Panel highlights Somali experiences in Midwest.

MANKATO — Abubakar Mohamed said he couldn’t speak English when he came to the U.S. from Africa, so he stayed after school to learn as fast as he could.

He’d watch as his high school classmates left for the day at 3 p.m., while he stuck around to study for hours afterward.

“I was staying late in school, doing my homework in school, working with my teacher,” he said.

Within a month he felt like he’d made strides speaking the language, but more challenges awaited as he adjusted to his new country. Mohamed shared his story alongside three other Somalis living in Mankato and St. Peter during a panel discussion Wednesday.

The event, organized by Mankato Area Cross-Cultural Connections, was the latest in a series of film screenings and panel discussions meant to shed light on Somali experiences in Southern Minnesota. The panel came after a screening of “(Mid)West of Somalia,” a film documenting local, young Somali-Americans sharing their career aspirations, thoughts on their faith and cultural adjustments since coming to the U.S.

Gustavus Adolphus College professor Martin Lang, who produced the documentary with Noah O’Ryan, said the stories highlighted in the film are meant to disrupt some of the prevailing stereotypes about Somalis, immigrants and Muslims perpetuated in the mainstream media.

“Our hope with the film is just to bring some other stories to the fray, to bring other perspectives from actual Somali people about what their lives are like,” he said.

Wednesday’s panel continued where the film left off, featuring the four additional Somali residents offering further insight on their lives in the Midwest. Asked about whether they’ve experienced racism, Mohamed spoke about not even knowing what the term meant when it first came up in class.

“I went home and asked my mom ‘What color am I?’” he recounted.

Fellow panelist Nasra Ibrahim shared how she felt different for the first time in her life once she came to the U.S. from Africa.

“I never felt like I was different than other people when I used to live in Africa because everyone was the same like me, the color,” she said. “When I came here that’s when I noticed I was different than other people.”

Following up on other topics raised in the film, the panelists talked about pork’s prevalence in Midwestern diets — devout Muslims abstain from pork — the misconceptions they hear about why they wear hijabs, and how younger Somali experiences in the U.S. differ from older generations.

While the film has been screened around the area, Wednesday’s showing and panel drew the most interest yet. With about 150 people in attendance at the Greater Mankato Business Development Center, organizer Marcia Highum said about twice as many people showed up as previous events.

Highum, chair of Mankato Area Cross-Cultural Connections, said the reception was a strong start to raising more cultural awareness about Somalis in Southern Minnesota.

“I think it’s also important to see that a group like today that was here embraces those differences in culture,” she said.

Source: The Free Press