place of good employment, good schools, excellent refugee services,
and most importantly the hope of peace and being reunited with loved ones.
Thus, Minnesota became the destination of hope for many Somali refugees. According to
Minnesota Public Radio, “Minnesota saw its third largest influx of immigrants in a quarter
century in 2004, with immigrants from Somalia leading the pack. Minnesota is 16
but it is first in the number of Somali immigrants. Ohio was a distant second (Condon, 2006,
as cited in MPR News Q retrieved September 24, 2009). There is a tremendous gap between
Minnesota educators and the Somali immigrant students. With the sudden influx of Somali
children entering the schools in Minnesota it is imperative that we take the first steps toward
understanding and implementing a culturally relevant curriculum that meets the needs of
these students. In the words of Mohamed Fared (2004), “Learning about another culture is a
life-long undertaking. The first step in this rewarding journey is to contrast elements of
one’s own culture to the other” (p. viii). This paper is an attempt to take those “first steps” to
learn about the Somali culture and the experience of Somali children attending schools in the
2. Methodology
The research is interpretive and qualitative in nature. The data for this paper came from a
literature review and an interview with a Somali immigrant and educator. The focus of this
paper is on research examining the schooling experiences of Somali youth with limited
formal schooling and a semi-structured interview with Mohamed Saeed from a larger Somali
community study. I began a search of existing literature using the general terms “Somali,”
“refugees,” “immigrants,” “Muslim,” in combination with “students,” and “education,” I
searched electronic databases such as Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC),
Educational Full Text, and Social Sciences Abstracts using the following keywords: Somali
refugees, bilingual education, and immigrant education. I also examined the reference
sections of the books, book chapters, and articles of this literature. I narrowed the search
to literature that addressed the education of Somali students in a formal schooling experience.
I initially intended on limiting the research to include research within the United States only;
however, after seeing how little research was out there addressing the educational experience
of Somali youth I broadened my research to include Canada and the United Kingdom as well.
This methodology and range of data sources were used to understand and recognize the
complexity of the Somali experience.
I found much published research centers on medical and psychiatric needs. However, I did
not include articles from medical journals in this review or studies published before 1997.
I first coded articles and book chapters using the keywords, “identity,” “language
acquisition,” “stereotype,” “acculturation,” “cultural consonance,” (or dissonance), “beliefs,”
and others. From there, I looked for patterns by which to group keywords into themes that
addressed my question. Thus, keywords used are “language acquisition,” “parental and
community factors,” and “Somali student experience.”
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In general, my literature search revealed that these studies focused mainly on cultural
explanations or structural explanations. Each study used different questions, used different
perspectives, and varied in completeness when describing the Somali experience in a formal
school setting. The studies primarily used literature review, case study and interviews. When
Somalis immigrated to the United States they found a culture “that is about as different from
[Somalia] as two places on earth can be” (Farid, 2004, p. 19). In their native culture their
religion, cultural traditions, parenting, and schooling were congruent with the society they
knew. Because American culture is so different from what is known for the Somali people,
it is no wonder that they encountered many difficulties within the school system. In order to
better understand the experience of a Somali immigrant, culture and how that impacts
teaching and learning I thought it was imperative that I heard the stories of the Somali people
as well.
Mohamed Saeed (pseudonym) is not only an immigrant from Somalia he is a teacher and
author as well. I was first introduced to Mohamed Saeed through his book. I read the text
and found it was not only informative, but a moving human story about overcoming all odds.
His story inspired and compelled me to meet him in person. I was confident that his life
experiences could not only help me to understand the experience of a Somali immigrant, but
to help current and future teachers alike. I Googled my participants name in hopes of
finding a place of business or a professional office that I could contact him at. However, all
I was able to locate was a home address and home phone number. My cultural background
dictated that it would be rude or invasive to call someone you had not even met at their home
to ask for an interview. I decided to contact different Somali leaders at various community
centers in hopes that I would be granted an interview. Meetings had been set up, only to be
cancelled. Thus, it wasn’t until after other interview participants had not worked out that I
decided to give Mohamed a call. I called him at his home and simple asked if he was the
author that I was looking for. He confirmed and, to my great surprise, he agreed to meet
with me as well as be interviewed.
We agreed to meet at a restaurant not far from his home. As I pulled into the parking lot,
my eyes immediately began to search for a parking spot. The sunny, 48 degree, November
day brought many people out to enjoy what could possibly be the last warm day of the year.
Light and dark colored cars filled the lot, absorbing the suns heat. The bright red and
yellow “All Day Buffet-Every Day” sign in the right front window, welcomed families who
had gathered inside to enjoy a Sunday afternoon with families and friends. I sat outside, on
a red vinyl covered metal chair, looking for a man who would fit the description given to me
on the phone earlier that day: an older man (he stated old) with a white beard. I was fifteen
minutes early. My goal was to conduct a one-hour semi-formal interview with open-ended
questions. I checked my digital voice recorder, patted the extra batteries in my jacket pocket.
