are over 70,000 recent Somali immigrants in Minneapolis and St. Paul. A civil
war has raged for decades in their homeland and caused millions of refugees to
flee and find new homes around the globe. We now boast at least one mosque per
block in some neighborhoods here. Little grocery stores advertise goat and
camel along with chicken and beef and other halal
meats. (Like a kosher label, halal
assures Muslims of freshness and safety in the preparation of certain foods.)
Minnesota now hosts one of the biggest state fairs in the Nation and you can
even find Camel-on-a-stick at a kiosk there. Walking through the streets some
days is like being transported to a desert marketplace in Africa. Colorful
turbans, shawls, scarves and assorted hijab
far outnumber Western dress on the sidewalks. I can hear the call to prayer
on Fridays, albeit piped out from electronic microphones, on my street and
watch fathers dressed in ankle length robes hurrying hand in hand with their
little and big sons in matching outfits all wearing skullcaps, called taqiyah or kufi on their way to prayer.
In Minnesota over 389,988 or 8.5% of the population speak a language other than English. 66 African languages are spoken in Minnesota school districts. This is more than a tenfold increase since 1990, when fewer than 5,000 African immigrants were estimated to be living in Minnesota. Somalis are by far the largest group of African immigrants; it is estimated that between 1992 and 1999, approximately 29,000 Somalis came to Minnesota. Other African countries with large populations in Minnesota include Ethiopia, Liberia, Kenya, Cameroons, and Nigeria.
I worked first as a licensed midwife during the past 30 years and later as a doula and lactation consultant. I approached the Hmong refugee population when they began arriving in the Midwest in the late 1970s. That was at the end of the Vietnam War era. The Hmong had assisted U.S. troops in the jungles of Laos and incurred the wrath of the communist Pol Pot regime in doing so. I learned to speak Hmong and immersed myself in their culture, attempting to find ways to make their assimilation less painful, if that were at all possible. I marveled at the resiliency of an entire society uprooted by war and replanted here half a world away from the only home they ever knew.
Our family remained intertwined with our Hmong friends over the coming decades. Our children grew up with their children, also becoming bi-lingual, which surprised the Hmong as much if not more than it surprised us. I tried to explain that while I was calling landlords and bill collectors, and teaching English classes and scheduling appointments for everything from prenatal exams to visa and citizenship hearings on their behalf, that their grandmas were watching my kids and constantly talking to them in Hmong, a Chinese language originating in upper Mongolia, related to Dao and sometimes called Meo. I said I was not surprised they picked it up. I pointed out that if I were to keep one of their babies for any length of time and they didn’t hear Hmong but only English that they too would speak mostly English. That met with a decidedly negative response: no, Hmong babies are born knowing Hmong. I couldn’t convince my new friends otherwise. Over the years we have laughed and cried together and buried their children and elderly people, often casualties of the war that continued to rage inside of them in spite of the fact that they were here in the U.S., millions of miles away from the carnage.
So when we moved back to Minnesota three years ago from the U.K. and witnessed this amazing transformation of our hometown, we were intrigued. Soon after we arrived back I began resurrecting my credentials and researching all that would entail that first summer but found I had lots of time on my hands to rediscover this global market I had returned to.
I heard about a mall that some of the Somalis had recently opened. I thought that might be a good place to start and observe these people that I had never had a chance to get to know before. I found very quickly that they were as curious about us and what Americans thought of them, as we were of them. Every day for the next two weeks I took a bus over to Karmel Mall, dubbed by some Minnesotans, “The Mall of Somalia”, a jab at our own now world-famous Mall of America in nearby Bloomington.
After a few weeks I was on a first name basis with some of the grandmothers who ‘manned’ the little stalls at the mall. I asked one woman named Fadumo** how to say midwife in Somali. It is umuliso, pronounced, oo-moe-LEES-soe. Now I could introduce myself, except some Africans here spoke Arabic, too, or Oromo, or Amharic. I couldn’t tell yet by their dress who was from where, Jordon or Kuwait, Egypt or Pakistan, Somalia or Kenya. It turns out that many stopped in other countries on their long journey away from the war. Some settled down temporarily and moved on once they had enough money to try to catch up to relatives who had the good fortune to be in the U.S. I even met some Somalis who spoke no English but were fluent in Swedish! They had been offered only Swedish visas when they approached the consulates to escape from Somalia, and grabbed them in desperation. I have met families whose grandmothers are still in Spain, Germany or Denmark waiting for Immigration to approve their visas to the U.S. so they can finally rejoin their families.
Fadumo and I became close friends. She is also a grandmother. Her little stall boasted some of the most beautiful fabrics from around the world, including wedding robes, matching hijab and under slips, perfumes, jewelry, henna kits for decorating women’s hands and arms for special occasions and an assortment of tea sets, drapery and carpets for transforming an American apartment into a true Muslim home. I found a Somali-English, English-Somali dictionary for the times we hit up against a wall trying to communicate something to each other. We spent hours asking each other questions about the other’s culture and other times just compared what we planned on cooking for our husbands for supper that night. Fadumo had been a licensed massage therapist while her family lived in Nairobi. I found her a book of baby massage which she pored over for weeks. At lunch time she would often order a platter for 2 and bring it back to our little stall and sitting on the floor on a carpet she would teach me how to eat goat meat and spaghetti Somali-style with my hands, or I should say, with my right hand, since the left hand is reserved for unclean things, and not for eating. More often than not we would both end up rolling on the floor reduced to giggles! She has never had to teach a grown woman how to eat!
