Somali tea has always had a special place in my heart. Every Saturday afternoon, my mom drives my twin sister and me to my auntie’s house. We can’t wait to see our cousins, play outside in their beautiful backyard and, most importantly, drink my aunt’s delicious tea, made with wonderful spices.
“Assalamu Alaikum (may peace be onto you),” my aunt and cousins said happily, smiles radiating from their faces. “Wa Alaykum Salam (and peace be onto you),” my sister, mother and I responded. I entered the house and suddenly a million different things were happening: the kids were bouncing on the trampoline, and the waalido (parents) and ayeyyos (grandparents) crowded around the chocolate brown couch, discussing Somali politics. I couldn’t decide where to go. Suddenly, one of my aunt lovingly dragged me to the kitchen, where she said she wanted to teach me to make tea. I was finally old enough to be near the stove. I was stoked! I eagerly watched her as she brought out her gold teapot with light blue flowers and heated the stove. We waited for the water to boil. We gathered our ingredients — milk, black tea, cardamom and ginger. Once the water boiled, we added the spices and waited patiently. My aunt strained the tea into a teapot, pouring it into special china cups before it overflowed. Finally, tea was served!
As a child, I was enamored by the mindful, intricate process of brewing tea. I liken this intricate process to conversations: Just as my aunt and I eagerly added each ingredient to our special tea, every relative on that couch contributed their unique opinions, creating a perfectly blended discussion. Their chatter opened my eyes to valuable lessons, brought me closer to my Somali heritage and made me want to advocate for others.
One conversation when I was 11 particularly stuck out. On a humid Saturday, my family and I hopped into our gray car and attended another gathering at my aunt’s house.
I entered the living room, where I saw my close relatives huddled around the couch. They were focused on a discussion. After a few minutes, I finally decided to pay attention: they were talking about my relatives in Somalia. A few of my grandparents, and particularly my great aunt, had very worried looks on their faces. They discussed how my aunt Zahra and her two young kids were running away from their home because they were facing persecution from a rival Somali tribe. Once the war started, a famine hit Somalia. Their schooling was interrupted and there was little to eat. Civilians were caught in the middle and often struck by stray bullets.
A range of emotions went through me. I never imagined my family would endure such a situation. I was shocked, yet yearned to understand more about the situation. When the people close to you are going through something, all you want to do is help. Living so far away from them, I wanted to rescue them.
But I couldn’t. And that hurt me.
Remembering my aunt Zahra and her kids in Somalia, I was spurred into action and found ways to impact the community nearest to me. I applied and was chosen to represent my community on the Minnesota Youth Council, where I was able to work with other youth and create change. I planned community events encouraging young people from marginalized communities to share their voices, testified on behalf of youth for bills related to tobacco prevention and expanding voter registration access, and organized letter-writing campaigns encouraging youth to be civically active and support policies that will impact their lives.
Through simple lessons learned through family conversations, I learned to not only be mindful of different perspectives but became a more caring, empathetic person. Specifically, the ability to listen and learn from other people’s experiences is an important skill that I have made sure to use when I lead and take part in community work.
I will never forget the impact of a little cup of tea.