My Somali family: Six years together.

On May 30th, 2008, I nervously punched in the apartment number on the security keypad. I could barely hear the ringing over my pounding heart. A male voice said "Hello?" and I said "Hello. This is Kevin with Giving + Learning. I’m here to work on English." The voice on the other end spoke Somali, but not to me, and then hung up. I think I tried again, but I know I didn’t make it in until the translator arrived.

Inside the apartment, I sat on the floor with the Giving + Learning volunteer coordinator, a Somali-speaking case worker, and Faizil and Ardo, the Somali couple I had volunteered to work with. Everything, from hello to my name to my reason for being here, had to be translated. I started to panic: how I could possibly teach English to a couple who spoke no English! They had been in Fargo for just over a year, but Faizil was in a wheelchair and Ardo’s paid work was taking care of him. They didn’t get out much. The Somali community in Fargo is big enough that they conducted their life’s business in Somali, but they clearly understood the value of learning English so they could make appointments, answer the phone (and the door), shop more easily, and integrate. As I came to learn, Faizil and Ardo are gregarious, community-oriented people; they did not come to America to live a sheltered life.

Their lives, in fact, are the most epic lives I have encountered. In a nutshell, Faizil, at the age of 14, was shot in the head 5 times as an innocent bystander during the Ethiopian-Somali conflict of 1977-78. He was in coma for 3 months, paralyzed when he awoke, eventually flown from Hargesa to Mogadishu. He lived in a hospital in the Somali capital until 1991 when the Somali Civil War exploded all around him. He fled, in his wheelchair, to DaDaab, now the world’s largest refugee camp but in its infancy back then, where he lived for the next 15 years raising chickens, selling eggs, and marrying Ardo.

Ardo is more private about her story; she became separated from her children and first husband although she is still in contact with them. She seems to have escaped to DaDaab from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, the place both of them call home but a place where the ethnic Somali population is still persecuted by the Ethiopian government and troops. She came to America not able to read or write in Somali, let alone English; she had never attended school. Yet she is smart, curious, and quick to learn.

I overcame my panic that first day when I laid out a map of the Horn of Africa and showed them where I had been in December of 2007: Nairobi, Kakuma refugee camp, Duk Payuel, South Sudan. They showed me Ogaden, Mogadishu, DaDaab, although it was also clear they weren’t used to looking at a map of their lives. I was in this apartment because I had been to Kakuma. Witnessing a refugee camp should incite anyone to action; knowing that hundreds of thousands of people are living in limbo–a dangerous, malnourished limbo–should inspire everyone to make the most of their lives. So I started volunteering with Giving + Learning, an organization that matched tutors like me with English Language learners like Faizil and Ardo.

I was there to give, for sure, but I was really there to learn. I couldn’t piece together the lives of the Lost Boys of Sudan until I spent hours and hours with them on my 2007 trip, asking questions, filling the gaps in my knowledge; I couldn’t even come close to imagining a refugee camp until I wandered through its many bustling compounds full of people wanting out. I honestly hadn’t paid any attention to the Ethiopian-Somali conflict of 1977-78 (I was only 10) and I had avoided Black Hawk Down because I wasn’t interested in military conflict. But as I started to meet the Sudanese, the Somalis, the Congolese, and the Rwandans displaced by the conflicts that had swept their lives away, I became obsessed with understanding how anyone survives these incredibly difficult conditions, and how they end up in and survive the not inconsequential challenges of living in Fargo, North Dakota.

Over the years with my Somali family, we have worked through eviction notices and whopping tax bills–both bureaucratic errors and nightmares that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. They have welcomed and supported family members who have struggled in other parts of the country. Faizil and Ardo have limited means but big hearts and considerable wisdom to share. We celebrated Ardo and Betsy turning 50 together, and we’ve learned something close to a miracle: Faizil isn’t paralyzed, only atrophied, and his daily exercises are helping him walk again after nearly 40 years since he ran in the fields and on the roads of Ogaden. He tells me he was pretty fast. We have become family, hardly going more than a month or two without seeing each other, referring to each other as brothers and sister, planning a family trip to Ogaden.

Family, rather than just good friends, because they have been open and vulnerable with me. Family because I have learned and grown and opened up because of my relationship with them. The potential power differential is significant, because I got dealt all the cards that work well in North America, but as brother and sister, the differential is reduced. We help each other out, not from a sense of obligation, guilt, or power, but from love.

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