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|Intisan and her sister enjoy the view of the Ohio River.|
Intisan finally stood up from her chair and walked over in the direction of the area where her younger sister, Fatuma and I were waiting. We were at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in Sharonville, Ohio and Intisan just finished her third attempt at the knowledge test to obtain a driving permit. She has always been an achiever having received numerous awards and praises year after year from the school she and her siblings attended for six years in the refugee camp in Ethiopia. It was no different during their last four years before coming to the United States. They lived in Adis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where Intisan excelled in her work as a computer teacher. As a model student and a high achiever, it was a huge disappointment and a cloud over her head to experience failure on her first two tries at this test. I tried to console her by telling her how many native English speakers fail several times before finally obtaining their permit. She is still learning English and has only been in the States for over a month. Intisan welcomed my attempts at trying to cheer her up but knowing how much her family depended on her to succeed at this next step weighed her spirits down. It was difficult to tell if she was successful this time. As she walked towards the officer at the counter, her eyes met ours and a smile slowly formed across her lips. She nodded to let us know that she did it. She passed.
Intisan is the oldest daughter of Osman and Nima. She and her family are Somali refugees who recently arrived in the US this year. Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio in Cincinnati had a difficult time finding a house large enough to accommodate the 11 members of their family on short notice. The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati had several houses on the mother house grounds and one of them was empty at the time of the family’s arrival. After some back and forth to make arrangements, the leadership of our congregation was able to offer as temporary living space the house next to the novitiate house where I live until more permanent housing could be found. And just like that, Intisan’s family and the Sisters of Charity became neighbors.
|Somali tea and sweets for the afternoon.|
Pretty soon, afternoon tea and sampling a variety of “sweets” and delicious Somali food became a regular occurrence between myself and our new neighbors. I readily took to tea with cardamom and Somali sweets such as shushumow, balbalow, dorsho, and kashato. On my birthday, they were my special guests and I cooked them Filipino noodles called pancit with careful efforts to use halal chicken - meat prepared in a manner that adheres to Islamic law as prescribed in the Koran. Sharing food was always a delightful experience. But even more beautiful were the conversations that occurred during these sit-down meals. Breaking bread was the bridge to breaking open the stories and experiences we carried with us. They told me how worried they were about coming to America with very little money and with such a large family. The parents, Osman and Nima, are in their mid-forties and their nine children who were able to come including Intisan, range in age from 24 years old to the youngest who is eight. Two older sons are still in Somalia. Occupied by his worries about how he and his family will manage, Osman was happily surprised by the help and assistance they received shortly after arriving. IOM (International Organization for Migration) was at the Washington D.C. airport to meet them and Catholic Charities was in Cincinnati ready to receive them. Shortly after landing in Cincinnati, they were welcomed into their temporary home and met the Sisters of Charity. Osman’s initial worries and stresses began to fade.
Intisan who acts as the main translator for the family, echoed her father’s sentiments. “I was worried. Our case worker said there wasn’t any house [sic]. What do we do now? Where will we go? Oh my God, we were worried. My father was very worried.” She laughed as she recalled how they all felt a month earlier and how relieved they are now that it has all worked out.
|As a birthday gift, Intisan's sister artfully designed |
beautiful henna tattoo on my arms and hands.
Nima, Intisan’s mother, has strength and resilience belied by her easy smile. She has borne 11 children and her life has been far from easy. Her lack of English does not keep her from sharing the long, difficult journey her family experienced and the losses she endured. She talks about wanting her children to lead a different life than the one she has lived. Nima witnessed violence and lost loved ones. “It was hard. I experienced difficulties. I only want for my children to be educated and to be hard workers and to have a good life in the future. I am sure they will do more things. My dream became true. I can expect now to have a new life in America.” Despite the many trials, she remains animated and precocious. She is hysterical when she tries her hand at an English word to tell a joke or join in the conversation. One time, one of the sisters took four of the family members to shop for some clothes. Nima went with them and she eagerly showed me her bargains once she got home. There was a beautiful purse, a couple of dresses and finally, a leopard print pair of underwear that was way bigger than her size. The box showed it was an XXXL and there was at least one other box of the same. While not very successfully containing my amusement, I tried to ask her why in the world she would pick such huge underwear. Without waiting for her daughters to translate, she pointed and emphatically said in English, “Picture (of the model on the box)-- small!” We all laughed heartily at her explanation. That is true. Why would they have a picture of a model wearing a small underwear if that’s not what’s inside the box? She continued explaining what she would do with these pairs of underwear that were so huge, they could fit her and at least one of her daughters at the same time. She made the motion of using a sewing machine, “SIN-ger!” This woman definitely knows how to make lemonade out of lemons or better yet, several underwears out of one.
|Osman and his children work on the garden they started |
next to their temporary house.