I glanced over my questions one last time, trying to make sure that all my questions
addressed and pointed to what I had come to learn: What perceived challenges do Somali
students face in the public school system? To what do you attribute these difficulties to? What
do you feel the schools could do to alleviate these problems? The insights gained from
these questions could help me as a teacher educator, school teachers and administrators to be
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more informed and accommodate the needs of Somali learners.
I am currently an instructor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of
Wisconsin-River Falls. As a woman who appears to be white and middle-aged I have much to
learn about the Somali culture. This lack of understanding of the Somali culture concerned
me as three of our six partner schools have a large population of Somali pupils (i.e., 30%,
25% 15% Somali speaking pupils). The Teacher Education Department is extremely proud of
the strong partnerships established and maintained over the years with the schools in the Twin
Cities area. As a result of this partnership, our candidates are welcomed into the schools
and classrooms with open arms. This opportunity affords our prestudent teachers an intense
field experience component while simultaneously learning methods in each of the core
subject areas. The prestudent teachers spend half the semester in the college classroom setting
getting instruction in theory and methods, the other half of the semester prestudent teachers
are placed in an elementary classroom. While the prestudent teachers are in the elementary
classrooms we (the instructors) are in the elementary classroom setting with them as well (i.e.,
observing master teachers, observing prestudent teachers, conferring, modeling lessons in
large and small groups, etc). This access to the elementary school gives me and our
prestudent teachers a front row seat to learn how to tap into culture capital to build
meaningful learning opportunities for pupils. However, to build these meaningful connections
for prestudent teacher and pupils alike, we need to learn more about the students and their
community. In the following section, I will present a review of literature that I hope initiates
the process that allows for meaningful connections necessary for teachers to understand the
Somali experience. The first theme will address language acquisition and how it is relevant to
the Somali educational experience. Then I will review literature related to parental and
community factors. Finally, I will evaluate literature linked to the Muslim student
3. Literature Review
3.1 Language Acquisition
This section will not cover all of the literature related to language acquisition. I have chosen
articles that relate to the Somali educational experiences because like Masny (1999) I believe
that literacies (oral and written forms) are interwoven with religion, gender, race, culture,
identity, ideology and power. Gee (1991) states “literate behaviors incorporate ways of
talking, reading, writing, and valuing, that is, ways of being in the world. Most of the
studies that I looked at pointed to a close link between language and identity as well as
indicated that students who had acquired good English language skills achieved at higher
levels academically and socially.
Masny (1999) wrote about how school-based literacy practices are often less accessible to
non-mainstream children since their personal and community literacies, related to their home
culture and with their characteristic values and ways of making sense, are seldom represented
in the culture of the school. These differences between home socialization and school
expectations can often contribute to school failure as well as have a negative effect on the
children’s identity formation. Masny suggested the use of a language experience approach,
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which draws on the students’ personal experiences to teach and increase vocabulary and
reading/writing capabilities. The author called for teachers to learn about the cultures and
experiences of their Somali students in order to facilitate their acquisition of language and
academic skills as well as provide the children with a sense of voice and a link between
school and community cultures.
Kapteijens and Arman (2004) discussed how children’s language retention and acquisition
related not only to academic achievement, but also to their success with acculturation and a
sense of continuity with their parents and others from their native country. Bilingual
children had the highest test scores and high self-esteem. They also had the fewest conflicts
with their parents. Bigelow (2007) found a strong correlation between native language
proficiency that linked a close personal tie to their parents; she believed that this gave youth
access to many sources of social capital. This social capital in her opinion could possibly
lead to the growth of cultural capital and is thus linked to social mobility. Kapteijens,
Arman and Masny criticized the tendency for schools to adopt an English immersion only
approach as it increases cultural dissonance and can cause children to lose their native
Oikonomidoy, (2007) revealed that all participants in the study mentioned that, upon arrival
in the US, they did not know how to speak English. For some of them, having a
classmate from Somalia was a source of relief and encouragement. The inability to speak the
language meant exclusion from academic and social functions. Similar to the students in
Valede’s (1998) study, the participants in this study initially struggled to learn English.
However, they worked hard on their English language skills and used multiple resources to
accomplish this. In Olsen’s (1997) study, participants were also aware of how their
pronunciation affected the perceptions of their peers. They worked hard on their accents in
order to avoid being targeted for the way in which they spoke English. It seems that the
students did ‘invest’ (Norton, 2000) in language learning, knowing that it was necessary
milestone in the potential of acceptance by peers and the progression in the academic life at
In summary, recent researchers consider school settings that use cultural elements from the
students’ native countries important to facilitate language acquisition. Language is a major
barrier to learning, until children become competent in speaking reading, and writing English
they will struggle in school. To improve school resources, administrators need to look
carefully at the recent research on language acquisition, and teachers must familiarize
themselves with the Somali experience. Findings support that identity and language
learning are affected by discrimination, cultural dissonance and the reception that refugees
receive from their host society.
