On an evening last November, Farhiya Iman spoke to a screenful of faces on a Zoom call — among them: A retired Spanish teacher, a doctor, a librarian, a graduate student and a judge.
She explained how to say “Good morning” in the Somali language: “Subax wanaagsan.”
The class members struggled in their responses. Somali is not an easy language for nonnative speakers to master. Some of the letters are silent, while some make completely different sounds than their English pronunciation.
But Iman had only glowing praise for her students. “You did a good job,” she told them warmly.
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This, Iman believes, is how you start to build trust and bridge the cultural divides that the St. Cloud community has known too well over the years: with a friendly greeting.
"When I'm in the community and somebody says hi to me in my language, I'm not even joking. It's like an instant smile,” she said. “Because now I know that person actually took the time to go and learn how to say hi in my language."
Iman has lived in St. Cloud since she was 14. She's now a child protection social worker for Stearns County, and a mother of two.
In 2018, Iman's family opened Nori Café in St. Cloud, serving traditional sambusas and Somali spiced tea, with a side of friendly conversation.
"We had a lot of customers that would come in and ask questions of our culture,” she said. “‘Why do you wear the hijab?’ Or, ‘I came across somebody in the community and they were doing this. What is it mean?’"
So Iman’s family started hosting gatherings in the café for people to learn more about Somali language and culture, and found they were popular. They partnered with a local nonprofit, UniteCloud, to expand them.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Nori Café closed. Iman and UniteCloud decided to keep the classes going virtually.
“To know Farhiya is to love her,” said Natalie Ringsmuth, executive director of UniteCloud. “She's just a great teacher, and she's patient and she's funny.”
Ringsmuth said Iman has taught three rounds of the classes so far, and another is scheduled to start later this month. They typically fill up within 24 hours after they’re announced, Ringsmuth said.
Although class participants get just a brief introduction to the Somali language, Ringsmuth said it can go a long way toward helping people connect.
“When you meet someone where they're at, and you show them that you've learned something to soften your relationship with them and to connect with them, it just shows that you're trying,” Ringsmuth said. “The stories we've heard from people who have gone back into their workplaces or into their classrooms and been able to use some of this language have just been really inspiring.”
Across three 90-minute sessions, Iman covers a lot of ground, including the core beliefs of Islam, Somali history, holiday traditions, music and food. She explains what a traditional Somali breakfast looks like, and why Muslims fast during Ramadan.
Iman also shares her own life experiences. Her family fled civil wars in Congo and Somalia. They lived in a refugee camp in Uganda for 10 years before coming to the United States in 2001, settling first in Marshall, Minn., before moving to St. Cloud.
Growing up as a refugee in Minnesota, navigating two cultures, she said, was sometimes difficult.
"I wanted to be as American as possible. And also, my parents’ expectations were for us to be as Somali as possible,” she said. “Some of the things my friends were experiencing, I wanted to experience. But I knew sometimes my mom is not going to let me do that."
Iman's friendly demeanor and openness put class members at ease. They ask lots of questions: Is it OK to greet a Muslim person of the opposite gender with a handshake? Iman suggests waiting to see if the other person extends their hand first.
Iman knows that sometimes these cultural differences can trip people up. For instance: When she was in high school in St. Cloud, she said, teachers sometimes thought Somali students were lying when they talked to them, because they wouldn't look the teachers directly in the eye.
"What they didn't realize was that, in our culture, we're not supposed to give eye contact to elders,” she said. “That actually is as a sign of disrespect."
Iman usually wraps up the series’ final session with a tour of a local Somali mall. Recently, because of COVID-19 restrictions, she’s offered a virtual tour instead.
By the final session, November’s class members were proud of what they'd learned. Sarah Hom said she's been practicing her new language skills, greeting Somali-speaking customers in their own language at the credit union where she works.
"No matter if we get it right or wrong, the smile that creeps up on our members' faces when they know we're trying. I just think it helps tell the story that you're welcome here,” Hom said.
Another participant was Sharon Benson, a district judge based in Otter Tail County who also worked as a defense attorney in St. Cloud.
Benson, who also knows some Arabic, said she would like to greet people who appear in her courtroom in their native language whenever possible.
“Just the fact that I knew a little bit made them really be a lot more at ease,” she said. “And to feel like I'm somebody who was interested in them and interested in their culture, so that they weren't just another number.”
Iman hopes that by getting to know her personally, the people who take her classes will gain a deeper understanding of their Somali neighbors — and help change the minds of others in their lives who may be less tolerant.
"I think the media and the narratives sometimes out there about refugees and Somalis or Muslims are always negative,” she said. “I'm very open about sharing things with them that are part of me. Because they need to know we're human, just like anybody else."