She tells you the parts of her life that are going to push you to succeed the way she did, without letting you see the struggles she went through.
She often tells me about her education in Somalia. She loved school, and she excelled in it. “My favorite thing to do was study,” she said about her youth. “I don’t remember any test I failed.”
“You never failed a test in school?” I asked her.
“I don’t think so.”
I was only four when my family came to America. My Hooyo thought English was the key to success for her children. What she didn’t expect was for me to give up her mother tongue, Somali, in exchange.
When I was younger I spoke to my Hooyo in Somali and to my brothers and sisters in English. My Hooyo liked watching us get better at speaking English. She was proud.
But as I got older, I wasn’t able to express myself the way I wanted to in Somali. That meant my Hooyo wasn’t able to have the comfort of her homeland within her own home.
For my Hooyo, speaking the Somali language was when she felt most comfortable. She was afraid that my brothers and sisters and I would lose our language — and with it our culture.
So she started pushing all of her children to embrace their culture and their language. We played games where my Hooyo would test our Somali vocabulary with a picture dictionary.
But once I started speaking Somali more often, I realized just how much trouble I had and I gave up on the language.
I was embarrassed about not knowing my language so I pushed my culture away with it. I stopped wanting to answer the phone and talk to my relatives in Somali. I didn’t go inside the mosque or the Somali store.
Zuheera Ali as a kid with her mom, Asili Mohamed Courtesy of Zuheera Ali
When my Hooyo realized why I wasn’t going anywhere with her she wanted me to go even more. She told me I would never get better at speaking Somali if I didn’t try.
What she didn’t tell me is that she went through the same thing when she was learning English.
When my Hooyo came to America 13 years ago, she came with seven children and no knowledge of the English language. She spent five years on and off in English classes trying to learn.
She had dreams of going to college, but she thought her children wouldn’t be able to attain success if she was striving for her own as well. My Hooyo worked days and always wanted to spend nights with her children.
“If I study and focus on my studies, you’re going to lose,” she told me. “I have to encourage everybody.”
Learning English got too hard for her sometimes, the way it got hard for me to speak Somali. Her words didn’t always come out right.
“I was look like somebody who never study anything because I didn’t know English,” she said. “It was embarrassing.”
But she never stopped speaking English and never told anyone she couldn’t. She showed me that I didn’t need to be an expert Somali speaker to claim my language, all I needed was the will to keep trying.
My Hooyo stayed in America for her children. She wanted to learn English for her children. I want to speak Somali for my Hooyo.
I want to be able to talk to her in the language that makes her feel most at home. Hopefully one day I’ll feel just as at home with Somali as my Hooyo does.
Zuheera Ali with her Hooyo Asili Mohamed at the Des Moines Marina earlier this year Credit Courtesy of Zuheera Ali
Listen to the conversation here