During the coming months as I continued to visit Fadumo, I was approached by several Somali students who asked if I could proofread their college homework papers. I gladly did, having learned some editing and proofreading while working for a Hmong newspaper years earlier. Soon I had a handful of students asking for help with their papers. One woman who was in a graduate program getting her degree in economics told me last year that she expecting was baby girl number 5! She laughed when she told me she only makes girls and that they haven’t figured out yet how to make boys. I asked her if her husband was disappointed or if in their culture he could take another wife in order to produce boys. Halima said he couldn’t blame her or be unhappy with her because it is Allah who chooses what kind of baby to send couples. They are taught to be grateful for whatever gifts He sends, so no, her husband will not be sad this time. Then she asked me if I would be her doula. I would be honored, I told her.
So we continued to meet over the coming months, discussing diet and other things. Many Somalis have adopted our SAD diet unfortunately, the Standard American Diet packed with fats and calories and few nutrients. Their former culture had a wonderful diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and very little dairy or wheat. But, unfortunately many now ate the white bread, pastries, cookies, snacks, soda and other non-nutrient rich foods they found at their neighborhood groceries and fast food places. And besides, their life style was no longer one of nomads or camel herders who worked hard to eke out a living off an arid land. Now they were often sedentary much of the time. And this is taking its toll: diabetes and obesity are now rampant in their community. As a social worker Halima leads an older women’s exercise class once a week for Somali grandmas to help them combat the battle of the bulge.
Finally one night Halima called to let me know she was on her way to the hospital. We had both been so excited about this baby’s arrival and The Day was finally here. I got to the hospital as the nurse was checking her. 5 centimeters already! This wasn’t going to be long. Between rushes Halima introduced me to her mother Ubax, an elderly aunt Deqo, and sister named Sahroh. Men were not especially welcomed at births. This was women’s work. All were dressed from head to toe in wraps of one sort or another. Halima wore a hospital gown instead of the traditional robes though she left on two scarves.
We were quite a team, breathing together, the grandmas happily catching up on gossip in one corner, Halima walking around the room, then trying the birth ball for a while. Things were going smoothly with short naps between the rushes. All of a sudden Halima started shivering. I assumed it was transition, but when the nurse took her temperature, we saw that it had shot up. She continued to shiver as I piled on warmed blankets. Darn it… and when everything was going so well. The doctor ordered blood tests right away and started an IV with antibiotics ‘just in case’ this was a sign of infection. The doctor started suggesting interventions should we not be able to get the fever down. Within half an hour the baby’s heart rate jumped up, too, and more interventions to speed things along were offered.
Halima and I had agreed that in the event that the staff offered options for any eventualities, that she could suggest she have a few minutes with her family to discuss any suggestions first. So it was time for that. The nurses and doctor all left us to deliberate. Halima again made it very clear that she did not want drugs and certainly not a C-section unless things looked plain too risky. I explained that I could not decide what was best for her, but that an infection could get nasty, that the IV was not a bad idea, and that she could probably ask for a little more time to see how things worked out. She agreed with this plan and let the nurses know. She started to drink more juice to help with the fever and build up her strength. She continued to dilate, which was good. The next check told us she was at 7 centimeters. Then we were alone again.
She started to feel better; I had peeled back the covers, and was sponging her down with lukewarm wash rags and brought her cup after cup of juice. All of a sudden she said she wanted to push. I was surprised and thought it was just the pressure of baby moving down, but when she yelled, “I AM going to PUSH!!!” I knew nothing was going to stop her. I rang the nurse button by the bed and she came into the room. Oh dear, not their favorite one. When this nurse had taken a blood sample earlier for the lab, she didn’t put enough pressure at the site when she removed the needle and blood had spurted everywhere, all over the bed and the floor. The grandmas clicked their tongues and shook their heads: not a good nurse. Now she sauntered back in, saw the black curly headed baby crowning and whipped on a pair of gloves. Actually she only managed to get one hand covered which she used to support the baby who was coming out. She held her other hand above her head so as not to become contaminated, I guess, and left the baby lying in a puddle on the Chux pad. I could tell she wasn’t breathing, and in slow motion wondered WHO is going to DO SOMETHING? And in slow motion I grabbed the end of the sheet and started wiping off the baby’s face and rubbing her down to get her to breathe. I lifted her up with both of my un-gloved hands as the nurse stuck a bulb syringe into the baby’s mouth with her one good gloved hand and we both moved together over to the warmer which had been turned on earlier. I continued to rub and she kept suctioning for the next few seconds which felt like an eternity, though I am sure it wasn’t. She started pinking up by then, though I didn’t think she was really breathing well yet just as the NRP (neonatal resuscitation program) team ran into the room, looked at me with a very puzzled look (I don’t wear scrubs to births, just my DONA name tag) and started to work on baby who cried within the next few seconds. The doctor was there in time for the placenta.
Things finally settled down and Halima was happily nursing her 5th little girl whom she had named Maryan. I was standing next to the bed just taking it all in, so very thankful that everything turned out OK. The grandmas were talking quite loudly at this point so I asked Halima what they were saying. She listened for a minute and told me, “They are saying they wished they had had a doula at their births!” I found out that they had spent most of the time retelling the stories of their own births, even when Halima was trying to rest. She told me later that even their chatter was comforting at the time, being surrounded by other women, even if they weren’t all that quiet. Then the grandmas came over to where I was standing and started stroking my arms and my shoulders, then my head and my hands. Without moving a muscle, I asked Halima under my breath, “Halima, uh, what are they doing?” She explained: “They say you are like a holy person who has made the pilgrimage to the Haj in the East and you love us and treat us like your own family. Now you are our sister.”
**all names and any identifying characteristics have been changed
*Quoted here with permission from Muslim comic Azhar Usman, who tours the United States, with his show called, “Allah Made Me Funny.”
COMING SOON: This and other stories will be appearing in either Call The Doula! a diary© or Stone Age Babies in a Space Age World: Babies and Bonding in the 21st Century© pending by Stephanie Sorensen