3.2 Parental and Community Factors
Intense conflicts between parent and child are often cited as an adjustment problem for
immigrant and refugee children as well as having significant family responsibilities (Lee,
2001; Lew 2006). These responsibilities sometimes interfere with a student’s ability to be
successful academically. In contrast, Bigelow (2007) found Somali parents within her study
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to be an asset to the student’s educational success. For example, one student in the study
was the oldest of 10 children and some people may assume that being the older adolescent
she would be expected to help with the family financially by working or taking charge of
domestic duties. However, the family worked together as a unit to support each other and
the expectation in the family is that each student will study; that education is of utmost
importance. Another key finding was that the mother never allowed the children to make
decisions or assume adult responsibilities due to her lack of skill in English, something often
reported in immigrant families (Gonzales, 2003). Instead the mother used Somali friends
and family members. Bigelow also reveals that the mother within her study maintains a
close monitoring of the children’s educational success. Thus, indicating that parental
involvement and close monitoring are important for academic success. Masny’s (1999)
research supports Bigelow’s findings. She found that Somalis gain their strength in group
membership and group activity in such a way that even working alone or living alone is
uncommon in the Somali culture. However, Masny quoted school teachers as saying that
the Somali families did not care about their children’s school progress. In this case,
stereotypes and prejudice may have caused teachers to hold mistaken opinions about the
Somali students as these comments opposed behaviors and interviews held by the Somali
parents within her study.
Kapteijns and Arman (2004) report that Somali parents often have a fiercely positive attitude
toward education. When this is shared by the youth, this correlates with student education
success. Parental involvement in their children’s education—showing interest in or
supervising their homework can undo the negative impact of substandard schools Somali
students in urban settings often find themselves in. Bigelows research revealed parents who
sought outside support for their children to aid with homework. This parental support and
involvement, research suggests, as well as the ability to keep their children somewhat
grounded in their own ethnic culture (while they become competent in the mainstream
domain), have positive results for school achievement.
Despite these favorable findings the Somali Community Needs Assessment Project (2001)
reports that some Somali parents thought American culture had changed their children in less
than favorable ways. Parents in a focus group stated that some Somali youth have
abandoned customs and traditions such as praying five times a day, fasting during the month
of Ramadan, or wearing traditional attire. Surprisingly, there were some participants in the
focus groups who welcomed government help in disciplining their children. One parent said
he was willing to have the authorities send his child back to the refugee camp if the child
commits more than three crimes because keeping him in the United States would do more
harm than good. They also feel that living in the United States has changed the way Somali
families deal with conflicts. The law has replaced elders in the role of ironing out family
differences. In Somali culture, elders are regarded as experts in the family matters because
they know how to counsel and appease all parties involved. The participants in the focus
groups expressed their desire to maintain this traditional system of conflict management and
dispute resolution.
In summary, parental factors of misunderstanding, conflicting cultural beliefs, and language
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difficulties to what Rumbaut and Portes (2001) term dissonant acculturation, in which parents
lag behind their children’s acquisition of the language and culture of their new home.
Parents may feel a loss of control. Family conflicts may increase, with an ensuing loss of
the sense of safety and security on the part of the children.
3.3 Somali Student Experiences
Zine (2001, 2001) explained that students within Canadian schools negatively stereotype
Muslim and that schoolchildren often tease foreign-born peers about their Arab names.
Muslim students are often alienated for displaying outward signs of their religion, such as
wearing hijab and fasting during Ramadan. Zine reported that most Muslims consider
terrorist activity as criminal, and Muslim students reported that they had to defend themselves
against being called terrorists. Gilbert (1999) conducted research which sought to examine
the experiences of 30 Muslim children in a primary school in north-west Britain. Findings
demonstrate how the process, procedures and rationale of school policies and administrators
continue to privilege whites and discriminate against non-whites, and more specifically
Muslims. His discussion highlights that analysis of organizations requires a far more
refined and sophisticated understanding of institutional racism (including institutional
discrimination of the grounds of religion or belief) which permeates within and between
organizations. These experiences of discrimination as a result of their religious practices, for
example, clothing, daily prayer, and refusal to date are not the only issues that Muslim
students address.
Bigelow (2008) explores the issues of race and religion as they pertain to adolescent Somali
immigrants and their lives at school. She reports that Somali parents and community
leaders worry that the youth are forgetting their culture, their language, and most important,
their religion. Somali students are adopting the social, linguistic, and cultural codes of the
dominate group and through this process Somali youth are reconstructing national and
religious identities that challenge traditional versions of what it means to be a Somali Muslim
3.4 Discussion of Literature
Overall, the literature that is reviewed here emphasizes several important points that apply to
Somali youth. Language is a major barrier to learning, until children become competent in
speaking reading, and writing English they will struggle in school. Cultural elements from the
students’ native countries are important components to use to facilitate language acquisition.
