Finding a home in language

Sadiya Mohamed graduated from Lincoln International High School in June 2009.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

When Sadiya Mohamed arrived in Minneapolis five years ago, she didn't speak a word of English. The only school she'd ever been to was a religious school called a madrassa to learn the Koran.

Life in Minnesota, with its cold winters, and surrounded by a language she didn't understand, was a shock. She wondered, does it get easier? As part of our Youth Radio series, Sadiya Mohamed tells her story.


I live on the eighth floor of a public housing building next to the Hiawatha line in Minneapolis. I pray five times a day. It's one of the important pillars in Islam, and one of the few things in my life that hasn't changed since I came to America.

I left Somalia when I was 4, and grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya. When I was 17, my family and I came to the U.S.

Sometimes my friends and I compare our stories about coming here. My friend Shukri Jama lives in my building. She came here from Kenya two years ago.

She tells a funny story about being scared of the washing machine. She hadn't understood the instructions. And when it started to thump, she thought it was going to explode and ordered everyone out of the house.

At talent show
Sadiya Mohamed performing in at the Lincoln International High School talent show at the Capri Theatre in North Minneapolis, in spring 2009.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Shukri arrived in winter, and got advice to "walk like a duck" so she wouldn't slip and fall. The food struck her as strange, because it had preservatives to give it a long shelf life. In Kenya, there was only fresh food and no way to preserve it.

Weather was a part of the challenge for me as well, but the food is OK. More difficult for me has been the language.

I remember my first day of school. When I walked into my ninth grade class at Augsburg Fairview Academy, there was a group of students introducing themselves. When it was my turn, they looked at me and waited for me to talk. I felt like I was in a cage and couldn't breathe.

"What's your name?" asked the teacher. But honestly, I had no idea what he was saying. I asked a Somali girl sitting next to me what to do.

She told me to say my name. "Sadiya." That is when I began to learn.

After few months, I transferred to Lincoln International High School. Lincoln played a big part in improving my language.

Sadiya and her mother
Sadiya Mohamed pictured with her mother, Halima Jama, in their apartment in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Ms. Kelly was my favorite teacher. She taught English. Ms. Kelly convinced me to compete in Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry competition. We picked poems by famous poets and got up on stage to recite them.

I picked Stephen Dunn's poem, "Sweetness." It's about what it means to be alive -- there is sadness, not only sweetness in life.

I won my school's competition.

"You did a lot of things very well," said Ms. Kelly. "Your presence on the stage, and being confident about understanding your poem made it powerful and memorable."

I tell her I will do my best in the next round of competition.

I go to the downtown Minneapolis library to compete against students from other schools in the west metro. Ms. Kelly and my friends are in the audience cheering for me.

Sadiya and niece
Sadiya Mohamed and her niece Aliya head to a neighborhood park in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

I perform "Sweetness," and "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke. I didn't win the competition. But I'm proud I tried my best.

In June, I graduated from Lincoln. At my graduation ceremony, the board chair of our charter school, Chris Nevin, talked about what he had learned from me: "Insha'Allah." It means, "if God is willing."

"I am a Christian man," Chris Nevin told the crowd, "but my Muslim friends use this phrase often. For example, after a long hard school day, I might see Sadiya Mohamed in the hallway and say, 'See you tomorrow.' And she will say, 'Yes, Mr. Chris, see you tomorrow, Insha'Allah.'"

It was a dream that I always had since I was a child to go to school and get an education and be someone one day.

I am planning to go to college in January. I want to be a journalist and work with the United Nations. I will continue to work until I achieve my dreams, Insha'Allah.

When I first came here, I wondered if life would get easier. It's so hard when you come to a place where you don't understand anything. You feel like you're deaf. It's really hard and it hurts because you need a translator for everything.

And now I feel like I'm not missing anything. I feel like I'm home now. I don't need a translator. I can go anywhere I want. I can travel around this country with nobody.


Sadiya Mohamed lives in Minneapolis and plans to attend North Hennepin Technical College in January. She comes to us from ThreeSixty Journalism, a youth journalism program based at the University of St. Thomas.

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