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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 33, #3
November 2004

Journey to Thinking Multiculturally

Journey Into the Somali Culture

By Abigail F. Castel & Susie Kurata

Contributing Editor's Note: This is the last in a series of articles featuring culture-focused papers written by first-year Specialist level school psychology students from San Diego State University. Students reflect on their journey to thinking multiculturally by learning about a culture different from their own. By no means are they experts in the culture they studied. The students recognize that the journey to thinking multiculturally is never-ending and forever evolving. Their stories are unique and their experiences brought each of them to different places professionally and personally. It is our hope that this series has encouraged practitioners, trainers, students and other professionals to take their own journeys. ---Tonika Duren Green

It would be erroneous to discuss Somali culture separately from a consideration of its political history and the presence of Somalis in the U.S.  Decades of political upheaval have created the Somali existence as a refugee.

Before the civil war, an estimated 7.7. million people lived in Somalia, while today, about one million Somali are scattered around the world (Cultural Orientation Project, 2004). While a great number of refugees live in neighboring countries in East Africa and in the Middle East, there are Somali communities throughout Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Finland, England) and North America.  Somalis in the United States have lived predominantly in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Boston, Atlanta, Detroit and recently, San Diego and Seattle.  Particularly, recent first and second waves of Somali immigrants have settled in the Minneapolis-St.Paul area, where an estimated 40-70% of Somali immigrants now reside, making it the largest American home to Somali refugees (Greeson, Veach, & LeRoy, 2001; Minnesota Foundation, 2004).  Somalis are one of the largest immigrant communities in Canada, with the majority living in metropolitan Toronto.

Refugees in the U.S.

 "The complex war among clan-based militias has displaced almost 50% of the population, and hundreds of thousands have died" (Kemp & Rasbridge, 2001, p. 59).  The Somali people have suffered extreme oppression at the hands of dictators and warlords.  In response to the growing violence and instability, many have fled their country to the United States to seek a better life for their families and to reunite with those who fled earlier.  Families could only bring the number of children the family could afford.  The decision deciding which child would be left behind was a difficult task.  Mothers had no choice but to leave the young children behind in the hope of sponsoring them once they established permanent residency.  However, the process of gaining permanent residency takes an average of five years, and in many cases families never succeed in bringing their families to the U.S. 

The majority of Somalis are Muslim and there does exist in the U.S. a fear of Muslims, especially after the tragedy of September 11, 2001.  There is a negative stereotype of Muslims as zealous fanatics, which tends to increase after political crises like the bombing of the World Trade Center (Carter, 1999).  In response to this, Somalis may be wary of other people wanting to gain entry into their community.  Considering the presence of racism and oppression, it would not be surprising that there would be Somalis who are suspicious of others. This was true in our case. We tried to enter into the culture but it was very difficult because of issues of mistrust. Cultural brokers can make it easier for you to enter into the culture of focus.

Our journey to learning more about Somali culture included: (a) a cross-cultural interview with members of the Somali community, (b) volunteering in the Somali community, (c) contacting agencies that serviced Somali communities and (d) obtaining cultural research.    


If one is to understand the Somali culture, one must understand the role of the Islamic religion in their culture.  For Muslims, there are five pillars of worship as decreed by the Qur'an, including 1) the only god is Allah and his prophet is Muhammad; 2) prayer must be performed five times every day; 3) wealth is to be shared with those in need; 4) one must fast from sunrise to sunset in the month of Ramadan; and 5) one must make a pilgrimage to Mecca in one's lifetime, if one can afford it  (Kelly, Aridi, & Bakhtiar, 1996).  Religion is very important to people from Somalia.  We will never forget the words of Sahra, our cultural broker: "If I accomplish something, then it was God who helped me" (Sahra, personal communication, September 16, 2003).  This reflects the Muslim belief in fate and God's will.

Family Practices and Values

Somalia's political culture is mainly egalitarian; social and political changes have resulted in new patterns of family life.  Newly arrived immigrants struggle to make ends meet, in addition to having difficulty adjusting to an environment, laws and beliefs that are very different from their own.  In recent years, Somali families have stressed the importance of greater educational opportunities and more access to government services.  There is one thing that remains consistent among the Somali people, and that is the importance of family.  Family is the ultimate source of personal security and identity; the strength of family ties provides security in times of need.  The protection of family honor and loyalty are extremely important to Somali families.  The importance of family is reflected in the question, "what is your lineage?"  Historian Charles Geshekter notes, "When Somalis meet each other they don't ask: Where are you from?  Rather, they ask: Whom are you from?  Genealogy is to Somalis what an address is to Americans" (Research and Data Group, 2003, p.11).

Many Somali values are comparable to American values.  For example, Somalis value independence, democracy, egalitarianism and individualism.  Somalis also value their friendships and generosity for others.   Somalis are brought up to respect their parents and to seek advice and blessings (du'o) from them.  The lack of respect and esteem brings forth habaar (curse).  Regardless of one's age, the son or daughter must ask for blessings and even advice on how to deal with certain matters.  Grandparents are the center of the extended family. They often have the role of a mediator, arbitrating disputes between siblings.  It is an obligation for a grown son or daughter to contribute to a family member who may not be doing well.  In Somali families, parents in their senior years continue to have a large role in family management (Abdullahi, 2001). 

