Holding onto your heritage: Somali traditions keep family roots intact while chasing the American dream

Sagal Abdirahman and her motherMy mother came to America for one reason and one reason only. The “American Dream.”

What she didn’t know was the land we held onto might be sacrificed for that dream.

She came from Somalia, which was going through a civil war at the time. My mom fled to Europe in 1992 while pregnant with my eldest brother. Soon after, my two older siblings, Zamzam and Abdinaim, and I were born in Bonn, Germany.

She wanted us to have the best life, filled with opportunities she never had. The only place to do that was America.

Coming here when I was only three, my family and I soon realized that we needed to learn English in order to succeed. After going to school for a few years, my mother started to be filled with fear. Fear because when her kids came home from school every day, we knew a little more English and a little less Somali. Fear because it was harder for us to hold onto our culture while getting used to another.

My siblings and I came to slowly notice her fear. We saw it, too.

We didn’t want to lose our culture, language and the amazing history behind our names. We didn’t want to lose the music we heard my mom sing while cooking. The folk tales that taught us everyday lessons, such as not to pick up trash from the ground and to not talk about others behind their backs.

And most importantly, the only way we communicated: Through our language. Soon after, my mother started a house rule: No speaking English at home, only Somali. While continuing to hold onto every bit of Somali in us, it was very difficult to balance American culture with Somali culture.

Everything just seemed to be so different with Americans. In a Somali household, it’s not OK to walk in with your shoes. While that might also tie into religion, it is seen as very disrespectful. However, it’s normal to do so in an American house. When eating, it’s also normal for Somalis to eat with their hands, specifically your right hand. If I dare do that at a local all-American restaurant or in an American house, I will be stared at like an animal.

These differences are frustrating and hard to balance, but I somehow seem to manage. It is the hardest at school because people don’t often see me as American. I am not a white girl who shows her long blonde hair, who wears leggings and North Face clothing to school. Although they will never see me as purely American, I’m actually more than happy to not be with the majority.

My family and I have adapted—and continue to adapt—to American culture. It’s who surrounds us in our everyday lives. But in the end, I’m glad to have Somali culture and blood running through my veins. I will always be proud to carry my beautiful people with me.

I plan to continue being open minded about American culture after I graduate high school in June 2015. I have come to realize that both sides of my life are beyond important to me. I greatly appreciate my Somali people and traditions while continuing to learn about American ones.

My family and I strive for that original dream, the dream we came here for. I look at every difficulty I face as a source of strength to carry me through my life as a Somali.

As an American.

As a Somali-American.