To improve school resources, administrators need to look carefully at the recent research on
language acquisition, and teachers must familiarize themselves with the Somali experience.
Findings support that identity and language learning are affected by discrimination, cultural
dissonance and the reception that refugees receive from their host society. Parents may
feel a loss of control. Family conflicts may increase, with an ensuing loss of the sense of
safety and security on the part of the children. Muslims may find fitting in at a
Judeo-Christian public school is very difficult. Somali parents and community leaders worry
that the youth are forgetting their culture, their language, and most important, their religion.
In this section, I will review themes offered by Mohamed in a semi-structured interview.
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4. Interview Data
4.1 Observations
To analyze my data I listened to the interview in its entirety three times before transcribing.
I then highlighted and took notes of the transcriptions. During the interview I made a
couple of observations. One was that the participant was very adamant about his Islamic
faith. As he spoke of his religious beliefs his voice was unwavering. It appeared to be
very important to him that I understood the Islamic faith and how this faith is at the very core
of who the Somali people are. Mohamed indicated that if I want to truly understand how
best to educate Somali children I need to know and understand their religion. It also
appeared to be very important that I understood that the Islamic faith does not promote or
condone death, killing, or harm of any type in the name of Allah.
Another observation made was the extreme kindness, generosity and hospitality that was
shown to me. Because we had met at a restaurant I had planned on buying dinner for my
participant. I wanted to pay because of the gift of time and expertise he was willing to share.
No matter how many times I profusely offered, he insisted on paying because “I” was his
guest and it was the Islamic way. He repeated this multiple times during our time together
that this is what Somali people do.
4.1.1 The Importance of Language
This brief section sets out to highlight a few significant factors relating to “language” and its
connection to culture and identity.
“The Somali language did not have a written form until 1972” (Putman & Noor, 1993, as
cited in Fared, 2004, pg. 4) Thus, the rich oral tradition of the Somali people is an important
aspect when discussing the values of the culture. Poetry, stories, and proverbs have been
passed from one generation to the next (Fared). Because of this rich oral tradition older
Somali people may have grown up never reading a single word, but can memorize large
volumes of information. Mohamed shared with me that in Somali many people can listen to
large volumes of information and memorize it completely. Because of not being exposed to
a written language, parents of Somali children may not read or write in Somali or any other
language. Mohamed stated the following:
Before this our language was a spoken language only. When students are reading
and writing it is more difficult for them. So I always recommend to teachers to pay
attention to this. People should know how to read and write. For Somali to be
successful they need to learn how to read and write in both Somali and English (M.
Saeed, personal communication, November 2009).
Not only does Mohamed feel that it is important for Somali children to learn to read and write
in English he states that it is equally important for them to learn to read and write in Somali.
The importance of Somali students learning Somali and English simultaneously has three
distinct purposes according to Mohamed. One purpose is that education is viewed as
important to the success of the Somali people. “Education is considered invaluable”
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(Fared,2004, p.2), and is not taken for granted. Literacy is a critical part of this success to
the Somali people. But, because of extreme circumstances during the civil war education
opportunities have been limited and thus children and adults alike may not read or write in
The importance of learning and maintaining the language in order to continue familial
relationships and Somali traditions is expressed as a priority and state of emergency by
Mohamed. The conversation below illustrates the population, he believes, should be placed
in priority of receiving current resources within the school system.
And also when people stay longer they are getting married. . . having babies. And
these babies don’t have the resources for their first language and these are the most
needed group now. They need more tradition. Because some of the family members
don’t . . . they don’t speak English of course. And the kids don’t speak Somali.
They cannot communicate. This group of the younger generation that was born
here . . . they need more than those who are coming because they [recent immigrants]
have more resources now and they understand the traditional ways (M. Saeed,
personal communication, November 2009).
Above, Mohamed is expressing a concern to the possible loss of the Somali language. He
associates the loss of language to the loss of a culture, family ties, and ultimately the identity
of the Somali people. His voice reveals a sense of deep sadness as he talks about how more
and more youth are being lost to the American ways. He believes that students who are
instructed in Somali are less likely to lose their first language and thus hang on to the
traditional Somali culture and continue to support and nurture the important familial bonds.
“It is important especially for the family. . . for the family are talking together. Mohamed
sees these family connections important in helping children to understand their culture and
identity; however, not being able to speak the same language that your parents, grandparents,
aunts, uncles etc., can cause great divides between family and child. This disconnect could
result in the dividing of a family because they cannot understand each other, but the
implications are much greater to the Somali culture.
Lastly, when it comes to maintaining the home language, Mohamed believes the students
who can speak, read and write their native language can transfer their knowledge learned in
Somali to English; thus, creating a bridge between prior knowledge to current knowledge.
They need to continue practicing the speaking, reading and writing of their native language.
