Hope and heartbreak in Minnesota student stories

Rahima Aman
Rahima Aman read from her writing at the Open Door Learning Center in Minneapolis where she is a student on Wednesday, May 13, 2015. Aman, 45, was born in Ethiopia and runs Awash Dollar and Tobacco store in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Ehrlich | MPR News

With a business to run and three children, Rahima Aman doesn't have much spare time.

But she's one of 512 adult students who wrote stories, essays and poems for "Journeys," a literary anthology the Minnesota Literacy Council has published for 26 years.

"I don't like to drive in the snow, I don't like to be in the cold but still I feel like it's my hometown," said 45-year-old Aman, who was born in Ethiopia. "My husband died and is buried here. My kids were born here. I feel like it's my second home here."

The student writers include refugees and immigrants from more than 60 countries. Some are learning English as a second language. Others are U.S-born students mastering missed skills. On Thursday, 80 of the students will read before a crowd at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

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Aman settled in Minneapolis in 1991. She owns the Awash Dollar and Tobacco store in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood and is working toward a GED diploma at Open Door Learning Center on Lake Street.

"My dream is for my kids to grow up and become leaders in the world," Aman wrote in her essay.

The anthology is an outpouring of personal stories packed with hope, hardship, and love. Some describe struggles and regrets overcoming addiction. Others tell stories of escape from war, hard choices about leaving loved ones behind, encountering American culture and missing home.

"When I was one and one half years old my father was killed by Burmese soldiers, and he died instantly. I didn't recognize my father's face. I don't remember what he looks like," wrote Eh Klu, 33, of Myanmar.

A common theme is perilous journeys.

"I still remember when I was one of the 850 people in a small boat. It was so dangerous, but I had no other choice but to travel in this perilous way or wait for the vicious rebel group who was killing everyone they saw," wrote Siyad Mohamed, 51, of Somalia.

Disillusionment, confusion and triumph intermingle in the students' depictions of finding work and learning a new language in the United States.

"Why did people tell me such untrue things about the U.S.? Later, I understood that their jobs in the U.S. were not professional. In the U.S. they had to start from zero. I decided maybe they were ashamed of that. If I were them, I wouldn't be ashamed," wrote Alem Bedane, 31, of Ethiopia.

Klaw Meh, a native of Myanmar, wrote that her move to the United States in 2010 was like "being born again" because everything was new. She attends Como Park High School in St. Paul.

"Going to American school is not like my own school in Thailand. I didn't want to go to school because I was scared to speak English," wrote Meh.

After arriving in their new home, the students noted the culture of abundance they saw all around them.

"I was surprised by the number of clocks I saw in American people's houses. Some even have clocks in their bathrooms! In Togo, some houses have one clock, and some have none," wrote Magnim Sodou from Togo, West Africa.

In Minnesota about 70,000 people take adult basic education classes every year, according to Eric Nesheim, executive directive of the Minnesota Literacy Council, which provides education and services to the state's adult basic education programs.

"We believe we're only serving about a tenth of the people who actually need it," he said.

Nesheim said the process of writing, being published in a book and reading publicly gives students confidence and positive reinforcement that helps them learn. Nesheim said teachers find it useful to use "Journeys" as a teaching tool in the classroom.

"The transformation you see in people is amazing," Nesheim said. "It's one of those things you can't count on paper."

Javier Alcaide Garcia is one of the students who plans to read his story Thursday night. He is from Andalucia and married a Wisconsin woman who he met in Spain. They moved to the United States last year.

Javier Alcaide Garcia
Javier Alcaide Garcia in his neighborhood in northeast Minneapolis on May 2, 2015. He immigrated to the United States last year and is originally from Spain.
Jennifer Ehrlich | MPR News

Alcaide Garcia struggled with the harsh winter and feelings of isolation until he found a job auto-detailing in his northeast Minneapolis neighborhood. He plans to become a social worker to utilize his language skills helping Minnesota's Spanish-speaking population.

In Spain, he said, "I had a job, but it was a job not to live, but to survive."

Alcaide Garcia wrote a nonfiction story for "Journeys" about his grandfather's experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He also wrote a short simple story about visiting his grandmother in the mountains, where he spent time her friend Teo. The two built furniture and art out of trash they found on walks.

"He wore big rings on his fingers, big and ugly glasses fixed with tape, and always he sewed his pants to get bigger pockets," Alcaide Garcia wrote.

Ultimately the anthology is a celebration of education and a glimpse of the dreams of an incredibly diverse group of people learning a new language or making up for lost time.

"I went to school until age eight. My hearing aid broke when I went swimming. My teacher called my name. I did not hear him. My teacher gave me a test. I didn't know the words because I couldn't practice. I cried. I couldn't go to school because I was deaf," wrote Zaw Halain, 22, of Myanmar.

"Now I have six beautiful kids that are educated. My oldest son graduated from the University of Minnesota and I am proud of him," wrote Ambia Buul, 46, of Somalia.

"Sometimes I've enjoyed my life, sometimes I've had a bad life, but the worst part of my life is over. I've decided to focus on becoming a police officer and passing the examination because I would love to work with the government," wrote Nareman Mahmoud, who is originally from Iraq.

You can find out more information about "Journeys" here.