Meet Ayan Omar – a Somali American Educator Using Literature to Mentor Refugee Youth

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Ayan Omar poses boldly for the camera.

By: Lolla Nur, Freelance Journalist

Note: This interview took place in summer 2021 and has been lightly edited for readability.

Salam Ayan! Could you please share about your background? I know you’re a teacher. Where do you teach, and what is your student demographic like?

I teach at Tech High School in St. Cloud. I teach language arts to 10-12th graders. I have many young Somali Muslim students — the ones who aren’t born here but who have a refugee background. 

What is living in St. Cloud like compared to Minneapolis, especially as a Somali Muslim American woman?  

St. Cloud is difficult to compare to Minneapolis. Our conversations on racial justice and social changes are behind. The conversation about race is behind [by about] 10-13 years. The further north you go in Minnesota, the further behind it is. When you go into the Somali community who’s newer in this area, it’s further behind.

It’s easier in Minneapolis—the city is more diverse, [it’s] a large demographic, a populated city. But St. Cloud is a whole different conversation. You compare a growing city to an already grown city like Minneapolis: the wealth is different, the education level is different, the refugee status (of the Somali community) is different. 

How do your Somali students experience St. Cloud?

My Somali students are not of slave descent. They face complexities being refugees. They’re Black, but not of slave descent. So, they have to unpack their own identity to figure out how they should respond [to racism]. 

In Minneapolis, you now have the second generation of Somali students, who were born and raised here. But in St. Cloud, you’re talking generation 1.5 students—not born here but raised here, still navigating the system of their identity as a Somali American.

They say, “Ms. Omar, we’re not Black, we’re Somalis.” I [use that to] start a conversation about the system, [that systems] can’t tell if you’re Somali, but they can tell you’re Black. They can tell you’re Muslim. [For example, the police are] not gonna stop and ask you, “Are you Somali?” No, you’re Black.

So how do your African migrant/refugee students navigate racism when they experience it?

Last summer (2020), there was a great number of young Somalis [in Minneapolis] who participated in the Black Lives Matter movement and they received credit from the Black Minnesota community for their contributions. Social media brought that to the surface. 

I’ve had these conversations with my refugee Somali immigrant-background students, my Black students of non-slave descent. They struggle to find a place in the movement, in the Black Lives Matter movement. [They wonder], ‘Is the BLM movement a political statement or a matter of fact?’ I tell them it’s not political, Black lives do matter. 

But that’s what [my Somali students in St. Cloud] are dealing with: how do I decipher if this is political or not political? How do I know which part of the conversation and movement I can participate in?

As a teacher, what do you feel is your role in supporting your students to understand their intersectional experiences?

Courtesy of Ayan Omar’s Facebook page

I try to get them to understand how they’re received as young Black students, how they can control the narrative. The way to control the narrative is through reading. I suggest books written by Alice Walker, Toni Morrisson, Ralph Ellison, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin. 

I tell them you’re Muslim and Somali, you know yourself. But to understand the context of race in this country, you have to educate yourself through reading so you can construct your response. But saying you’re not Black won’t get you that far. 

You yourself have a fascinating story. You didn’t grow up in Minnesota. I’m wondering if Blackness is something you’ve always identified with? Have you always maintained solidarity with the African American community?

I grew up in a predominantly Black community in Stone Mountain, Georgia from kindergarten to high school. I grew up with the African American community. I was immersed in African American culture. Growing up in Georgia, I only had a language barrier. Being Somali or Muslim didn’t matter. I was Black. Our narratives aligned. Struggle recognizes struggle, you quickly develop a relationship with those in struggle. 

I’m familiar with the dialect, culture and history. I got my master’s thesis on Toni Morrison about her novels, “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Beloved”. So, with that knowledge, when I go into the Black community there’s this unspoken solidarity and instant connection, just by showing up. It’s not a matter of, ‘What are you doing here?’ but a matter of, ‘What took you so long? Why you late?’ 

It’s unspoken. So much of that is rooted in the struggle in that deep desire for justice, freedom, equity. It’s such a deep connection that it’s undeniable. I feel well received, well connected. 

Where do you see race relations in St. Cloud headed?

We’re headed in the right direction. I see things moving. When we have [Ramadan] iftar dinners with the community, overwhelmingly they show their support by showing up at the mosque.

I’m also part of a Central Minnesota Somali Professionals Women’s group. We do a candy wrapping event every year and at that event we hand out candy to young students. This year, the police department is participating at our event.  

How do you hope to continue contributing to shifting race relations in St. Cloud? 

It starts with me. In both White and Black communities, when you’re surrounded by adults who strain to have conversations about race, the kids will strain too. They’ll formulate their own ideas, they’ll try to avoid it by constructing their own identities. That’s what I see with the Somali community mostly, the desire to dissociate. 

It’s an emotional response, it’s part of the [need for] healing. Some people heal by running toward the danger, some by running away. They’ve experienced trauma, trauma is not new to them. The question becomes, how much trauma are they willing to participate in especially when they can dissociate from it? 

You spoke about the need for healing. Could you talk a bit more about what healing justice for students, migrants and refugees could look like? 

I’m always thinking about healing justice, especially as a Somali Muslim Black mother and teacher. I’m stuck between preserving the mental health that our children should have versus informing them [of the realities]. 

You’re stuck between two complexities. I want them to be educated because the reality is you never know how close to home a [race-based] tragedy might strike. But at the same time, you don’t want to overwhelm them. They’re children. How much anxiety will I trigger by talking about racial justice to an eight year old, or even a 10th grader? 

What strategy is best for healing? You want to protect them but you don’t want to make them feel invisible. The approach I take with racial healing is to try to create a safe and brave space for students. It’s safe because I’m listening, and brave in the sense that I let them talk.

The more I can focus my response just on what they want to talk about and not impose my lens on them, I’ve learned healing starts to happen. That’s what’s working with me in the classroom. 

That’s powerful sis. Any final thoughts?

Someone once said to me those who are talking are doing the learning. I’d like to add: those who are doing the talking are also doing the healing. 

Disclaimer: This interview took place in May 2021 — in light of conversations in Minneapolis and the U.S. about the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd, the April 2021 Derek Chauvin trial, and the April 2021 police killing of Daunte Wright.

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