Thursday, November 17, 2016
By Andrew Haffner
Deka Ali introduces herself and gives an introduction of the presentation of “The History of the Somali.” (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)
Deka Ali’s path to her current employment at East Grand Forks Public Schools was, in the literal sense, a long one.
Ali, a native of Somalia who moved from a refugee camp in Kenya to St. Paul at the age of 14, earned her bachelor’s degree from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and now works as the school district’s bilingual home school coordinator. She describes her role as a “bridge” between Somali students and families and the school district as a whole.
On Wednesday night, Ali expanded that bridging effort to the general public by sharing some of the history of Somalia, including the stories of many of its people who fled the country after it was embroiled in civil war in 1991. In the time since, Somalis have settled throughout the U.S. and have established a community presence in greater Grand Forks.
“My goal is to see the community, both communities, understand each other,” she said. “I’m hoping I can answer all the questions, and I hope they can understand, if you’re a neighbor of Somalis, just what kind of food they eat, what kind of religion they believe in and why they’re here.”Ali has spoken before with teachers in the district to build common ground on the educational front. She began her outreach to the wider community by screening a short documentary outlining the experience of Somali people in Nashville, Tenn., as they acclimated to the American way of life.
Attendees to the event also received packets of information describing some of the deeper points of Somali culture, as well as the largely Sunni Muslim religious beliefs of the country’s people and the mental toll of coping with armed conflict at home.
An educational video plays as part of the presentation of “The History of the Somali” at the Campbell Library in East Grand Forks on Wednesday. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)
After the documentary ended, Ali shared some of her personal experiences as a member of the Somali diaspora before opening the event to audience questions, which focused on such topics as the immigration process, English language learning and traditional gender roles.
As time goes on, Ali hopes to maintain and expand on the lines of communication between newer Somali arrivals and their neighbors in the Upper Midwest. She encouraged community members to introduce themselves to the Somalis they come into contact with and not be afraid to ask questions about themselves. In doing so, she hopes to foster a greater comfort between cultures.
“We’re here, just like everybody else,” Ali said. “We might come in this generation, but America’s a beautiful country and everyone’s welcome—it doesn’t matter where you come from.”