Osman, the patriarch, is an excellent gardener, baker, and a man of more skills than I am aware of. His children affectionately call him “abba” and he displays the gentlest, kindest manner towards them. He always greets me with a handshake or a hug whenever I come over. Each time I visit, he tells me that I and the sisters are his family and how grateful he is for us. He taught me how to say “mesenith” (thank you), “ada mudan” (you’re welcome) and other Somali and Arabic words that I still need to memorize. Osman has many stories about his life in Somalia and Ethiopia including knowing Italian and Indian nuns that taught him and gave him candy after school. They wore black and brown habits and the little children called them “Sor.” He says the Sisters of Charity look a little different but their actions of helping are the same.
However, my favorite story that Osman shared was very telling of this gentle man’s character. Back at the Ethiopian refugee camp, a foreigner visited and watched him make bread and cookies in a clay oven. This small business provided a livelihood for Osman and his family in the refugee camp. The foreigner was from the Netherlands but spoke Somali. He took pictures of Osman doing his work and offered to help by giving him money to grow his business. Before agreeing to accept the offer, Osman had a very important question for the man. “You want to help me? Yes? Do you eat what I eat? Yes? That was a test because if he wants to help me, I should be able to help him too and share what I have with him. When he said yes, I prepared a meal and we ate together. (Only) then I could [sic] accept his help.” The dignity and integrity of this family shines through despite the difficult situations they have experienced. He reiterates this same principle of mutuality in talking about being in America, “My biggest dream has come true. So my family and I need to help others too and help the country I live in now. Whatever they need from me, I will (do my best to) help them.”
|Sisters of Charity break the fast with Intisan's family on one|
of the initial days of Ramadan this year.
While enjoying our conversation and tea on one of our many afternoons shared together, Intisan accidentally tipped over and spilled her drink. I reached out to help her stop the liquid from flowing and in the process might have expressed a little disappointment at her losing most of the drink she was enjoying so much. She responded to me and said, “It’s okay, Romina. It’s ker.” Puzzled, I looked at her waiting for more explanation about ker. She continued, “You cannot be sad about it. Allah gives and Allah can take away. Even when bad things happen, or you lose something, it is blessed, still good. It is ker.” I smiled as I recalled my own understanding of spiritual indifference and letting go. I later used “ker” to help Intisan see that failing the driving test could just be a possible learning experience. She smiled and appreciated the comment. Indeed, there is so much that this family and I share in common. Osman affirmed this, “Muslims and Christians, we are very similar. It is Love. Our religion says love each other.... welcoming [sic]... happiness. (Points) Look, there’s Muslim or there’s Christian... we don’t say that. We don’t discriminate. Peace and love (is what we teach), your (religion does) too. We love each other. Our God didn’t say hate each other but love each other. Many, many things is [sic] similar. I don’t see many differences. We also believe Ysa - Jesus, the prophets. Jesus says don’t hate each other. Love each other. Also for Catholics, you welcome each other. When someone is sinning, forgive. Love your enemies too.”
Intisan and her family stayed with us for only a little over a month. In early May, Catholic Charities let us know that they finally found permanent housing for the family. I still regularly visit them at least once a week but we mutually miss the accessibility of being right next door to each other especially at four o’clock in the afternoon when it’s time for tea. A relative has recently gifted them with a car to use and Intisan is learning to drive and aiming to take the actual driving test soon. She knows what a help it would be to have at least one member of the family be able to operate a vehicle. Recently, four members of the family have also started working their first US jobs.
|Colorful and delicious Somali rice to celebrate Eid al-Fitr|
Photo courtesy of S. Tracy Kemme, SC
On June 26, several of my sisters and I went to the family’s new home to join in their celebration of Eid al-Fitr - the feast marking the end of Ramadan, the month-long religious practice of fasting and prayer for Muslims. We were greeted with warm hugs, smiles and more food than we can ever eat in a week. “Our family,” as the sisters are now accustomed to calling them, made us the feast of all feasts. On their special religious holiday, they prepared colorful rice, scrumptious chicken, a beautiful salad, and loads of sweets. As always, more stories were shared around the table. Our tummies were filled to the brim but our hearts even more as Osman and Nima both said to us in Somali, “Mininka mininka waye so dawaw.” Intisan translated for her parents, “Our home is your home. You are welcome here anytime.” Indeed, we are no longer strangers, not even just neighbors. Their family and their home have become our home. And we, the sisters, have become theirs.