You are like a little kid that cannot even speak.: Becoming Minnesotan

Male silhouette.
  • Name - Hared Mah
  • Age at interview - 23
  • Gender - Male
  • Generation - First Generation American / Immigrant
  • Date of Interview - 06.03.2004
  • Somali man and boy in U.S. airport.  Photo courtesy Abdisalam Adam.
    Somali man and baby at Eid al-Adha celebration, Minneapolis Convention Center.

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    Essential Question

    Becoming Americans: What does it mean to be an American?

    Problems in America: What could have helped this person’s adjustment in the U.S.?

    Words to look for

    Background Information

    When the civil war broke out in Somali in 1991, many Somalis fled to the neighboring countries of Kenya and Ethiopia. Somali is the official language of Somalia but other languages are also spoken there, including Arabic, Italian, and English.  English is also one of Kenya’s official languages and is sometimes spoken in Ethiopia.  However, the English spoken in these places is slightly different than American English.  In addition, not all Somalis are in Kenya or Ethiopia long enough to learn English before immigrating to the U.S.

    To learn more about Somali history and culture, visit our Somali Community page.

    • Chapter 1
    • Chapter 2

    Download Hared Mah 8
    2:5 Minutes | 2Mb


    Narrator: Hared Mah (HM)

    HM:  We first came to New York and then Chicago. We are being helped by the immigration officers who were with us all the time in every airport that we came. We did not need that much help for language, but when I came to Minneapolis, then was a little bit difficult. I had to face real life here. It wasn’t easy.

    Everything you need you have to ask for. You have to say, "I need this, I need this." You have to ask someone to translate, so it was kind of like you cannot do anything. You are like a little kid that cannot even speak.

    The first time when I came to the airport, I didn’t know which airport I was. We tried to ask if we were in Minneapolis or not then. I came to a lady. I was trying to ask, “Where’s Minneapolis?” She said something so fast. I was like, “What?” I was just staring at her then. Then the people who were to pick us up from the airport came to us, then they took us from the airport.

    I couldn’t even ask where to go. Whether I was in Minneapolis or not, I didn’t know. I just knew to say, “Hi.” I knew how to write the alphabet but not English. Even my first paper that I wrote, it’s terrible when I look at it now. I didn't know English when I…I knew a little bit, but not, you know, I could not speak. Nobody would understand me if I tried to speak. I couldn’t even understand. The way Americans even spoke, were different than how people in Africa and Kenya… the accent, you know, it was very fast. Sometimes I try to say something, but maybe I’m saying the word but nobody is understanding me. Like, "What, what, what?" Then, "Forget it." When they ask me, like, three times, “What are you saying?” It was a little bit frustrating when you don’t know the language.

    Continues in Chapter 2

    Download Hared Mah 9
    1:32 Minutes | 1.47Mb


    Narrator: Hared Mah (HM)

    Interviewer: Andy Wilhide (AW)

    HM:  Then I decided to go to school. There was no other alternative that I could turn onto. They said, “You have to learn the language.” I was very serious about it. Some people who I know that school at the same time, or maybe they went before me, but they still cannot speak. Maybe they don’t know much English that I do. I’m not saying that I’m better than them, but it depends how much effort and the passion you have. If you really think, yes, I need this, I need to learn. Even when I was Eastleigh, I used to dream about it. I want to learn English. I was thinking a lot about knowing English. Still I need to learn more English, but now, it’s all basic stuff. Maybe I can fill out an application. I can talk to anyone. I can call phone.

    AW:  How does English improve your life?

    HM:  Oh, I don’t know how people who don't know the language support their lives. It’s hard. My mom doesn’t know English, but I help her, you know. Maybe she gets papers from the government, and I read for her all that stuff; I fill out with her. Maybe if you’re an older person, you can live, but a young person that doesn’t know the language, I don’t know how. Everything, I think, depends on the language, everything. Getting a job depends on the language.

    Related Glossary Terms


    Noun:  A verbal or written request for assistance or employment or admission to a school.


    Minnesota Historical Society. Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees. September 2010. Institute of Museum and Library Services. [Date of access].
    nid: 536