Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Yearning for respect & equality, “no matter what color you are” August 26, 2012

I HAVE PHOTOGRAPHED them from a distance, their long skirts swaying as they walk across Central Park toward me.

Now the young women are standing before me and I am confused for a moment until Nasteho Farah tells me she wants to look her best and asks me to photograph them again.

Friends, Nimo Abdi, a sophomore at Faribault High School, left, and Nasteho Farah, a senior.

I agree as I already envision the portrait possibilities—the expressive brown eyes, the warm skin tone, the way Nimo Abdi leans toward her friend, her hijab brushing Nasteho’s cheek. They are beautiful young women and I take only one shot, knowing I’ve captured a memorable portrait.

I love this image of  a fest performer and her single audience member for the message it portrays– the one on one connection that helps us understand one another, no matter our culture or skin color.

These Faribault High School students are among those participating in the International Festival Faribault on Saturday, an event designed to connect cultures through music, arts and crafts, kids’ activities, international cuisine, education and, on a personal level, conversation.

That same little boy who was so intently focused on the musician performing in the band shell.

After I photograph the friends, we talk about their experiences living in Faribault. And what Nasteho shares with me so upsets me that I apologize to her for the utter disrespect shown to her and her friend, who stands silently listening.

The native of Kenya, a Faribault resident for five years and prior to that a resident of Rochester, Owatonna and Waseca, says she is criticized for the scarf she wears, for her culture, for her…

“They assume I’m a terrorist.”

Her words temporarily stun me and I can feel my jaw drop.

She doesn’t define “they” specifically, but says the insults, the prejudice, happens randomly—in school, in the streets, even at work.

A group of young Somali dancers perform on the band shell stage during the festival.

When I ask for examples, Nasteho mentions the middle-aged man who comes through the drive-through at McDonalds in Faribault where she works. He tells her she should stop wearing her head scarf. She’s talked to her manager about it and he’s been supportive. For now, she mostly tries to ignore the customer’s spiteful comments.

When she walks into other businesses, like the grocery store, she feels the stares. When driving, she’s been flipped off.

“There is no respect for Somalis,” Nasteho assesses.

Yet, she doesn’t seem visibly angry, choosing instead to speak up or to take the position that those who choose to attack her or her culture do not know her or understand her.

I admire Nasteho’s positive attitude. She tells me she didn’t experience prejudice living in Rochester—a larger and more diverse community—but that it’s been much harder in a smaller town like Faribault. She was too young to remember what life was like in Owatonna or Waseca.

Faribault High School seniors Shukri Aden, left, and Khadra Muhumed.

Faribault High School students Shukri Aden and Khadra Muhumed, who are volunteering with STOPS, Students Together Offering Peer Support, at the International Festival, have also been subjected to hurtful comments from those who tell them to go back to their own country or that they smell.

“I try to talk to them,” says Shukri, who has lived in Faribault for seven years, since she came to the U.S. at age 12.

She wants everyone “to be equal no matter what color you are…to get to know each other.”

Lul Abdi shows off beautiful wood crafts from Kenya and Somalia for sale at the fest.

And this FHS senior has dreams—of going to college to become a nurse and then returning to Somali to help those in need.

On this Saturday, at this International Festival, the words of these young Somali women evoke mixed emotions within me. I am saddened by those in my community who fail to see beyond the scarves, the culture, the skin color, the language.

Mother and daughter check out the artwork from Kenya and Somalia.

These women are not terrorists. They are someone’s daughters. They are high school students. They live here, work here, shop here, worship here.

Despite the clear prejudice which angers me, I feel hope. These young women possess a maturity and poise beyond their teenage years. They yearn for understanding, for respect, for the personal connections that define them as individuals.

And on this Saturday afternoon they are trying, through their volunteerism at the International Festival Faribault, to, as Nasteho says, “bring everybody together.”

A mother’s love and care, the same in any language, any culture, any skin color.

CHECK BACK FOR A FUTURE post with photos from the seventh annual International Festival Faribault. Thank you to the organizers and participants in this festival who are trying to connect cultures, to make Faribault a better place to live, no matter your culture, skin color or country of origin.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling