Andrea Swiedom Staff Reporter
When Khadija Tawane was seven years old, she fought off her first hyena by waving a stick at the predator while it bit into the back leg of one of her lambs. She didn’t let on to any remembrance of fear, she just laughed and shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. “Hyenas smell the fear of a human, so we were taught to be brave and strong when we see them.”
Fearlessness was integral to Tawane’s childhood as she herded her family’s livestock- camels, donkeys, goats, sheep and chickens- to water and grazing areas, often walking 15 miles a day in Hagadera, one of three refugee camps in the eastern Kenyan town of Dadaab.
Tawane’s parents left their home in Somalia in 1990 during the early years of the country’s ongoing civil war and walked to what is now the world’s third largest refugee complex. “They fled with their animals, but they had cows and the cows died along the way,” said Tawane.
Her parents still had other livestock when they arrived which provided them with milk, meat and eggs. Tawane’s father began cultivating watermelon and vegetables and the family sold their surplus in exchange for Kenyan shillings that were saved up for the monthly trek into the city center where staples like rice were packed onto the backs of their donkeys.
The livestock provided them with an immediate financial advantage, but the animals were also a part of the family. “I miss my camel,” Tawanee said as she admired a Google picture of a young woman holding the reins to her camel in the Hagadera Camp. Tawane has no pictures of the first twelve years of her life in Kenya, and as she scrolled through internet photos of her home, she went silent and seemed to be lost in the images.
The Tawane name lived on a bulletin board for four years amongst thousands of others until the family of 10 was randomly selected for relocation in Dallas, Texas in 2009.
“When we arrived in Dallas, we didn’t speak English. There were people holding a sign with my father’s name. It was scary, we were all holding hands. We thought we weren’t going to see each other again. When we went into cars, the boys went into a car, and the girls and my mother went into a car.”
Tawane and her siblings felt as though they had experienced the end of the world. “We had this image, like when people leave this place, you were gonna die, you’re done. I don’t know about my parents though.”
Tawane had experienced a dramatic end to the one world she had known, but a new world was just beginning for her: fifth grade in the United States.
“I knew it was a school and I came to learn, but I didn’t feel like I belonged there. And first of all, we grew up wearing long dresses and long hijabs, not t-shirts. And there was a dress code, and sometimes they said no hijabs and my dad had to ask them [to change the dress code].”
Tawane and her siblings would gorge themselves every morning on their mother’s breakfast so that they could avoid the school lunch. “We were afraid there was going to be pork in there,” Tawane said. They were in a completely foreign environment and they couldn’t communicate yet, so it was easier to abstain from the food rather than accidentally consume meat that is considered unclean in Islam.
The family relocated to Lewiston, Maine the next year where Tawane found herself amongst a community of people with similar experiences who even spoke the same Maymay Somali dialect as her. She entered the sixth grade determined to learn English and spent half of the school day in an English Language Learner Program (ELL).
“There were classes just for ELL learners, and everybody spoke different languages, and we were all put in one classroom. But I didn’t want that setting, I wanted to learn the language. I really wanted to be in classrooms where people spoke english with me. I just kept going, and I just remembered the reason we came here was for a better education and a better life.”
While most of Tawane’s peers remained in ELL classes until their sophomore year of high school, Tawane advanced out of the program by eighth grade. She would stay after school everyday and wouldn’t go home until she completed all of her homework.
Tawane attributes her rapid progress in ELL from her Islamic homeschooling taught by her older brother in Hagadera. “Memorization was my key to learning language,” Tawane said, who spent considerable time listening to her brother recite the Qur’an in Arabic and memorizing the verses.
Tawane was also determined to learn about the new society and social norms that she was now a part of, and she giggled telling me she watched a lot of American television. “I also did a lot of sports, cross country, soccer, and softball. But I got a black eye, so only one year of softball, and a year of lacrosse.”
When it came time to think about college, it was never a question of if, but where. “I always wanted to continue my education. That was just my mindset. I didn’t even think oh, people can go in different directions. My mindset was just college. Back in my country, education is the key to success.”
Tawane was accepted to all six colleges that she applied to, but ultimately chose UMF because she already had family here and at the time, she wanted to pursue teaching. She has since changed her major to Psychology.
“I think it’s because the exams that I have to take to become a teacher kind of scare me and also, I realized I don’t want to be in school for the rest of my life,” Tawane said. “And I like to be around children, but maybe if I just had my own office.”
Tawane, now a sophomore, is still happy she chose UMF even though she is no longer pursuing teaching, but the lack of diversity does affect her on a daily basis. “I don’t have a lot of people like me in my classes and I feel like I am standing out. And my professors expect me to speak because they want opinions from different people, and I feel like I am on the spot all the time.”
There are also very basic cultural aspects that Tawane finds herself missing. She showed me Google photos of what the houses look like in Hagadera, camel skin tarps stretched over wooden posts with dried grass mats to cover the sandy ground. They were each one room, large and round shared spaces.
“It’s a different feeling. Here, everybody is put into their own room, but there, you get to talk to your family and you get that bonding. You don’t get that here.”
Nonetheless, Tawane expressed the innate ability to make a home out of any environment.
“Wherever I can find a bed and food, that’s where I call home. And Kenya is home for me.”