coming to america
About this series: Coming To America is a new project about recent immigrants and their experience in moving to the United States. It is an effort to introduce them to those of us less educated about their culturally-rich backgrounds. It is my hope that this project will underline the importance of welcoming people from all nations into our country. A very special thanks to the amazing Sarah for her time and her amazing interview / writing skills. This project would never have begun without her help.
Camilla Jamal is the first subject of our series. She came the the U.S. 7 years ago and now works as a Community Liaison Coordinator at the Lyndale Neighborhood Association and the Whittier Alliance where she improves and implements women’s leadership programs. I met with Camilla for photos twice, once at her home with her family and once at her office. When we met at her workplace, it was during Ramadan, so she was wearing traditional clothing. The photos of her in more modern dress is how she presents her self on most days.
My name is Camilla Fartun Jamal. I was born in Somalia. I moved to Kenya then Malaysia and then America – all for my education. I came here for college; I graduated three years ago and moved to Minneapolis for work.
I left Somalia when I was young, 12 or 14. I remember the drive from Kenya from Somalia; my parents didn’t come with me. I was actually the only one traveling a lot of the time, but I did have my cousin with me.
I went to British Catholic boarding school even though I grew up in a Muslim community. I couldn’t eat pork and stuff, so they would cook special dinners for me. I had to do what all the other students did, like every Sunday going to church and singing the Jesus songs and all of that. There were no other Muslims so it was really hard for me to practice.
I came to America on a student visa to study at Concordia in Moorhead. I was a Global Studies major. And I’m sorry to say, but I didn’t want to come to America. It was my last resort. I’d played on the national soccer team in Kenya and I wanted to go to Spain to be a national soccer player! But my step dad pushed me to go to school, he told me I’d regret it later if I didn’t.
I applied for a visas to Spain, Italy, different countries in Africa, nope. I was accepted to the University of Toronto but they didn’t give me good scholarships. I was accepted to the University of California, but they didn’t give me a good scholarship. A family friend recommended I apply to Concordia; she sent wonderful pictures of the summer in Moorhead. They had a high student retention rate, a good social worker program, so I applied and arrived and it was beautiful.
But in November, my teachers were like, “Are you ready? Do you have a jacket?” And I was like what? That was really confusing to me, like jackets? No, I just have a shorts. Because in Kenya, Malaysia it’s hot. They were like “Girl, you need to buy all of that.”
For the first two weeks of November, I didn’t go to class because my knees didn’t work. It was too cold! That winter killed me. It killed my emotions, my mood, I became so boring. I didn’t want to go anywhere.
But my dad had already paid for my tuition in full. Concordia gave me a good scholarship and they could not take it back. So I stayed and eventually I liked it. There were a few Somalis in Moorhead; I knew them by sight.
Other than the weather, the move to America was easier than my moves to Kenya or Malaysia. I got used to traveling from one place to another – leaving. It was really easy. Each country has a different culture, different values. I’ve worked with the white population, I can see the parts of white culture. I gotta do what I gotta do in order to survive here.
Race is the main thing here. Over there, people look alike, we’re all black. I didn’t realize it. Before I moved, my Sociology teacher said “Camilla, one day you will realize race matters. Be prepared. Don’t be shocked.” I learned that race was constructed in the United States.
It’s those small comments. “You’re so articulate! You have such good English!” Some countries in Africa have English as a first language. So would someone say that? There were so many questions I didn’t think about.
Since I went to college in Moorhead, I had time to learn about American culture, but it’s not as easy for most people. The problem is, in a lot of states refugees are given only five months to figure it out. To get a job, to figure out life in America.
But someone who lived in a camp for 25 years, how do you expect that person to just change in five months? Let them actually come out of the war. They’re thinking about home and family. they’re thinking about all that and then they’re being told to do this and this and this. They end up missing appointments and classes, and I don’t blame them.
Nonprofits are very poor, number one, and volunteering helps. But it’s important that people volunteer with the right frame of mind mind – not “Oh, I want to help poor people.” That’s already negative. If you really want to help, you go with your heart being there. Volunteer yourself, work with the community. Realize you’re not different from them. You’re equal, you’re both human beings.
Just go to the communities and just say, “I want to get to know you.” It’s going to be hard it’s going to take some time for someone to open up to you and persistence is key. Don’t talk about race, don’t ask about life in the camps. Just ask “How was your weekend?” Just talk to them the way you’d talk to anyone else. Language matters and how you say it matters. You might be innocent but it’s about how the person is feeling. Intention matters.
If you, or someone you know, would like to be a part of this series, please contact Leslie Plesser at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!