Fardosa Baytula, center, 9, shares a moment with Amina Hassan, left,
both of Rochester, during a class at the Somali Community and
Development Association in Rochester. / MARIE DE JESUS/ / staff
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Smell the food and listen to the voices. On Saturdays at the Somali
Community and Development Association in Rochester, it’s as if you’re
far away in Somalia.
But look out the
cracked front-door window of the association’s community center in a
chilly Rochester, and Somalia is yet again a distant land.
from the ravages of civil war in their East African homeland, the
Somalis at the center on South Plymouth Avenue can feel caught between
two worlds.They enjoy and cherish the gift of freedom the U.S. offers. They are glad and grateful to be here.But the gift brings challenges: How do you adapt to the new culture, a
new language, different weather and different food? How do you change
but not change? How do you walk the tightrope of being both Somali and
up here wasn’t all fun and games, as I faced normal teenage issues
along with cultural ones,” says Halima Aweis, 14, of Henrietta, who was
born in this country six months after her parents arrived from Somalia.
“Balancing the (issues) was difficult at first, but I found a way to
make it work. Especially with the support from my family, friends, and
a freshman at Rush-Henrietta High School, is a regular at the center,
attending with her parents. She’s one of several young people who help
smaller children polish their Somali-language skills as a way of keeping
their culture alive. (They work on English, as well.)
know I’m making a difference in the little girls’ lives as I assure
you, they’ve made a difference in mine,” she says. “The support from the
community has been amazing and I want to make sure that it stays around
to help the next generation coming up.”
The center thrives on volunteers like Aweis, but there is a worry about its future.
The association’s finances are “kind of shaky,” says Mohamed Gazali, 27, the association’s vice president.Some
of the Somalis themselves pay the center’s expenses — about $2,000 a
month. However, money is tight, as many of the adults work at low-paying
jobs. They’re health care assistants, cleaners in hotels and hospitals,
taxi drivers — typical work for refugees new to a country.
Gazali and Ahmed Omar, 28, the center’s president, are hoping that
there is a church or community organization that could provide space
for the center for free or at a minimal cost. They would like to receive
funding for after-school programs. They could use volunteers to help
teach English to adults who struggle with the language.
its members search for help — and any help would be welcome — the
center continues to operate, assisting the growing number of Somalis in
for the number of Somalis in the area are hard to come by. The Catholic
Family Center has settled about 800 Somali refugees here since the late
1990s, says Jim Morris, the agency’s associate director for Refugee,
Immigration and Language Services.
number doesn’t include Somalis who came here after first settling
elsewhere. In addition, Somali children born here after their parents
came here also have expanded the number of people here with roots in the
“My best guess is that there are over 1,500 persons who are members of Somali families presently in Rochester,” Morris says.
of the Somalis here are spread about the city, but some have moved to
the suburbs. Many, like Hamila’s parents, have been in this country long
enough to see a new generation grow up. Some are seeing grandchildren
not surprising that there are generation gaps. The older Somalis worry
that their children will forget or abandon their native culture. At the
same time, younger Somalis can find themselves having to assume adult
burdens, serving as translators for their parents at medical centers and
at parent-teacher conferences.
community itself is not completely united — tribal identities, tribal
grudges can divide here as they did in Somalia. But, regardless of those
differences, Gazali says the Somalis are brought together by shared
problems and by a concern for each other.New arrivals are mentored and monitored by those who are already here. Those who speak English help those who can’t.
Gazali lost his sight after he arrived here in 1997, having fled
Somali three years earlier. But he has persevered and, having finished
at Monroe Community College, is now a student at The College at
Brockport. Married with two small children, he devotes a significant
time to helping other Somalis transition to life in Rochester.
often go with people to the hospital or to the Department of Social
Services to help them to interpret what doctors and social workers say
and what the forms they fill out,” he says.
also go to schools to help parents enroll their children. When our
children have difficulty in school, I go with their parents to talk to
the teachers and the principals.”
That’s just the short list of what he and other Somalis do, with the Somali center serving as a base camp for their efforts.
this Saturday, perhaps between 75 and 100 people, young and old, are
present. In one room the young girls gather, in another the boys sit in
rows and listen to lessons on language and culture. A larger room in the
rear of the building serves as a prayer center and gathering room.
Abdalo, 16, a junior at East High School, is a regular at the center,
who, like Halima Aweis, serves as a teacher for the younger girls. And
like Halima, she seems comfortable in both the Somali and the American
culture. They speak Somali at home; as Muslims, each wears the hijab on
her head, as well as an abaya or gown.
But they are doing well in school, having mastered the English language and working hard to succeed.
through Friday, we’re at school,” Khadija says. “We come here on the
weekend and we learn about our culture. It helps us learn where we come
Abdulkadir, 16, a sophomore at Wilson Commencement High School, was born
in a refugee camp in Kenya and then came to this country,
come here to the center to help the kids with their homework because
they face language barriers,” he says. “I want to be an example to
future Somalis. That’s why I study harder.”
are some young people who don’t overcome the language barriers and the
culture shock of being in schools here. They drop out of school, get
into trouble, drift about. “I visit these young Somalis in jail,” Gazali
says. “It really hurts. They’re here for a better life and they fall in
with the wrong crowd.”
about lost Somalis never go away, but on this day at the center the
problems are put on hold for a while, especially as everyone partakes of
the food that members have brought to the center.“We eat, we talk, we feel like we are home,” Gazali says.