Actually, I will give you a case as a teacher. . . something that we’ve already
experienced. . . I did it. .. with a colleague of mine. A Somali bilingual teacher. We
were teaching first grade. They brought kids . . . a number of kids who don’t speak
Somali. Reading [English] was confusing, difficult for them and they are first grade.
They. . . the teachers. . . um. . . brought them to us and asked what do we do. So
what we did is . . . Let’s teach them first language [Somali] and pair them with those
who speak the language. This was a clinical. . . crucial. . . crucial . . .we measured
their feelings. How are they responding to . . . Every week there was 15%
progress. . . 20% progress. . .by 3 months they were reading Somali and speaking
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Somali and reading in English. They were talking with their peers. We could see
them talk together. The moral is the importance of learning Somali. This was a
real experience (M. Saeed, personal communication, November 2009).
As you can see from the above quote, language was used to advance these first grade students
academically. Even though these students were born here in the United States, English
speaking only, Mohamed taught the children how to speak Somali using peers and then
taught the children to read and write Somali and English simultaneously. In this section, I
will review recommendations offered in the research reviewed, followed by gaps in current
literature that suggest directions for important future research.
5. Implications for Practice
Researchers suggest that Somali students, to acculturate successfully, must merge new and
native cultures in an additive assimilation strategy. Students should be engaged in
learning/researching about their own identities and those of their classmates. All students
should learn about how radicalization occurs at schools and in communities (Bigelow, 2008).
Researchers find that retaining one’s native language helps to maintain family and cultural
ties that are important to one’s identity and self esteem.
Social support is important for Somali parents as well as youth. Researchers have suggested
that parents be welcomed and informed by school personnel. To overcome prejudice and
discrimination, Somali youth need support at the structural and personal levels. Teachers
need to confront their own attitudes toward immigrant and refugee children and create
classrooms in which ‘funds of knowledge’ is respected from all children (Moll et al., 2005).
6. Gaps in the Research
There are several gaps in the literature. My literature search showed that research in the
experience of Somali youth in formal schools is thin. I noticed that the studies that I did find
were similar in methodology. All but one of the studies were qualitative case studies that
involved semi-structured interviews. This provided rich experiential details, but often can’t be
generalized across programs and institutions.
Aside from stressing language acquisition and imploring the teachers to use a more culturally
relevant pedagogy I’d like to see research addressing academic achievement in math, science,
and language arts for Somali students. Bigelow and Zine did a nice job of addressing the
difficulties of being Muslim in a Judeo-Christian culture; however, I think more studies need
to be written to address the strong link between religion, culture, race and identity.
7. Conclusion
Mohamed’s interview paired with research gives teachers and schools insights into possible
ways to help Somali children succeed. Mohamed repeated multiple times the need for
communication and the key to successful communication, in his opinion, is bilingual support.
Schools need to think about adding bilingual services not only to help students learn English
and help with parental communication, but to create meaningful academic connections,
maintain language to support culture, identity, and familial bonds.
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Mohamed emphasized that teachers need to understand the students’ backgrounds. Many
times Somali students come here with very little or no formal education. This information
has important implications for educators. It is crucial for these students, from the first day of
school, to know that are accepted and valued members of the learning community. Teachers
need to value the knowledge that they bring to the learning community versus seeing them as
academically deficient. Mohamed also wants schools to give them the time and space they
need for their daily prayers. Schools and teachers need to take the time to understand these
students in order to lead them to higher education.
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Appendix 1. Interview Protocol
Interview Protocol
1. How and when did you get the idea to write your book?
a. How did you choose your audience? Why?
2. Overall, how would you describe the current school experience for Somali children?
3. In your book you state that you are an ESL/ELL teacher in the Minneapolis School
District. How many years have you been teaching? In your opinion what is the
best approach to teaching Somali children literacy skills such as speaking, listening,
reading, and writing?
a. Should Somali children be taught to read and write in Somali?
4. What advice would you give a white teacher on how to advocate for Somali children
and families?
5. If you could design a curriculum that considered the material, physical, psychological,
and spiritual needs of Somali youth what would that look like?
a. How would it be different than what is currently taught in schools today?
6. On page 24 of your book you state, “In Somalia, parents were NEVER expected to
participate at school, even regarding discipline issues.” Yet, multiple time in your
book you talk about the importance of parental involvement. How do you envision
parental involvement in the schools?
a. What would parental involvement look like at different grade levels?
7. American culture is so different from Somali culture. How can schools do a better
job of informing parents. . .
a. how schools work
b. of their options
c. rights
8. On page 38 you give a vignette, of an art lesson gone wrong for the Somali students in
the class due to being asked to draw a picture of people and animals. As a past
elementary teacher I know that many, if not all, elementary writing curriculums ask
students to draw a picture as a way to introduce writing a narrative. These drawings
are then used to demonstrate how a writer develops a story. The students are asked
to draw themselves, families, pets etc in these pictures. How would you change or
modify this in order to respect the fact that Islam has banned the reproduction of the
human image and the images of animals?
