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|9-Year-Old Somali Refugee Carries a Load of Adult Responsibilities|
Eric Adler, The Kansas City Star
The class: Fourth-grade reading. This is the drill.
Walking between the desks, the teacher at Della Lamb Elementary Charter School snaps his fingers. It's the signal for his 19 students - seated, no talking, unquestioning, eyes trained on their texts - to launch a veritable verbal assault on the words in front of them.
"Column two," he instructs. "First word." Snap.
"HALLWAY!" the kids shout.
"Yes, hallway,"the teacher says. Snap: another word.
"Yes, grabbing." Snap.
"Yes, overcame." Snap.
Seated at the center of the class, 9-year-old Fardowsa Sheikhaden - her head covered in the traditional Muslim headdress, her feet tucked in violet sneakers peeking from beneath a long Somali skirt - quietly complies with each recitation.
"Demonstrate," she says.
"Yes, demonstrate," the teacher repeats. Snap.
A refugee from war-ravaged Somalia, Fardowsa came to the United States and Kansas City with her parents seven years ago as a toddler. Her younger brother, Abdinajib, then 1, also came. Nine people now make up the family: two parents, seven kids. All live off the Paseo in a subsidized apartment - clean, with no pictures on the walls, sheets for curtains.
"Now let's see if we can say the words in column one correctly," the teacher says. Snap.
"SERIOUS!" the children shout.
For Fardowsa, it's a particularly apt word.
These days, as spring winds on, countless children and their parents are already looking forward to the summer and all it brings: Swimming. Baseball. Enrichment programs. Camping. Sleep-overs. Short nights giving way to long, lazy days of playing in the sun.
But not for Fardowsa.
For her - as it has been historically for children of immigrants, and as it is now for the children of refugees - the obligations and responsibilities of adulthood seem only rarely to take a holiday.
School over in the summer? Forget it.
Della Lamb Charter is a yearlong school, with a "direct instruction" curriculum. That means every morning - five days a week, 12 months a year - Fardowsa and 322 other children from kindergarten through sixth grade learn a "core curriculum" of reading, math, spelling and language. It's a snap, snap, snap, no-nonsense, scripted, repeat-after-me regimen.
Creative? Hardly. Results and accountability are the school's intent, Della Lamb's principal, Scott Schuman says.
Of the entire Della Lamb Charter population, 56 percent are poor refugees from places such as Somalia, the Sudan, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Cambodia and China. With "direct instruction," school officials say that within a year most are speaking at or above grade level.
As for the weekends:
To Fardowsa, who is Muslim, they mean three hours Saturday and three more Sunday in Somali school learning about the Qur'an and Somali culture.
At night, it's not over.
Fardowsa's father, 31-year-old Kassim Dirir, works 2 to 11 p.m. and sometimes 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., cleaning cars for $9.80 an hour at National Car Rental at Kansas City International Airport. Her mom, Hawo Ilmi, also 31, has six other kids younger than 9 to care for.
So when Fardowsa comes home, it's her job to sweep the apartment, its rugs duct-taped to the floor. It's Fardowsa's job to make the beds, then sweep the kitchen floor and do the dishes piled in the sink. After that, she must do her homework, help corral the younger children.
"I always have to be nice to them, but they're never nice to me," she complains in older-sister fashion.
Moreover, because Fardowsa's parents are unable to help Abdinajib, 8, and Zakariya, 6, with their homework, it is Fardowsa's job to do that, too.
"I'm not playing with you," she says to Abdinajib, scolding him one afternoon as he tries to get Fardowsa to finish his homework. "You need to do your own work."
To many families, all this may seem a lot for a 9-year-old girl to handle.
But for Fardowsa, who is talkative at home, shy in public, and who performs her work with meek obedience, it's just the way it is. As it is for the children of a great many Somalian refugees.
Since 1989, as Somalia has been rended by violence and lawlessness, 40,500 Somali refugees have come to the United States, with about 3,000 relocated to Kansas City. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, however, security issues have virtually stopped the flow of Muslim refugees to the United States. Last year only 295 Somali refugees were admitted into the United States, compared with 5,000 in 2001 before the attacks.
