Somali-American’s book helps us to see unity in diversity

Book clubs can be a whole lot of fun and are a great excuse for women to get together. You know, like hunting and fishing trips are for some men.

By Kathy Langer

You also know that sometimes men concentrate on their sport and sometimes they just get together to have a good time with friends. That’s is what women do in book clubs — sometimes they read books and sometimes they just have fun being together.

Recently, one of my book groups read a book from a local author named Hudda Ibrahim, and I believe we actually all read the book this time! Hudda’s book, “From Somalia to Snow: How Central Minnesota Became Home to Somalis,” tells the Somali-American story and begins with statements from St. Cloud community leaders about the book.

Dave Kleis, mayor of St. Cloud, writes that the book “provides a great understanding of Somali culture, tradition, religion, and issues of integration and assimilation. In addition, it enhances awareness of the challenges and barriers that the Somali community faces. The book sheds light on the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the Somali people … similar to the experiences of other immigrant and refugee groups.”

Assimilation, integration

I had the pleasure of meeting Hudda about a year ago. After our first cup of coffee together, I knew that I would be hearing more about this young Notre Dame graduate, author, St. Cloud Technical College professor and Somali refugee in the coming years. I also knew I appreciated her hard working spirit, her wonderful ability to put people at ease and the drive she had to be a peacemaker. I also knew that she would be someone I wanted to get to know better.

Last spring, I asked her to join me and a Somali elder on a panel in Duluth at the College of St. Scholastica at my son Nathan’s request. Together the three of us talked to a group of staff and students about our experiences with interfaith work, and each of them shared their refugee stories of life in a war-torn country, entering refugee camps and then coming to Minnesota. They’re stories that still make my eyes water and my jaw drop. I marvel at the courage and faith they needed in order to be who they are today.

In “From Somalia to Snow,” Hudda shares her research, including many conversations with Somalis living in St. Cloud. As a Notre Dame graduate, she also shares her ability to glean from the work of other scholars on immigration. In this light, she speaks to the debate surrounding integration and assimilation and the metaphors used to describe the United States as a “melting pot” or a “salad bowl.”

She defines assimilation as “the adoption of cultural values and norms from the broader community.”

Drawing from J.F. Davidio and others, Hudda defines full assimilation “as the abandonment of cultural values and norms by a minority group, immigrants, or refugees and the full  adoption of the cultural values and norms of the larger society.”

When speaking of integration, she writes that “it assumes cultural pluralism — that group members may adopt some cultural values and norms from the larger society and identify with it but that they will also keep their own cultural values, norms, and identity to some degree.”

Integration also fits with the metaphor of an American salad bowl, “in which its various ethnic and religious groups have had various degrees of freedom to maintain their beliefs and cultures.”
Church’s perspective

I’d like to step away from her work, and take a look at our own Catholic tradition. Our bishops wrote about this very issue of how, as a church, we are to encounter immigrants and refugees in a pastoral letter titled “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity.”

They state: “Time and time again, Pope John Paul II has echoed the teachings of his predecessors and of the Second Vatican Council that ‘it is one of the properties of the human person that he can achieve true and full humanity only by means of culture’ (‘Gaudium et Spes,’ no. 53) and that to take away a person’s culture is therefore to damage human dignity grievously.”

They go on to speak about “unity in diversity” representing a kind of the salad bowl approach.

Pope Francis speaks of this as well.  In February, speaking to the International Forum on Migration and Peace in Rome, he highlighted the need for the integration of migrants in host countries and explained that this “is neither assimilation nor incorporation. It is a two-way process, rooted essentially in the joint recognition of the other’s cultural richness: It is not the superimposing of one culture over another, nor mutual isolation, with the insidious and dangerous risk of creating ghettos.” Again, integration rather than assimilation, which follows the longstanding teaching of the church.

So what does this mean for all of us here in the St. Cloud Diocese? The bishops say that “as Catholics we are called to take concrete measures to overcome the misunderstanding, ignorance, competition and fear that stand in the way of genuinely welcoming the stranger in our midst and enjoying the communion that is our destiny as Children of God.”

Maybe reading “From Somalia to Snow” is a first step to help us get a truer picture of who these neighbors are, and it will help us refrain from making the same mistakes that many people did with the Germans, Polish and the Irish immigrants.

Kathy Langer is director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud. “From Somalia to Snow” is available at Barnes and Noble in St. Cloud and

Author: The Visitor

The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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