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Intimate Glimpses Into Somali Culture
SAN DIEGO, April 5, 2008 – Like many Somali immigrants in San Diego, Fadumo Issa has had to overcome struggles before coming to America and after arriving here.
Fadumo's family fled from war-torn Somalia to Ethiopia when she was little and then migrated to Egypt before eventually settling in San Diego almost four years ago. At first, she had no clue how to even write the letters of the English alphabet.
Now a senior at Crawford High School, Fadumo is sharing her story in a new exhibit at the Museum of San Diego History in Balboa Park. She is among a group of teenage girls whose experiences are profiled in “A Different Life: Finding Our Future in San Diego.”
The exhibit, which will be on display for at least five months, includes poignant accounts written by the teens about their homeland, culture, religion and aspirations. It showcases cherished everyday items, such as purses, fans and combs, that some of their families brought from Africa. Visitors also can watch a short documentary the teens made.
All the girls are students at Crawford High who attend the Students Plus after-school program run by the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that provides assistance to refugees from all over the world. They spent nearly 10 months on the project and served as co-curators – volunteering their time on weekends and after school.
According to the rescue committee, more than 55,000 Somali refugees have come to the United States since 1991 after President Siyad Barre was overthrown and the East African nation descended into anarchy. Somalia has been wracked by clan warfare, disease and famine.
A high concentration of Somalis live in City Heights, a San Diego Mid-City neighborhood. Crawford High is in the adjacent El Cerrito community. Fadumo said she hopes the exhibit will increase understanding about Somalia and immigrants from that part of the world.
“Some people don't think we have a country,” she said.
Fadumo has relatives in Somalia and hopes to return someday to help people in her homeland.
“Suddenly, war started and strange people came to our house, stole our money, and they killed my grandmother. They asked us to leave our house and our cars. They did this because they had the power to do it,” Fadumo wrote in an excerpt featured in the exhibit.
Photographs of the girls' faces peer at visitors. Each excerpt on display is accompanied by a picture, giving viewers an intimate experience of getting a personal narrative from one of the girls.
The project began after the Museum of San Diego History contacted the International Rescue Committee last year. Part of the museum's mission is to present stories from a youth perspective and capture the experiences of immigrants who make up San Diego. It had previously mounted a youth exhibit about Japanese teenagers.
Sudi Mohamed, a senior at Crawford, wants visitors to leave the museum with respect for Somali culture.
“We are proud of who we are,” said Sudi, who came to the United States about 2½ years ago.
English is Sudi's fourth language. She speaks Somali, Swahili and a little bit of Arabic, the language of the Koran. She is learning Spanish at school. Her goal is to become a midwife.
The girls said they would not have had the same opportunities in Somalia as they have in America. In Somalia, girls are expected to devote themselves to household responsibilities. They are trained at an early age to cook, clean and take care of their siblings. In America, with the emphasis on gender equality, the girls are encouraged to achieve at the same level as boys, and they are seizing the opportunities available to them.
“I just want to be an educated woman,” said Muna Afbali, a Crawford sophomore, whose quotation is inscribed high on a wall of the gallery where the exhibit is housed.
A reception held last week to celebrate the exhibit's opening drew a healthy crowd. Guests could sample Somali cuisine, including a fried bread called mandazi and pastry triangles stuffed with meat called sambusas.
Lisa Niedens of Santee, who attended the reception, said she was impressed by the exhibit.
“I think it's awesome these girls have the strength and courage to come out of their country and assimilate in another country,” Niedens said.
Helen Gao: (619) 718-5181; firstname.lastname@example.org