9. If you could design the perfect school for Somali, what would it look like?
... war left all institutions destroyed, clashes and divisionism between Somalis while villages and cities were indiscriminately bombed and looted, basic services like water, health and education collapsed (Cummings & van Tonningen, 2003).In many scholarly documents, it is said that Somalis fled the country in great numbers including the privileged and educated that left first (Farid, 2004 in Kruizenga, 2010).A huge migration of the elite class amidstdeterioration of education and the most poor left behind in the hot plate could have shrunk and multiplied loss of hope as well as momentum to reconstruct meaningful education. The harrow and destruction of specialized teacher training colleges that existed before the civil unrest in Hargeisa and Mogdishu which the retired Engineer has echoed above could explain the quality gap in the teaching and student achievement in the schools and universities that emerged some few years after the war. ...
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This article is based on a three years of hands-on experience, informal interviews with key educationists, lecturers and Somali students; and insider-outsider observations of Somaliland University Education. Its goal is to identify higher education gaps and possible pathways that could resurrect quality higher education. The article was analyzed based on desk and document review assisted by personal ethnic observation and participatory learning both in the boardroom and classroom. Evidence shows that an over 80% educated elite fled the internal Somali conflicts before 1991. Multiple increases in the number of universities in the aftermath of the civil war have attracted teachers with less or without any teacher training. Quality higher education and quality teaching are the highest priority in Somaliland Universities reflected in the very few technocrats imported from East Africa and across the globe who are not enough to fill the gap with very few quality local teachers. Local teachers not well prepared to do the difficult job of teaching, research and consulting because they are either un-or-under-qualified. Vulnerable university instructors and absence of national framework that regulates higher education comes with structural challenges of: infrastructure, policy, curriculum and teaching, accountability and; unemployment and vulnerability which are discussed at length. An etic outlook of Somaliland's higher education is also laid out. They impede practical education and breeds double vulnerability to the graduates and future economy since the future of any country depends on its teachers. The fate of Somaliland education is not only a product of their own making but also attributable to neoliberal policies. The article outlines a number of policy recommendations in relation to post-conflict societies around that could guide the Somaliland Ministry of Education and policy on possible realities that could move this country forward.
... Many Somali children in the UK only have second hand knowledge of the country, even though they would respond to it as familiar, as Somali parents, in common with most refugee communities, retain strong emotional ties to their place of origin (Kahin, 1997). Feyisa Demie et al. (2007) identified that inclusion of Somali language and cultural images in the curriculum was important for the raising of children's self-esteem and achievement and Teresa Kruizenga (2010) points out that Somali students, along with all others, should have opportunities to engage in learning and researching about their own identities. ...
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This article begins by reflecting on the present refugee crisis and its relevance to children in the UK. It identifies the need for teaching about the refugee experience to young children and argues that literature can provide a conduit for this. Since the millennium there has been a rapid increase in the number of books published for children which take this as their theme, aimed at ever-younger readers. Taking as a case study The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman, a picturebook commonly used in lower primary classrooms, the article considers how this text promotes understanding and validates the circumstances of refugees. It closely examines the motivations and aims of the writer, how the book was mediated by teachers in the primary classroom, and how refugee and non-refugee children read and responded to it. Findings are presented from an interview with Mary Hoffman herself, juxtaposed with data from three classrooms suggesting that pupils gained valuable insight into a complicated and controversial issue. However the research concludes that viewing children through a refugee/non-refugee binary was reductive in not recognising the multi-layered nuances of meaning which were constructed by young readers who brought to bear a wide variety of individual life and family experiences. Furthermore, teachers in the study played a powerful role in mediating the texts when sharing them in the classroom, and devised a selection of stimulating resources to provoke reader response in terms of empathy, “social action”, and some critical literacy.
... While the educational gap in Minnesota is overly debated, the future holds good for colored population. Kruizenga (2010) argued that amid the cultural differences that might put mental breaks on immigrant communities, Somali children in the public school system is thriving. Research shows that from the period between 2008 and 2013, the number of nonwhite students enrolled in Minnesota schools has increased; while the number of white students in the state has decreased by 2.5 (Nancy & Lisa, 2013). ...
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The study found that there is a correlation between community’s hotbutton issues, dissatisfaction, and sociopolitical participation. The study recommends that in order to cope with the changing social and political landscape, a multifaceted strategy to empowering this impacted community and dealing with the rapid turnaround of population be devised.
... While the educational gap in Minnesota is overly debated, the future holds good for colored population. Kruizenga (2010) argued that amid the cultural differences that might put mental breaks on immigrant communities, Somali children in the public school system is thriving. Research shows that from the period between 2008 and 2013, the number of nonwhite students enrolled in Minnesota schools has increased; while the number of white students in the state has decreased by 2.5 (Nancy & Lisa, 2013). ...
