Editor's Note: I recall my mom writing this on a yellow legal notepad. Reading this probably started my career in giving a shit about some sort of concept of "public" outside my beautiful family, which is very counterintuitive growing up in America and often counterproductive. After all, this is a land of perpetual self-centered tussling and cold warfare. Ironically, several of my Black American friends were implicated in the bullying that was going on with migrant-refugees from Somalia at the turn of the millennium. She wasn't having it. When the monthly newsletter showed up in the mail I knew everyone whom I knew at my school was going to read it dutifully, from the principle to the parents, and janitors.
One moment I had a home and all the members of my family were living together or lived close by. I had a normal life, I went to my local school, played with my friends, sometimes worked, and did chores at home like any other child. I knew my teachers and friends -- and they knew me.
All of a sudden life, for me, changed and I found myself fatherless, motherless, sisterless, brotherless and feeling-less (which might be you or could be you), living in a camp or with strangers who had taken me in.
I no longer went to school because in the camp, there were no schools and no teachers to teach. I had no friends either. So for 1-3 years I worked to stay alive and take care of those who were in the same situation that I was in. Often I wondered about what happened to my family, especially my grandmother. We had been so very close and she was very dear to me. She, more than anyone, understood me.
Amongst my meager possessions I had a small bottle of oil that my grandmother had given me and I treasured it. I would sometimes pull the lid off and smell the oil to remind myself of her. Other times I would give myself the luxury of putting some on on. This had been her favorite oil and I was able to feel close to her, whom had loved and cared for me, through it.
The beginning of the story above could be anyone -- including you. We need to think twice or thrice about the things we do or say to others verbally, physically or by use of our body language (a dirty look, a sneer).
An example I will use are Somali students who attend public school in Minneapolis. They never asked to be uprooted from their homeland and to be brought to America, Minnesota, Minneapolis and to these schools. They had to come if they wanted to survive. Now that they are here in America, in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and finally at school, how have we welcomed them? How have we treated them? When they react, are they reacting because their first instinct is self-preservation and they haven’t been allowed to let that guard down?
What if you had lost a loved one and all you had to remind you of that person was the small bottle of oil that you sometimes used in order to feel close that person? Whatever the reason for having the oil, how would you feel if someone came up to you, or walked by and made a derogatory statement about how you looked, dressed, walked, spoke, or smelled?
For some Somalis, familiar only with their own traditions and native tongue, communicating with some vastly different cultural groups is difficult. Self-consciously, they tend to isolate themselves from the community at large. Many say that Somali women, especially young girls, who wear veils and long dresses as symbols of their nation’s Muslim heritage, often feel set apart, outcasts in social settings such as school and the workplace.
Some of you will read this article and say “What about me/us, don’t we count?" Of course you do. You, however, are the host/hostess of this house, this school, and your job is to welcome those who come through the doors as guests into your house, and to encourage them to want to make your school their home, too.
Please take another look at the title of this article and ask yourself if you will... you could... or would... walk a day in another person’s shoes who was different from you. Let us stop perpetuating (prolonging the existence of) prejudice of any kind based on ones color, creed, disability, accent, height, weight, etc.
Here are some of the things we can ALL do to make school a class “A” home:
1) Take leadership. Speak up when people take positions that work against understanding and communication.
2) Welcome new people into your life and seek opportunities to meet new people. Reach out, especially if people are different than you.
3) Listen to and share stories about personal and family history. Ask people you already know, or you have newly become acquainted with, to share stories about their personal and family history.
4) Seek out information about people from different backgrounds, learn more facts, and check your assumptions. Ask, how do your assumptions influence your perceptions? Do your perceptions match the facts?
5) Take an honest look at your feelings. How often are your fears preventing you from getting outside your “comfort zone” of neighborhood and occupation? How often do your fears prevent real human contact with people of other groups? Do you think your fears are justified in every situation or do you let them influence you all the time?
6) Join a mediation training program in your community. Learn methods for resolving conflict. Practice honest communication, active listening, balancing of power, and the organizing of common, achievable goals.
7) Initiate classroom discussions on some of the toughest local issues. Then compose a list of definitions/conclusions and post it in a prominent place.
The first few years of living in a new country, environment, or situation are often the hardest. Not everyone has the same experiences, or thinks the same way.
Originally Posted 8/3/2008, Published 2001.
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