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Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

Cultural differences hinder understanding

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

To say that the integration of hundreds of Somali refugees into Shelbyville over the past few years has gone smoothly would be inaccurate.

While the newcomers have faced opposition in other communities around the country, Shelbyville has mostly welcomed the refugees, without much public outcry over their presence.

Yet problems and differences do remain, and the T-G has heard more and more complaints and criticism from members of the public and those who work with the Somalis over the past year.

According to Holly Johnson, director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, the latest newcomers to Nashville are from the Bantu tribe, which were persecuted in Somalia for years.

The Bantu were descendants of slaves taken from Tanzania and Mozambique and according to the State Department, 12,000 of these refugees have spent most of the past decade languishing in camps along the dangerous Somali-Kenyan border.

The State Department says the Bantu have remained a persecuted minority in Somalia, and cannot return to the homes they fled. As a result, since 2003, the Bantu have been arriving in this country for resettlement.

The Bantu were provided with literacy training and an extended program of cultural orientation in refugee camps in Kenya before being moved to this country and were placed "in extended family groups in up to 50 cities and towns across the United States throughout 2003 and 2004," according to a State Department fact sheet.

But despite the educational efforts, a vast chasm of differences remains between the refugees and the communities they have moved to, mainly in the areas of religion and culture.

Bedford County has a strong Christian faith, with nearly 120 churches that hold worship services. With hundreds of Sunni Muslims now living in the community, the potential for cultural and religious clashes is obvious.

A powerful force in a Somali's life is Islam, which guides them in nearly every aspect of their lives. Those who follow this faith must show their devotion to Allah by obeying the "five pillars of Islam."

A Muslim must pronounce the "declaration of faith," which says that Allah is the only God, and Mohammed is his messenger, they must pray five times each day, make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, donate money or "pay alms" to the poor and fast each day during the month of Ramadan.

Prayer must be done at fixed times of each day, approximately at noon, mid afternoon, sunset, early evening and at about 6 a.m. This may cause problems for some employers, especially those who operate assembly lines.

There are also Islamic dietary requirements to consider: Pork is strictly prohibited, as is alcohol.

Traditional dress for Somali men includes western pants or a flowing plaid ma'awis (kilt); many local Somali men are seen wearing typical dress pants and shirts.

But for the women, however, the dress follows the Muslim tradition: a long, billowing dress called a direh, which is worn over petticoats. Another item is a coantino, a four-yard cloth tied over the shoulder and draped around the waist.

The wearing of the hijab, also known as a head scarf, is extremely common and have been seen on practically every Somali woman in the area.

While Somalis greet each other with handshakes, they typically avoid shaking hands with the opposite sex. The most common greeting is "Assalam Alaikum," meaning "Peace be upon you."

According to the Diversity Council, which distributes a tip sheet to businesses containing suggestions on how to relate to Somalis, many of their traditions of mannerisms, values and behavior are quite different than what Americans are used to living with from day to day.

Saving face is an important cultural concern for Somalis, as is the protection of family honor. Because of this emphasis, their communication style may be more indirect than Americans are used to.

Somalis also have a respect for strength and pride and due to this, boasting is common among Somalis, even though it is considered inappropriate in our society.

Also, Somalis may speak at a louder volume than is generally considered appropriate in this country, particularly when they are talking to each other, the Diversity Council explained.

"An American listening to a group of Somalis talking amongst themselves may interpret the discussion as a heated argument, when they are simply having a friendly conversation," the Diversity Tip Sheet says. Somalis do not often express appreciation verbally, it adds.

The T-G has also heard from many individuals in the community who have said their encounters with the Somalis have not been pleasant. Specifically, a "rude" and "demanding" attitude has been reported by local residents in their interactions with the refugees.

Johnson said that she thinks that part of their behavior "may be attributed to the fact that these folks have been refugees for so long and it is only through being rude and demanding that they have managed to get the little they have gotten to survive over the years in the camp."

She also believes that this is just the Western perception of the Somali culture.

"Just like other people we encounter in our lives who don't intend to be rude, but come off that way to us, sometimes this culture comes off rude to our ears, but they really don't intend to be," Johnson explained.

"They are not acclimated enough to know the accepted norms of communication here in the U.S.," she said. "This takes many, many years to master, actually."

Another culture clash that Bedford County residents have encountered is the habit of Somalis attempting to "haggle" over the price of an item if it is not to their liking, but Johnson claims that America "is the only country that doesn't haggle over prices!"

"They are acting on what is their only experience, in the same way that you or I would go overseas and just pay the price on the tag without haggling [and get taken great advantage of in doing so].

Gestures that Americans find to be common or innocuous have a much different meaning for Somalis. For example, it is considered impolite to point the sole of your foot or shoe at another person. Using the index finger to call somebody is also impolite, since the gesture is used for calling dogs in their culture. Also, the typical American "thumbs up" gesture is considered obscene.

However, Somalis use sweeping hand and arm gestures to dramatize their speech.

Johnson say that when visiting a Somali's home, some may like you to take off your shoes at the door -- "you'll know by looking to see if everyone else's shoes are left there," she says.

"Also, not a Somali norm, but strict Muslims would adhere to a rule where the men and women don't touch. In other words, if you went to someone's home, you would not offer your hand or touch the female in the house," Johnson said.

Johnson also suggests reading up on resources available on Somali and Muslim culture online, one of which is the Center for Applied Linguistics (www.cal.org), which does cultural orientation work with refugees overseas and routinely prints information about different populations and their cultures.

"It's important to note, however, that Somalis -- like any other population -- run the gamut ... some may be very strict, some very lenient," Johnson said in dealing with the Somalis. "You'll have to rely on good ol' common sense and nonverbal cues in most cases."

But a major cultural dilemma encountered in Bedford County has been the Somali attitude toward women. School superintendent Ed Gray reported that the Somalis have a lack of respect and difficulties with women in supervisory roles, especially female principals.

Johnson explained that Muslim culture often says that the women are silent and "I think that Somali men may have difficulty taking direction, orders, etc., from women." A large amount of work is done in educating the refugees on American culture but "it's a long and ongoing process," Johnson said.

"There are obviously more immediate needs that must be met before refugees focus on learning cultural norms of the country in which they've been resettled -- basic needs, that is."

But Johnson added that the Somali "will learn soon enough, one way or the other, how we operate here ... and they'll learn to work within that system to succeed and be contributing members of the community in which they live."

THURSDAY: Learning and working in the community.


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