Somali youth document the diaspora with their ‘sheeko’

Students are working with a U program to collect the oral history of their home country.
March 03, 2011

Mustafa Jumale has no memory of Somalia. He cannot recall the war-torn country his family fled when he was a toddler.
Though he may not remember the place he came from, he is taking steps to ensure that it is never completely forgotten.
“All I have is stories,” he said. “But stories can only give you so much.”
This semester, the University of Minnesota student is utilizing those stories to contribute to the Immigration History Research Center’s Sheeko project to document the youth experience within the Somali Diaspora in Minnesota.
Sheeko, the Somali word for “story,” involves recording the oral histories of Somalis between the ages of 18 and 25 over the course of the semester.
From the interviews, a digital archive will be created in the form of a website that will allow the public to respond and contribute to the narrative presented, Jumale said.
“This will be the first archive of Somali youth experiences created by and for Somali youth,” Andy Wilhide, a graduate student assisting with the project, said. “In the future, this will be a very important historical narrative about Somali youth.”
The idea for Sheeko was sparked after Jumale and Wilhide worked on another IHRC project, Minnesota 2.0, which documented the way immigrant and refugee youth utilize Facebook, Jumale said.
After the idea was developed, it was presented to Donna Gabaccia, the director of the IHRC.
Gabaccia said though the IHRC hosts one of the largest collections of materials documenting the immigrant and refugee experience in the U.S., this proposal presented a fresh opportunity.
“Archives rarely include the voices of young people,” said Gabaccia, who is also a University history professor. “This was an opportunity to forever capture this voice.”
Undergraduate students have conducted about a dozen video-recorded interviews since January and hope to more than double that number by May, Wilhide said.
Jumale, a senior in the Department of African American & African Studies, said though interviewees have primarily been selected from around campus, the group is looking to find people who reflect a range of experiences, including those not enrolled in universities or from other campuses.
Ifrah Mansour, one of the students interviewed for the project, said she participated because she fears that critical stories could be lost without an effort to document the complex experience.
“I see it being a critical part of our education,” she said, “a critical part of strengthening our community.”
Mansour said it only took one question to get her to open up, and though she had prepared what she wished to share beforehand, she ended up presenting a far more personal aspect of her experience.
“For some weird reason, I ended up talking about my Grandma’s farm back in Somalia,” she said. “I have no idea how I went from talking about my education to my grandma.”
Jumale said, like Mansour, most interviewees have had no trouble opening up, with interviews lasting anywhere from 45 minutes to close to two hours.
The undergraduate researchers, including Jumale, were also expected to share their own stories, which highlighted common themes regarding struggle, ambition, strength and “identity politics,” Wilhide and Jumale said.
“At home they’re in a Somali world, and at school they’re in an American one,” Wilhide said. “But what’s interesting is that now they’re creating a new youth culture that transcends both.”
He said the project aims to offer both Somalis and non-Somalis the opportunity to explore the complexity of the experiences of these youth.
Wilhide, who said she has been inspired by studying the history of Somali migration in Minnesota, hopes the project will provide a more balanced portrayal of Somali youth.
“I think the media sometimes portrays young Somali people in a very negative light,” she said. “People who go to the website will get sense of positive things these youth are engaged in.”

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