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My Journey to America

by Mohamed H. Bahal
Saturday, September 23, 2017

In 1969 civilian government was over thrown by military coup. The people welcomed the new military rule with the expectation that there would be democratic rule. However, a colleague of mine from Sudan said to me “your people do not know military rule and soon they will realize how harsh it will be.” The leader of the coup was Mohamed Siad Barre, who three years later would become the countries autocratic ruler. Siad Barre made an alliance with Russia and introduced an archaic socialist system. The newly adapted government was not compatible with Somali culture nor its predominately Muslim citizen. Thus, after two decades of dictatorship, the country erupted in an extreme revolt to overthrow the government. Civil war ensued and anarchy prevailed and people began fleeing from Mogadishu to neighboring countries of Kenya and Ethiopia. I refrained from taking risky journey to Kenya or Ethiopia, because my kids were too young. While I was trapped in my house, one of my friends told me there was a ship bound to Aden, Yemen. It was a sigh of relief to hear of such a possible safer route out of Mogadishu, and my family and I hastily left for the port.

The days were long, the rations were short, and there was only one bathroom for six hundred people assigned only for the women. For the men, the Captain made ramshackle boxes on the edge of the dike facing the ocean; however, no one dared face the rumbling ocean full of sharks. In the summer of June of 1991 my family and I came to Egypt, and the late Sadam Hussein invaded Kuwait. In 1992, The American Embassy began interviewing refugees who had their documents by the United Nations Refugee Center. I quickly went to the Embassy to check my interview date. A week later, an officer from the Immigration Department met me and checked my passport and found that I visited N. Korea. I explained with no apprehension that I was a project manager for an Irrigation Project in which N. Korean engineers were assisting us for building a barrage across Shabelle River.  The officer didn’t show any negative response.

Regarding my education, I told him that I did graduate work in the University of Minnesota which was a plus to my interview. A week later, I was told that I passed the interview and I was given a choice to reside in The United States in either Colorado or Georgia. I wanted to avoid the cooler climates and decided on living in warmer climates of Atlanta, Georgia.

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Finally, together with my family we arrived in Atlanta and were welcomed by International Rescue Committee Agency. We settled in a three room apartment in a low income neighborhood mostly lived African American people. The Agency chose this area because the cost of the rent was low. What they didn’t take into consideration was that the area had a high crime rate and poor sanitation. The area was far from places where jobs were available. The Agency paid the rent for the first three months and also gave us a complimentary check of $40 a week. It was imperative for me to find a job prior to the end of the third month of arrival, so I was offered a case worker job by the IRC for Iraqis and Somalian refugees. My primary responsibilities were getting the refugees from the airport, settling them in apartments, orienting cultural diversities, building good neighborly relation and helping them with their job search. I also briefed them about the American system of education and how the parents were expected to play active role in their children’s education. On the other hand I was searching for a professional job with better pay. One day I attended a meeting sponsored by a lady who ran an agency called Bridging the Gap. The purpose of the meetings was to orient professional people who came as refugees the reality of professional jobs. We were seven men with different qualifications.

Three were medical doctors from Russia, one surgeon from Afghanistan, two Ethiopians, one was a plant pathologist and the other was a business administrator, and I an agricultural economist. The advice given by the workshop organizer was that those who were in the medical field should apply to entry level position in hospitals and also learn English, while others had to do a career change to become teachers for the fact that they were bylingist. I had no choice but to apply paraprofessional job in Clarkston High School where were large number of refugees students. I was hired because there were needs for bilingual person to assist the teacher in interpretation and cultural diversity. The pay for that position was not enough to maintain my family expenses. It was inevitable that I had to prepare teaching license to be full teacher. Thus, I found University of West Georgia could offer me less tuition cost than others. I met the educational councilor who checked my University transcript and told me I had enough science subjects but lacked educational subjects. He listed eight educational subjects that were needed for teaching certification. I enrolled in evening classes from 4:00PM to 10:00PM and traveled one hour to reach the University. It was real test to my determination and zeal to get professional position with better pay.

