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Somalis find niche in Green Bay

Thursday, May 03, 2012

When Fadumo Ali left a war-torn Somalia for Green Bay, Wis., she expected to find the ideals the U.S. was built on—inclusion, acceptance and independence. What she discovered, though, was a list of obstacles to overcome and limited resources to help her.

“There were a lot of challenges going to school here because I didn’t speak English, and there were no translators available at the school I went to,” Ali said about her time in the Green Bay School District. “Food was another big one, like not knowing what you were eating. I just didn’t eat at school. I used to wait until I got home.”

But that was over a decade ago, when the influx of Green Bay’s growing and predominantly Muslim population of Somali refugees had just begun.

Somalia, a country on the coast of East Africa, has been in a state of perpetual civil war for more than 20 years. With no unified government, scores of Somali families  flocked to Green Bay in search of a home away from war and oppression.

Today, Muslim students who refrain from eating pork are no longer forced to trudge through the school day on empty stomachs as Ali did, or face certain situations without a proper interpreter.

The Green Bay Area Public School District is growing to meet the needs of its expanding Muslim population in more ways than one. In addition to ramping up its arsenal of interpreters and English Language Learner teachers, the district also consented to allow Muslim students to leave class for prayer.

Islamic faith calls for its followers to pray five times a day, one of which falls during normal school hours. While Muslim students haven’t had trouble with being allowed to leave for this prayer, some community members have been in a state of strong opposition.

“Allowing prayer of any form within a school is a direct violation of the separation of church and state,” said Chris Robinson, adjunct instructor of website coding at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. “Public schools are available at the tax payer’s expense so community members can receive a basic education. Schools are not the place for Muslims or people of any faith to practice their religion.”

U.S. law, however, suggests otherwise. The line separating church and state is a gray one, and has been redrawn countless times over the years.

This disparity caused many misinterpretations of the current law, which affirms that students have the right to request religious accommodations in order to study and practice their faith, even in a state-sponsored school setting.
The Constitution permits this type private religious activity in and around public schools, and for fathers like Fouad Zahiri, the practice of praying five times a day is sacred to the Islamic tradition and shouldn’t be controlled by school districts or governments.

Zahiri also said he didn’t want his son, who is enrolling into the Green Bay School District in a few years, to face restrictions on praying privately during school hours.

“Many Muslims come to America to escape religious persecution,” Zahiri said. “It’s a sad day for this country when we also have to battle it here, in the land of the free.”

A Place for All Faiths

Throughout the last century, this country witnessed many U.S. Supreme Court cases that shaped the definition of religious liberty within the public school system, most of which safeguarded the rights of those who choose to pray in schools.

From supporting flagpole ceremonies to allowing students to form religious organizations, the Supreme Court made its stance on religion in schools time and time again.

The difference here, though, may go deeper than a simple prayer.

“Since 9/11, people have looked at us as a completely different species,” Zahiri said. “I think some Americans are quick to jump on anything that deals with Muslims, regardless of what the issue is, because they classify us with a small group of extremists. It’s not fair.”

But the right to practice one’s religion in school is legally protected—for everyone.

The law permits students to pray individually or in groups so long as they are not disruptive. Students are also permitted to pray before meals or when their specific faith necessitates it, as well as discuss their religious beliefs with other willing students.

The Equal Access Act permits the formation of all student religious clubs, and grants these organizations full rights to private meeting rooms and access to campus media to announce their meetings.

“We aren’t simply favoring Muslim students,” said Barbara Dorff, executive director of learning and student services for Green Bay area public schools. “We allow students from all faiths to have a private place to pray and practice their religion as long as it’s student-initiated.”

Religious accommodations—and the backlash that comes with it—extend beyond Muslim students. Students of the Green Bay School District have formed an Intervarsity Christian Athlete Club that held an event last October, much to the chagrin of some community members who protested the event.

Dorff added that schools excuse children early when they need to go to religious classes, oftentimes on Wednesdays. Students also openly pray before meals at school, and there are others who partake in Bible study.

“It cannot be faculty initiated,” she said. “A faculty member could choose to sit in on something and supervise if they wish, but the key here is that these are student-initiated requests. According to the Constitution, we cannot deny that.”

Seeds of Change

And while the law is clear on private religious practices in school, Green Bay’s Somali population in particular faces more challenges than simply seeking out a place to pray.

“The Somali culture is based on Islamic religion,” Ali said. “The way we dress, the way we eat, the things we eat, the things we know about our culture… it’s all a part of my religion as well.”

Aside from ensuring a student’s Constitutional right to exercise his or her religion during school hours, the Green Bay School District has taken measures to help accommodate all aspects of life for Muslim students.

“One accommodation I made for Somali students was to send home a list of foods in the school lunch program containing pork,” said Katie Hoss, ELL teacher at Beaumont and Lincoln elementary schools. “That way the students could bring cold lunch for that day if needed.”

Teachers have also gone out of their way to ensure other students were culturally aware of Somali traditions, such as some males and females not being allowed to shake hands, and the presence of hijabs, head scarves Muslim girls may choose to wear.

“Girls are allowed to wear the head coverings because it’s a part of their religion,” Dorff said. “Normally we don’t allow caps and hoodies at any level. In this case, because it’s part of the religion, they’re allowed to wear it.”
And as with any student whose first language is not English, Somali students are provided with English Language Development Lessons provided by a certified ELL teacher.

“We also set up a Somali interpreter for conferences or any other important meetings, and have had interpreters call home to explain any important paperwork coming home that the parents needed to sign,” Hoss said.

While teachers have been assessing and evolving needed accommodations for Muslim students, they have not overlooked the emotional needs of their new Somali additions as well—and the harsh conditions they escaped.

“My hope is that people can become educated enough to understand and accept differences,” Dorff said. “All people should feel comfortable in expressing themselves in the way they’ve been brought up. That’s what this country is based on. We are a democracy and I think it’s important that we listen to all voices.”

Moving Forward

Global acceptance has been the cornerstone of this country from the very beginning, and in this increasingly global economy, Dorff advised that multicultural awareness becomes the forefront of growth and preparation for the future.
“I think it can be nothing but helpful for our students to learn first-hand about different cultures through their interactions with them,” she said. “They can learn there’s more out there in the world than just little Green Bay and the Packers.”

And many have taken this to heart, creating a teachable moment both for themselves and for those around them.

“There has been great collaboration between teachers on how to better meet the needs of these students,” Hoss added. “Additionally, many staff members, including myself, have taken their own time on a weekend to partake in workshops to learn more about the Somali people and their culture.”

Ali said she has noticed Brown County trying to understand more about its Somali population. There have been workshops held at the Job Center of Wisconsin, and translators have been made available not only in schools but in hospitals as well.

“At first, the City of Green Bay was not welcome to the Somali community,” Ali said. “But now that they’ve noticed the Somali community is not going to be any harm to Green Bay, they have been more welcoming. There is a big difference between now and when I first moved here.”

She is heartened that the local community college is also working with the Green Bay Job Center to teach Somali women how to be independent through teaching them how to write, read and speak English—a resource they do not take for granted.

And while Green Bay schools are embracing diversity and respecting a Muslim’s right, or anyone’s right, to pray during school hours, only time will tell if opposing community members will come to this same understanding.
For Zahiri, the situation seems all too familiar compared to the pages of U.S. history books.

“Just like your founding fathers, I don’t need many things for my children,” Zahiri said. “But when it comes to the liberty of my son’s right to his religion, I say give me prayer or give me death.”


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