“Do you consider yourself Somali or American?”
That question kicked off a fascinating joint broadcast of the BBC’s radio show “Africa Have Your Say” Wednesday morning at our UBS Forum here at MPR in St. Paul.
It was one of the most interesting MPR-hosted discussions I’ve attended, featuring young Somali voices in London, Mogadishu and in the Twin Cities.
I was struck by the contrast in responses to that opening question. The young panelists in London mostly thought of themselves as Somali, rather than British. But all four members of our Minnesota crew – Mukhtar Osman, Hoodo Hassan, Zuhur Ahmed and Ruqia Mohamed – offered much more nuanced answers, which more or less ended with: “It’s complicated.”
I found myself nodding in recognition. When you are an immigrant, or the child of immigrants, it’s hard to choose just one identity. Nor should you have to.
Just ask Mohamed Samatar, 18. Here’s a kid who is completely comfortable with every facet of himself:
“When people ask me that question, I say, ‘American by nationality, Muslim by religion, American by culture, Somali by memory, Yemeni by adoption — because I was born there — and universal by principle.”
When Samatar offered up that poetic phrase, “Somali by memory,” he got plenty more nods in the audience.
Nimco Ahmed, who works on policy issues for the city of Minneapolis, said the differences in how Somalis connect with their adopted homelands became clear during a recent conference in Washington D.C. During a basketball game, all of the Somalis from the United States instinctively stood up when the national anthem was played.
“The British Somali youth, they just couldn’t believe it. They were all shocked we knew the song, and that we were singing the song,” said Ahmed, who was equally shocked that some of her counterparts across the pond did not know their national anthem and did not consider themselves even a wee bit British, even though they lived in the U.K. for most of their lives.
“The youth here feel deeply they are American. For us, every day, the complication is how we define ourselves. We are Americans, and at the same time, inside of our homes, we are Somalis.”
If you missed it, Bob Collins live-blogged about it. He also posted the off-air final 30 minutes of our discussion in St. Paul, in which our Minnesota panel and audience more deeply explored the issues of identity and belonging.
This event reminded me how news organizations, especially public radio, can play an important role in bringing people together. It also reminded me that young people are in no shortage of poignant moments, provided they have a forum to express themselves — and a question or two to get the conversation started.