Finally, I completed the courses which were under quarterly system in a year and half and was hired by Dekalb County School System as Science and ESL teacher in Freedom Middle School. The County is predominantly Afro-Americans and significant number of refugee population. Among the subjects I took, Child psychology was informative about the behavior of children below adolescence age. Because of their developmental stage, they were active, restless, easily upset, and sensitive to criticism. With these behaviors in mind, I avoided anything that might upset them. For the first four years, I taught Earth Science in classes were majority students were Afro- Americans. They often asked me ignorant questions like whether in Africa  we live on top of trees . I was not amazed to hear such defaming statement from a child who watched Tarzan film. In answer to such question, I brought Video that showed South Africa and told them to watch how countries in Africa looked like America.

At times it was not easy to capture the attention of the students because of few disruptive students in the class. In a class of 25 students there were always one or two who had no motivation for learning. Such behavior was a test to the teacher in insuring fairly good management in the class. There were students who volunteered to help students with low performance. I avoided any actions that lower their self-esteem even if they were disruptive in the class. I introduced bonus points for those who showed good behavior. Contacting parents for kids of low performance or disruptive behavior was common practice. Some parents didn’t accept their kid’s failure. As a teacher, you had to show written record showing the number of days the student didn’t turn HW, his grades in tests and number of times the teacher contacted the parent for the low performance of their kids. Furthermore, in the absence of such records, the School Administration could not defend the teacher once they received parent’s complaint. At times, teachers faced irreconcilable dilemma between unsupportive Administration and a parent who could not fathom the failure of his/ her kid. Being bilingual, I was advised by the Principle of the School to take three subjects that would qualify me to teach ESL students. The three subjects were: Cultural Diversity, Reading and Writing. After I took the three subjects, I got teaching certification for ESL classes. Students were from Somalia, South Sudan, Iraqi and Vietnamese. Students mostly came from war-torn countries. Some were traumatized because of the war. One had to be careful in dealing with a kid who was in a state of cultural shock. I was confronted with kids who came to school first time and when parent handed over to me they started crying. When I said welcome in Somali or Arabic, I saw smile on their faces. Then, I assigned a seat to him/her next to students from their countries to get senses of belonging to the class. Students learned intensive English language in International Center in the first three hours of the day and after that came to their assigned classes.

In my class, emphasis were teaching reading, writing, speaking, listening and online activities related vocabulary learning and construction of sentences. Then, based upon their ages, they joined mainstream students in their assigned classes. The dilemma facing the teacher was he/she was not allowed to modify  plan of work for the sake of ESL students whose English language was limited even though they were supposed to learn basic subjects. It was imperative that teachers learn cultures of ESL students who were in their classes. One day, while I was teaching my class, a teacher came to me with a substitute to take care of my class while I went with her. She told me there is a student who didn’t respond when she called him. When I asked the student why he failed to go to the teacher, he said to me “Teacher, she called me with one finger as if I was a dog.” Well, the teacher realized it was cultural clash. What was right for Americans turned insult to the Somalis because of cultural difference.

What I would like to include in my writing my personal observations during the period I served as a substitute for a period of two years, 2011 to 2012 following my retirement. As I was supposed to fill vacancy in every DeKalb County schools, I came to know  the amount of teaching resources provided to schools where Latino ESL students predominate exceeded more than the teaching resources available in schools in Decatur, Stone Mountain, Clarkston and Tucker where ESL students from Africa and Asia study. There are no interpreters in these schools to help students with limited English Language. Nor are dictionaries in their native languages changing in to English. It is high time that the Department of ESL be scrutinized for the disparity and favoritism conducted by management of the Department.

I end with my discourse with a tale from Arabian Laylah Wa Laylah (One thousand and One). There was a town where rich man lived. One day he met a teacher walking in a street. He said to the teacher “Do you know me?) The teacher said “No.” The rich man told the teacher that he was the richest man and everybody in the city knew him. The teacher said to him let us go to the tea shop. As soon as they entered the tea shop everyone got up and saluted the teacher. The rich man left the place with disgrace. There are times I meet my former students either in the parks or grocery stores. Each one of them when I meet hugs me and introduced me to his Mom. This kind of gesture gives me self-satisfaction. What motivate the teachers is not monetary reword, but higher academic performances shown by the students. It is imperative that the management of the schools should always keep up the moral and self-satisfaction of the teachers.

Mohamed H. Bahal
[email protected]


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