Full-text available
In an attempt to probe and further illicit insightful information from wider interdisciplinary professions, the study employed triangulation of quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection. The study found that there is a correlation between community’s hot-button issues, dissatisfaction, and sociopolitical participation. The study recommends that in order to cope with the changing social and political landscape, a multifaceted strategy to empowering this impacted community and dealing with the rapid turnaround of population be devised.
... On the other hand, a dearth of scholarship exists to contextualize the schooling successes and challenges of children from African refugee ethnic groups who represent 27% of all refugee arrivals in the U.S. between (OIS, 2012. Furthermore, extant research on African refugee students' schooling in the U.S. has focused largely on the experiences of Somali refugee youth (Bigelow, 2009;Kruizenga, 2010;Roxas & Roy, 2012;Roy & Roxas, 2011), thereby leaving the experiences of other African refugee ethnic groups relatively unrepresented. The focus on Somali refugee students may be warranted by the fact that Somali ethnicities are the largest refugee group of African descent in U.S. ...
This article explores how six ethnically diverse African refugee youth transcended constraining social structural forces and maintained high levels of academic engagement at a high school in a small Northeastern city. Using ethnographically contextualized case study methodology, this article examines the refugee youths’ processes of acculturation and adaptation to American schooling. The article particularly examines the role of pre-resettlement social circumstances in refugee camps, home cultural influences, and parental scholastic expectations in shaping the participants’ scholastic engagement. The findings suggest that the participants’ resilience and optimism about the promise of American schooling in tandem with local community-wide support produced agency with which they transcended countervailing forces in schooling. This phenomenon is conceptualized in this article as agentic scholastic engagement.
This chapter reviews the impact early experiences with family involvement have on young children and their families, early childhood programs, and teachers. The author discusses the growing demand for early childhood services, characterized by a growing and changing society. There is discussion of developmentally appropriate practices and the ethical conduct of early childhood teachers as they navigate issues of social justice related to family involvement and engagement. The author presents findings from a recent pilot study to illustrate the successes and challenges experienced by eight diverse early childhood programs as they reflected on their family involvement practices. The author also emphasizes the importance of promoting equity and celebrating diversity through family involvement practices including examples, successes, and challenges that may arise.
Existing literature suggests that acculturation and integration processes for immigrant youth from East Africa are complicated by family values, interaction styles, and social roles that are in conflict with those of the US host culture. The purpose of this study was to explore first-generation female Ugandan immigrant youth perceptions, beliefs and attitudes toward self-development and identify factors among their social contexts that impact their development and adjustment. This study utilized dimensional analysis, an approach to the generation of grounded theory. Data collection included over 100 h of community participatory observation and 28 interviews in total. Participants included 20 English speaking Ugandan females aged 16–25 years who immigrated to the US after age of eight. Participants’ adaptations and adjustments led to an altered developmental path, including their beliefs about gender, ethnic and racial identities, and how they balanced and integrated US culture into their existing understandings and cultural awareness. Conditions that impacted the identity development process include timing of their immigration, the contexts of reception, media, the Ugandan Community, the school social setting, the perceived value of Ugandan cultural maintenance vs. the value of adopting certain American traits, and experiences of prejudice and discrimination vs. new future opportunities. The findings represent an in-depth consideration of the cultural, linguistic, religious, racial, and social attributes of the female Ugandan immigrant youth population and can therefore be seen as an important step in the direction of developing an understanding of the developmental assets and risk/protective factors that characterize this young immigrant population.
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This study was determined to generate street-smart answers for the phenomenon. It sought to understand the phenomenon from the perspective of those who are vulnerable to extremism. A group of Somali-Minnesotans (21 people, 67% them youth) was interviewed for the study. Challenging the conventional view of what makes bright people extremists, participants were asked this question: why are Somali-Minnesotan kids joining the jihadists overseas? And the findings are the following.
Full-text available
This case-study determined to generate street-smart answers for the phenomenon. It sought to understand the phenomenon from the perspective of those who are vulnerable to extremism. A group of Somali-Minnesotans (21 people, 67% them youth) was interviewed for the study. Challenging the conventional view of what makes bright people extremists, participants were asked this question: why are Somali-Minnesotan kids joining the jihadists overseas?
Full-text available
Using the concepts of ethnic resilience and selective acculturation as a theoretical foundation, this study analyzes the effect of religion on the leisure behavior of Muslim immigrants to the U.S. The research project was based on 24 interviews that were conducted in the spring and summer of 2002 with immigrants from Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Korea, and Mexico. The results of the study show that the effect of Islam on leisure behavior manifests itself through the emphasis on strong family ties and on family oriented leisure among Muslims; the need to teach and supervise children and to pass traditional moral values to subsequent generations; the requirement of modesty in dress, speech and everyday behavior; as well as the restrictions on mix-gender interactions, dating, food and alcohol. The findings of this study suggest that leisure researchers need to pay more attention to the effects of religion on leisure behavior and should strive to incorporate the religious beliefs as part of the cultural heritage of minorities.