Earlier this year the U.S. State Department announced that it would begin allowing about 12,000 Somali Bantu to come into the United States starting this spring. The descendants of Mozambique slaves, the Bantu are a long-persecuted ethic minority in Somalia. According to the Washington-based U.S. Committee for Refugees, about 1,200 Somali Bantu will likely come to the United States this year from refugee camps in Kenya. The rest will follow as security allows.
Exactly how many come to Kansas City is unclear. But if and when they do arrive, they are very likely to make their way to Della Lamb Community Services, a nonprofit group that each day provides a host of services to 1,800 low-income families, including many refugees.
According to Judy Akers, executive vice president of Della Lamb, few refugees tend to have as rough a start in America as do the Somalis.
"They have the greatest uphill battle," she says.
The main reason: Because Somalia, being ruled by violent warlords, has no centralized government, there is no educational system.
"The first challenge," Akers says of newly arriving Somali adults, "is that, mostly, the population comes in illiterate in their native language." In other words, most arriving Somalis not only can't speak, read or write English, but also can't read or write Somali. For their children, over time, that creates a great responsibility.
"In essence," Akers says, "they become the family translators." Talking to doctors. Talking to teachers. Reading mail. Deciphering the labels at the grocery store.
After seven years in the country, Fardowsa's father now reads and speaks limited English. In his own country, he received some education. He can read and write Somalian. He once wanted to be a physician.
But because he works nights, when he is not home, Fardowsa becomes the family's voice.
People call on the telephone, she answers and takes the messages. Something breaks, she contacts the repairmen. Notes come from school, she translates them to her parents.
"She does so much," Fardowsa's mother says through a Della Lamb translator. In regards to helping the family, she says, "She plays a vital role when my husband is not around."
But Hawo Ilmi also recognizes that her daughter, at 9 years old, is still just a child. And despite the demands on Fardowsa, the responsibilities she faces, Ilmi says that she and her husband are always mindful of not overburdening her.
In the summer there is no swimming, although part of that is cultural. In the Muslim religious tradition, modesty prevents women and girls from publicly showing their bodies or uncovering their heads, especially to men.
One time at home a television commercial for women's lingerie flashed on the screen.
"That's nasty!" the kids cried. Out of cultural respect, all of Fardowsa's little brothers turned their eyes from the screen.
Likewise, Fardowsa will hardly be getting dressed in shorts this summer. Or going to camp. Or special enrichment programs. Or wiling away her days under a hazy sun. No, her time, as always, will be spent with her family and chores. Her job will be going to school.
"OK," the reading teacher says, "what's another way of saying she solved her lack of bravery?"
"She OVERCAME her lack of bravery!" the class recites.
"Good," the teacher calls out.
In private moments, away from strangers, away from teachers, Fardowsa is louder, less restrained than she generally shows. She runs and plays with her friends. She argues with her sisters and brothers. She quietly confides that she likes scary movies, the Disney channel, popcorn and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
But she is the oldest. And the expectations of her are also great.
"I believe with all my heart, that she should go to school and get a better future," her mother says.
Fardowsa can become whatever she likes in life, her father says through a translator. "But the most important expectation I have," he says, "is for Fardowsa to go to college."
He thinks of her becoming a doctor as he once wished for himself. Fardowsa mentions becoming a teacher or writer.
"We praise her," Ilmi says of her daughter. If Fardowsa, who is an "A" and "B" student, does really well all the way through sixth grade, her mother and father have said they will try to buy her a computer, as she desires.
"Do your best," Kassim Dirir says he tells all his children. "And then, as parents, we reward you."
This summer, Dirir says, there will be days they will go to parks for picnics with cousins, aunts and uncles. Maybe to Worlds of Fun or to Chuck E. Cheese's.
"She is still just a little girl. She needs to have fun," Dirir says. "We want that for her."
And so she will. But meantime...
"Let's try it again," the teacher calls out.