A song shows the way to a new home

Music for "Here We Can Dream."
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

For nearly 20 years, the Somali capital Mogadishu has seen endless violence and chaos, with rival militias clashing in the streets. But to Mohammed Hadi, it was home. There, on the Indian Ocean, he remembers a more idyllic time.

"Mogadishu was a beautiful place," Hadi says. "Mogadishu has the nicest beaches I have ever seen. It was safe and you could sleep outside and no one would bother you. It was like heaven."

Mohammed Hadi
Mohammed Hadi in his classroom at Arlington High School in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

Life for Hadi changed forever in December 1989 when he returned from work and saw soldiers everywhere and his neighbors' children carrying guns.

Hadi fled Mogadishu with his wife and two daughters, ages one and four months. He had never been outside the city before. Hadi and his family spent three years in a refugee camp along the border of Kenya before emigrating to the United States.

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After living in Fargo for six months, they relocated to St. Paul where the family moved into the Habitat for Humanity house seven years ago.

Central High School Choir
St. Paul Central High School Choir rehearses "Here We Can Dream."
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"I helped build my house," he says proudly. "They cleared the place and I helped even dig the foundations. We also helped build our neighbors' homes too in Minneapolis and St. Paul, all around."

The meaning of home is at the heart of the Minnesota Chorale's "Sing Me a Home" concert. It's a multi-cultural and multi-generational perspective on the issue of affordable housing and the meaning of community. Several Habitat for Humanity families were interviewed for the project. Using transcriptions of those interviews, students created texts that were then set to music by local composers.

Anne Goetz
St. Paul Central High School senior Anne Goetz says she was struck by Mohammed Hadi's sense that home isn't just for one person or one family.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

St. Paul Central High School senior Anne Goetz adapted Mohammed Hadi's story for the song sung by her high school's choir, "Here We Can Dream."

"He didn't take the home from Habitat for Humanity just for his family," she says. "He was really insistent that home should be a place for the whole community. When he built his own home he made sure there was a room expressly to be used by other Somali immigrants so that they could stay with him while they got back on their feet. That sense that home isn't just for one person or one family really jumped out at me and I wanted to bring that out in my piece."

David Evan Thomas
Twin Cities composer David Evan Thomas says the music for "Here We Can Dream" was written in his compositional voice with a nod toward Somali culture.
MPR PhotoKarl Gehrke

Twin Cities composer David Evan Thomas wrote the music for "Here We Can Dream." He says it comes directly from Anne Goetz's poem. In preparation he listened to Somali music to understand the musical traditions the Hadi family came from, but he didn't try to copy them.

"There was really no way that I would have insight or a native kind of feeling for the culture," Thomas says. "I tried to find a middle ground where some of the rhythmic elements of African music might be present and that the piece would have a kind of rhythmic life to it. But harmony for me is very important and that's an element that's less important in Somali music, so I had to find a middle ground and a way to continue be my own compositional voice, but nod toward the culture."

Kathy Saltzman Romey
Minnesota Chorale Artistic Director Kathy Saltzman Romey describes the "Sing Me a Home" project as choral activism.
Photo Courtesy of University of Minnesota School of Music

The music Thomas and the other composers wrote for the Minnesota Chorale's "Sing Me a Home" concert is accessible enough that it can be sung easily by other groups. Minnesota Chorale Artistic Director Kathy Saltzman Romey says she wants the songs to have a life long after Saturday's concert at St. Olaf Catholic Church in Minneapolis.

"We've thought all along that this is a form of choral activism," Romey says. "We hope that perhaps Habitat communities around the country could take one of these songs and that a student chapter might sing it at a home dedication, or that a church organization that's building a Habitat home could take one of these texts and read it, because I do think that they reflect a larger whole and who we are as a greater community."

Hadi Family Home
Mohammed Hadi and his family helped build their St. Paul home in 1999 and 2000. They made sure there were extra rooms so they could share their home with other Somali immigrants.
Photo by Patrick Dunn/Courtesy of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity

In the opening stanza of the song telling Mohammed Hadi's story, the text wistfully recalls life in the sunny Mogadishu of his youth, ending with the words "kani waa gurigii"--"this was home." At the end of the song, a "bitter wind" blows through St. Paul, but the singers affirm "Here We Can Dream" and conclude with the words, "this IS home."

"When I came here, I told my wife, 'This is it, this is our place and we're going to integrate,'" Hadi says. "This is where I'm going to end up dying."

In his new home, Mohammed Hadi teaches English as a second language at Arlington High School in St. Paul. He and his wife are raising a family of four. Their oldest daughter is graduating from high school and will attend the College of St. Catherine in the fall.