Sunday, December 29, 2013
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Finally, in 2004, he and some family members were resettled in Milwaukee. He remembers it was October and the first time he had worn a jacket.
Although he had never been to school — there was little education in the camps — he was placed at Washington High School. He spoke no English. Students made fun of the way he dressed, and referred to him and other Somali Bantu — an ethnic minority within Somalia — as "those Africans."
He began by reciting the ABCs and reading nursery rhymes like "Mary Had a Little Lamb." His studying was relentless.
"School was not easy," he said. "All I did was go home and study, eat and go to class."
In 2008, he graduated as valedictorian. He continued on to Marquette University, where he received a degree in social welfare and justice. Now 24, he plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to get a master's degree in social work.
Among Milwaukee's small but growing Somali community, he's the first refugee to earn a college degree. He recently became a U.S. citizen and changed his last name to Mohamad from Mursal.
Mohamad said he's confident others will follow and take their place among the growing ranks of a new generation of Somali Bantus who now call Milwaukee home. He works at Our Next Generation, a nonprofit organization at N. 34th St. and W. Lisbon Ave. that offers homework help, tutoring, mentoring and summer camp to nearly 600 elementary and high school Milwaukee youth in a neighborhood where poverty is high and educational attainment low.
About 40% of the elementary school-age children who attend the center are Somali, said Robert Dunn, president and CEO of Our Next Generation.
"Two or three years ago a Somali father came to us and was interested in the academic support we could offer his children," Dunn said. Once that family came to the center, others followed.
"The influx of Somali children has been of great benefit to the cultural understanding and awareness," Dunn said. At first, the Somali children were viewed as outsiders, he said. They look and dress differently. As Muslims, the girls cover their hair and wear long dresses.
But with time, the children began to understand one another and attitudes began to change, he said.
Mohamad started working at the center as a Marquette intern and he's now a project leader who does community outreach. He tutors children, and also works with families.
"He's a remarkable young man," Dunn said.
In addition to tutoring, Mohamad now opens the center on Sunday afternoons, when about 30 to 40 Somali Bantu families gather for religious classes and to hear announcements and discuss community and cultural issues.
"It's an indirect way to engage the parents," Dunn said.
Those who come to the center feel more a part of the community, Mohamad said. When he's not at the center, Mohamad offers translation assistance with job applications or doctor's appointments.
According to the state's Department of Children and Families, the first wave of Somali refugees began arriving in 1995. Since then the federal government has resettled approximately 700 Somali in Wisconsin, primarily in Brown, Barron, Dane and Milwaukee counties.
The largest population — about 400 people —lives in Milwaukee, said Joe Scialfa, communications director for DCF.
But Ussuf Mursal, Mohamad's brother, who works at Catholic Social Services refugee program, thinks the actual number is considerably larger. He estimates as many as 1,300 Somalis are now living here.
There are about 250 families, he said, and most families have five or more children. For example, he said, he now has six children and his ex-wife has 11 children, including two of his.
With such large families, providing the necessary support is a strain, he said. And because so many Somali Bantu did not go to school, passing the U.S. citizenship test presents a problem. Still, many are getting established, buying homes and starting businesses.
Milwaukee now has two small Somali restaurants — the Blue Star Cafe at 1619 N. Farwell Ave., and the Sogal Cafe, 1835 N. King Drive. Both offer traditional dishes made with goat, beef, chicken and fish, along with fragrant rice and sambusas — a triangular puff pastry.
Amoud Warsame, 24, and his mother, Alia Muhyadin, 50, opened the Blue Star Cafe more than a year ago. The cafe only has six tables, but many order food to go. Both Warsame and his mom mix spices and do the cooking in the small kitchen. Warsame and his family immigrated to Chicago in 1993, but his mother wanted a quieter city, so they moved to Milwaukee.
"Cooking and business are her passion, and the family had restaurants in Africa," he said. For a time she ran a small grocery store, but saved up to start the restaurant.
On Mitchell St. on the city's south side, Abdisalam Hassan, who arrived in 2004, owns and operates the Garden of Eden, an international grocery store that sells a variety of food — from halal meats (meats permissible under Islamic law), to spices, basmati rice and teas. Hassan had a number of jobs, including driving a taxi, before he bought the business in 2010 with loans from family members.
Like many other adults who left Somalia, he has painful memories of family members getting killed and raped. He's now a citizen and loves Milwaukee.
"We came here for security, education and a better life," he said. He has 13 children, some grown, some who attend Riverside High School or Milwaukee Area Technical College.
"We've all struggled very hard, but people like Omar and my kids will be a good example to others," he said.
Mohamad said he wants to continue to work with his community. "My goal is to to make a path for my community and make our horizons bigger."