“Our belief is that Islam is a religion of peace and harmony. We don’t believe in killing innocent people, taking their life possessions, or destroying churches. Those who say something different have nothing to do with Islam. Al-Shabab is a group which claims to be Islamist. They want to rule Somalia using Sharia law. They are making their own interpretation of Islam. They do many horrible things, such as killing innocents, bombing, and making threats. Although they call themselves freedom fighters, they are just terrorists. They use Islam as an excuse.”


A middle-aged Somali woman, the oldest student in a class of adult English-language learners, painstakingly wrote that statement at home overnight and brought it to me. It came as a response to a discussion topic: What do you wish all Americans knew about Muslims?

Her classmates’ verbal comments were consistent and passionate. I tried to preserve as many of their own words (and as much of their syntax) as I could.

“Islam teaches forgiveness and love. It teaches people not to hate, not to kill, how to be kind to one another, how to be friendly.”

“It is not easy to come to Minnesota. The weather is cold. It is difficult, without much education, to get jobs.”

“In our own countries, we were afraid because of wars, constant danger, the lack of democracy, no rights.”

“We come to live in peace with other people.”

“We come to make a better life for our children.”

“We are taught to do at least one good deed every day, and we must tell no one about it.”

“I am not forced to wear the hijab. I can still work; I can still drive. I wear the hijab for a religious purpose, like some nuns. It is my way of showing faith.”

“We feel we are in danger too.”

“We are afraid that people blame us. Please do not.”

“We fear extremists also.”

“The people who kill innocent people are not following the Koran. Teenagers who go to jihad believe that they will eventually go to Paradise. According to the Koran, you do not go to Paradise if you kill anyone, even yourself. It is prohibited.”

“The Koran says, ‘If you kill one person, you kill the human race.’ ”

“Islamic terrorists are an embarrassment.”

“If Muslims behave badly, they don’t know what a privilege it is to live in this country.”

“We are taught not to judge people by their skin. We must do good deeds and help each other.”

“We come from far. We come in peace.”

I can add nothing as eloquent.

What about the rest of us? For many, our families have lived comfortably in this country for generations. Speaking for myself, I feel helpless and overwhelmed by recent events in the news. Last week, a friend forwarded pictures and quotes from the Internet to his group e-mail list. The message disparaged all Muslims. Maybe some of us are as afraid as they are.

I have a small suggestion within our limited spheres of influence. Why not assume that the Somali strangers we meet in passing are as peace-loving as the witnesses I have quoted? We could smile — or even greet them. (It probably would not hurt to remember this practice with lots of strangers.)

I started to do it. At first, it took remembering to try; then it took guts. Soon I felt ashamed that I had not already been showing friendliness to obvious newcomers. It is small wonder that minorities, quite apart from economic and political disenfranchisement, feel socially isolated. I was amazed at the results.

Here are some more tools: Subax wanaagsan (suBAH waNAAGsen) means “Good morning.” Galab (GAlub) wanaagsan works in the afternoon. Fiid (FEED) wanaagsan works in the evening and night. More simply, Salaamaha (SalaMaha) means “Greetings.”

Try it yourself. I guarantee that you will receive only goodwill in return, and we could all use more of that.

Mahad saneed (MaHAAD saNEED). Thank you.


John Dunham is a retired teacher. He volunteers through the Minnesota Literacy Council at the Northside Open Door Learning Center in Minneapolis.