'Let us Walk With Them'

Ifrah Jimale '08, a Somali immigrant who was illiterate until she came to the United States at age 19, writes about being a freshman at St. Thomas

It was the first day of class and I couldn't believe I was in college. I was in a Philosophy 115 class, looking at the professor but not really seeing him. Instead, all I could see was where I was nine years ago.

I remembered being in Somalia; I was one of nine children in our family, and fate had chosen me to be the herder of the family's goats. Every morning without water or food, I left the bush house of our family and took the goats to the mountains and came home late at night. For food, I ate leaves, flowers and seeds and drank water that flowed over the rocky bottom of nearby streams.

Nine years ago, I was sitting on the peak of the mountain looking down at our empty village; the tribal war three months earlier forced most of our neighbors to move away, to God knows where. My only thought on that day was when will they come back? Will they ever come back? I never would have thought in a million years that I would be the one to move away and, in nine years, to be sitting in a class in St. Paul, Minn., and learning things I couldn't even imagine. All I knew in Somalia was that we believed the earth is flat and the sun revolves around the earth. The rest of my knowledge consisted of survival skills and how to raise animals.

I remember watching kids in school uniforms walking in groups on my way to the mountains. I used to stand on the side of the road and listen to them laugh and talk together. I stood there until they were long out of sight; I envied them. I wanted more than anything to go to school like they did.

For me, however, that was not an option. I was going to get married. That was society's plan for me; what would I do with a valuable education after I was married? The school children I watched were clean, while I only got to bathe when it rained. Their conversations were something I never understood; it was as though they spoke in another language because they knew things I didn't.

I arrived in the United States in 1998 after a long journey from Somalia through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Belgium. My family had sent me away and had given me travel documents which I, of course, could not read. I was alone and did not speak or read English. My plane landed in Cincinnati, Ohio, and my life in the United States began. I was lost and confused as I wandered the airport. I was immediately arrested and put in jail in Covington, Ky. With no knowledge of where I was, I was chained and summoned to court.

While awaiting the final decision of the court, I remained in jail, where I struggled to learn a few words of English. When I returned to court, I was sentenced to a one-year jail term for illegal immigration because my family had sent me with false documents. All hope drained from me and I couldn't imagine anything but endless darkness.

I hadn't done anything wrong. It was all a misunderstanding and I had to find a solution on my own. I had to master English within months in order to tell my story to my lawyer and the judge. I wound up serving eight months in jail.

When all the incoming freshman students walked through the arches at St. Thomas on the day before classes started in September, it was breathtaking. It was as though St. Thomas Aquinas himself stretched his hand out to me and said, "Let us walk with them and see where they will go." I felt like I was one of the Somali school children I used to watch in the distance. For some of the students, walking through the arches probably had no meaning; for me, it was like the entire St. Thomas community was saying, "Come, let's see what we can accomplish together." I was no longer standing on the side of the road, but I was walking among those children, talking and laughing with them. I was now a student, no longer a goat herder.

I never thought I would be a student, studying college material, but here I am. There are times when I get frustrated and just cry. One time, during finals last December, I went to the Academic Support Center and David Moore worked with me for more than an hour on my English paper. My paper was about the Black Plague that killed a third of the people in Europe in the 16th century. I knew nothing about the disease and, in fact, had never heard of it before. I ended up asking him questions about the plague and not about the paper I was writing. This is the time when I had to choose between learning the material and getting the project done to get the grade. So I compromised. I learned a little about the Black Plague and I got a B+ on my paper.

My first week at St. Thomas, I didn't really believe that I was in college. I accepted it as a dream, figuring I would soon wake up and be back in the mountains of Somalia. It just didn't feel possible, and yet, here I am seven months later. It is real, and I am having the time of my life.

Ifrah Jimale came to the United States alone at 19. Detained for illegal entry for a year, she later was granted amnesty and moved to Minnesota to work and start high school at 20. With limited English and an eviction from a house where she lived with a relative, Jimale was going to quit school, but her high school counselor at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, Lisa Johnson, invited her to live with her family and tutored her.

Jimale got involved with the Urban Journalism Workshop, sponsored by the Minnesota Media Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that supports high school journalism programs and encourages minority students to pursue careers in journalism. Jimale attended a summer workshop in 2003 at St. Thomas, where each student worked with a professional journalist or editor. At St. Thomas, the program is headed by Lynda McDonnell and Dave Nimmer.

Jimale became the editor of her high school paper and the third Urban Journalism student to win a full-tuition scholarship to St. Thomas. She started college at age 26. "She has infectious determination, curiosity and enthusiasm," said McDonnell.

Next in St. Thomas Magazine