I was born in Kenya, where I lived during the first part of my semi-normal childhood. But that didn’t last.
I was uprooted to St. Cloud, Minn., shortly after my 11th birthday. Why did my parents choose St. Cloud? We had some family in the area.
For me, the city’s very name — St. Cloud — brought to mind images of purity and exclusivity. But that vision was quickly punctured by reality, by the sliver of darkness hiding in the corner.
As a student at Apollo High School, I observed the tensions that arose from white people feeling threatened by the inflow of immigrants to central Minnesota. I know what it’s like to hear shouts of “Go back to your country,” and to hear classmates laughing along.
I was reminded of the darkness when the Islamic Center was vandalized several times in 2014. And again when protests erupted at my high school. St. Cloud has two public high schools, Apollo and Technical. Both have seen walkouts and protests during the past seven years due to lack of respect from administrators and racist remarks from students.
In Islam the scarf or hijab serves to protect Muslim women from being objectified. And yet I confess to feeling more exposed than protected on certain days. For starters, I find my hijab draws unwanted stares and curiosity.
“Is it hard to wear the hijab all the time?” I heard this question many times in high school. I came to realize it was mainly curiosity, but the question always made me feel strange and otherworldly. As if I was a mythical creature come to life.
Questions are not the only thing I endured. My hijab has drawn hateful comments from complete strangers. One morning while I was still in high school, a woman standing near me at the bus stop turned and asked: “Why are you people here?”
Finding my place
My two sisters and I have a tradition of walking to the park near our apartment every July 4th. This year I opened my bedroom window so I could hear the first crackle of the fireworks show. When I heard it, I shouted excitedly to my sisters — “Let’s hurry up.”
It was completely dark when we got outside, but our neighborhood was buzzing with life. The air was filled with chattering adults and squealing kids. Cars outlined every inch of the curbs.
As we walked the tree-lined streets, a group of young white men fell in step behind us. I had a feeling something bad would happen. But I pushed the thought aside, blaming it on negative past experiences.
I started to feel a pull on my hijab, like it was caught in a closing door. At first I thought it was getting snagged by the low-hanging branches. Then I realized the men were tugging on our hijab. They started making odd noises, as if to mimic the Somali language (my native tongue). They started throwing leaves at our backs. My sister and I responded by picking up the pace and moving as far away as we could. We both felt the hostility of the situation. Never before have I felt so different or so isolated in a crowd.
When we got to the park, we found a comfortable spot on the grass and I started recording the fireworks with my phone. The exploding colors and earthshaking noise were welcome distractions. There were people with picnic blankets, people lounging on the grass. It was a lovely scene. It made me forget about the nasty incident with the men.
Then a guy came through the crowd, handing out glow sticks to everyone he could find. But when he got to us, he just breezed right past. He didn’t even ask if we wanted one.
How did we respond? One of my sisters chased after him, determined to get our glow sticks. The guy looked surprised, but he quickly handed her three.
“We have to fight for our rights, you know,” she said as she handed over our glow sticks. The three of us had a good laugh about that one.
After seven years of living here, the city has grown on me and I’ve decided to remain in St. Cloud for my undergraduate coursework. At St. Cloud State University, I’ve finally found my safe haven. I love that the university community binds together during a tragedy. I love that the cultural center brings people together by hosting events that help us understand different cultures. These resources have helped me to cultivate my creative side.
At the same time, I’ve come to understand that living in St. Cloud has shaped my character and writing in a way that is special. I’ve learned what it means to fight for a just cause. The fact that the city needs improvement, that it needs to become more welcoming — this gives my life purpose. I’m thriving as a black Muslim woman in St. Cloud.
Do I have the same peace of mind as other Americans? No, I don’t believe so. The fact that I am taunted in my community, both verbally and physically, highlights this reality. As a black Muslim woman, I know my life is not valued as highly as others. I still worry about violence. Every day I walk the streets fearing I might be harmed. And yet I consider St. Cloud my home because it’s where I’ve made the most memories. There’s no going back for me.
Khadija Gure is a student at St. Cloud State University. She is set to graduate in December.
ABOUT 10,000 TAKES: 10,000 Takes is a digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.