Full-text available
Muslims constitute a significant and growing percentage of American youths, yet no articles have appeared in the social work literature to orient social workers to this population. This oversight may result in ineffective, or possibly even detrimental, practice outcomes with Muslim youths. This article reviews the nature of Islamic discourse, significant Islamic values, and potential value-based conflicts with the dominant secular discourse. The article concludes with recommendations for culturally sensitive and effective practice with Muslim youths.
This text introduces teachers to research methods they can use to examine their own classrooms in order to become more effective teachers. Becoming familiar with classroom-based research methods not only enables teachers to do research in their own classrooms, it also provides a basis for assessing the findings of existing research. McKay emphasizes throughout that what a teacher chooses to examine will dictate which method is most effective. Each chapter includes activities to help readers apply the methods described in the chapter, often by analyzing research data. Chapter I, Classroom Research, introduces the reader to major research purposes and research types as they relate to classroom research, the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research, the formulation of research questions and research designs, and ethical issues in research. Chapter II, Researching Teachers and Learners, presents research methods that can be used to examine teachers' and learners' attitudes and behaviors: action research, survey research, interviews, verbal reports, diary studies, case studies, and ethnographies. Chapter III, Researching Classroom Discourse, deals with methods that can be used to study the oral and written discourse of classrooms: interaction analysis, discourse analysis, text analysis, and ways to examine the social and political assumptions underlying the choice and presentation of content in second language teaching materials. Chapter IV, Writing Research Reports, provides guidelines for both thesis writing and journal articles. Researching Second Language Classrooms is an ideal text for TESOL research methods courses and an essential resource for inservice teachers who wish to undertake classroom research. © 2006 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.
Hmong American youth are often stereotyped by the popular press as either high-achieving "model minorities" or low-achieving "delinquents." In this ethnographic study, Stacey Lee attempts to move beyond the model minority image of 1.5-generation students and the delinquent stereotype of second-generation students to present a more complex picture of Hmong American students' school experiences. The author explores the way economic forces, relationships with the dominant society, perceptions of opportunities, family relationships, culture, and educational experiences affect Hmong American students' attitudes toward school, and the variation that exists among 1.5- and second-generation youth. This article provides insight into how forces inside and outside school affect attitudes toward education, and suggests possibilities for ways in which schools might better serve these students.
Immigrant (Japanese and South Americans in the United States) families' play was compared to play in families in their countries of origin (Japan and Argentina, respectively) and in a common country of destination (European Americans in the United States). Two hundred and forty 20-month-old children and their mothers participated. Generally, the play of immigrant children and mothers was similar to European American children's and mothers' play. Japanese and Argentine children engaged in more symbolic play, whereas immigrant children engaged in more exploratory play. Likewise, South American immigrant mothers demonstrated and solicited more exploratory play than Argentine mothers. Japanese mothers solicited more symbolic play, and Argentine mothers demonstrated more symbolic play than immigrant mothers. The findings from this study provide insight into the nature of child and mother play generally and that of immigrant children and their mothers specifically and shed light on the parenting climate in whic...
In late September, I finally received a response to the question I had been asking the Bush administration for more than two years: Why was my work visa revoked in late July 2004, just days before I was to take up a position as a professor of Islamic studies and the Henry Luce chair of religion, conflict, and peace building at the University of Notre Dame? Initially neither I nor the university was told why; officials only made a vague reference to a provision of the U.S. Patriot Act that allows the government to exclude foreign citizens who have "endorsed or espoused terrorism." Though the U.S. Department of Homeland Security eventually cleared me of all charges of links with terrorist groups, today it points to another reason to keep me out of the country: donations I made totaling approximately $900 to a Swiss Palestinian-support group that is now on the American blacklist. A letter I received from the American Embassy in Switzerland, where I hold citizenship, asserts that I "should reasonably have known" that the group had ties with Hamas. What American officials do not say is that I myself had brought those donations to their attention, and that the organization in question continues to be officially recognized by the Swiss authorities (my donations were duly registered on my income-tax declaration). More important still is the fact that I contributed to the organization between 1998 and 2002, more than a year before it was blacklisted by the United States. It seems, according to American officials, that I "should reasonably have known" about the organization's alleged activities before the Homeland Security Department itself knew! I believe the administration refuses me entry into the United States because of my criticism of its Middle East policy and America's unconditional support for Israel, which has led it to acquiesce in flouting Palestinian rights. And undeniably, some American groups that strongly support Israel and will allow no criticism of American foreign policy toward it have been highly critical of me. But academics, intellectuals, and organizations that have supported me — like the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Academy of Religion (I presented a keynote address to its annual meeting late last year by videoconference, since the administration would not let me enter the country to speak in person), the American Association of University Professors, and the PEN American Center — have understood that the real issue is my freedom of speech, and they have continued to lend their weight to my legal appeal of the decision.
Made in America: Immigrant Students in Our Public Schools. Laurie Olsen New York: The New Press, 1997. 276 pp.