The Somali community in San Diego is a "tight-knit community, with most of the essentials available within close proximity" (Sahra, personal communication, 2003).  Somalis emphasize the inclusion of extended families, regardless of whether they are blood relations.  It is not unusual to have several families living together in one apartment or home.

Stressors of African Refugee Children

The stress of being a new student in a new school is compounded ten fold when one adds the experiences of a refugee child.  In addition to the normal stressors involved in going to a new school, a refugee must also deal with learning a new language and a new culture.  Their trauma experience does not end in their flight from their homeland; it is carried with them to their new home.  Many refugees have witnessed the destruction of their communities and the loss of their family members.  Approximately 400,000 people died of famine or disease or were killed in the war.  Approximately 45% of the population was displaced inside Somalia or fled to neighboring countries, to the Middle East, or to the West, in search for resettlement camps.  In addition, for those who were impoverished in their own countries, they likely will experience that poverty in the United States.

Cultural Entry Experiences   

We were fortunate enough to work with Sahra, a cultural broker, who was very knowledgeable of Somali culture.  Sahra came to the United States as a Somali refugee eight years ago.  When we first met her, she was garbed in traditional Muslim clothing.  Her head was covered with a scarf (hijab) and she was wearing a long flowing dress that concealed her from neck to ankle.  We realized when speaking with her that she possessed the worldview of a Somali refugee and a Muslim woman. Sahra introduced us to the culture through experiential learning and her connections within the community. For example, we were able to contact several agencies in Minnesota that serve the needs of the Somali community.  One particular agency was the Somali Mai Community of Minnesota, Inc., a grassroots organization that targets the Mai-speaking community.  The SOMCOM provides services to help refugees locate jobs, homes and provides information on the services that are available on the local, state and federal level.  They have tutoring available for English acquisition as well.

Personal reflection. In our interactions with the Somali community, through interviews, community service and tutoring, we have found them to be peaceful and open to sharing the aspects of their culture, religion, history and trauma.  The stereotyping that exists and targets the Muslim population is an additional stressor that the Somalis must face as they live in this country.  Through no fault of their own, they must live in a society whose dominant Christian values may interfere with the ability to view their world with empathy and understanding. 

Somali people are resilient and have come to the U.S. to forge new lives for themselves and their families.  Their population faces many problems as they immigrate into the U.S.  Families may have been separated or have experienced deaths of loved ones due to the violence in Somalia.  They seek education, jobs and homes in this new society that views their religion with fear and ignorance.  They face oppression and prejudice as the media vilifies an entire religion for the crimes of a few.  They find strength in their religion and their faith in Allah.  Our journey has led to an honest exploration of our assumptions and stereotypes of the Muslim religion.

Implications for School Psychology

As the number of Somali children in American schools increase, current and future professionals must demonstrate culturally responsive practice.  As a practitioner working with a Somali population, there are several important factors that must be taken into consideration:  their Islamic faith, their communal nature, their strong family bonds and their history as refugees.  It would be important to present a continuing professional development workshop for teachers in schools that provides culturally appropriate information about Islam.  There are many negative stereotypes that teachers may unconsciously subscribe to and providing them with correct information about the religion may help dissipate those stereotypes. 

In addition, when Somali students experience prejudice for wearing traditional Muslim clothing, teachers will be better equipped to handle those situations.  It would also be important to provide Somali students with stimulating, alternative educational options to school activities based in Western religious and cultural practices, rather than merely allowing them to "sit out" (Carter, 1999).  The holy month of Ramadan should also be addressed by school policies, such as providing an alternative to P.E. for those Muslim children who are required to fast and lack the energy to participate in rigorous sports (Carter, 1999).

It is necessary to take into account the communal nature and strong family bonds of the Somali culture.  It would be beneficial to assess the resources that exist in the community and to utilize those resources.  For example, if a Somali teenager is referred for delinquent behavior, it may be advantageous to work with a Somali resource center and involve him/her in a mentoring program. The services available to the Somali population in Minnesota provide juvenile advocacy, ESL classes, job placement, job training, housing placement and basic counseling services. 

If one were working with a newly arrived immigrant, it would be important to assess the immediate needs of the student.  For example, if the student's family is facing financial strains and housing difficulties, and the child is referred due to lack of educational progress, it would be ineffective to implement strategies that only address academic achievement.  On the level of the ecosystem, it would be essential to target the immediate needs and concerns of the student.  In this case, it would be important to collaborate with agencies in the community to assist the family in finding adequate housing and employment. 

Somali students may have experienced extreme traumas in Somalia and it is imperative to address these issues.  Again, it would be advantageous to utilize the resources that specifically assist refugee families and to provide inservice training to teachers about the experiences of refugees to increase their understanding of the population they are teaching. 

Once the immediate dilemmas are addressed, then it may be effective to implement educational assessment and intervention.  As with any culture, one must not generalize to the entire population.  The experiences of the individual and the degree of acculturation can vary.  Before implementing interventions, it is important to assess the level of acculturation and the degree to which the individual subscribes to the culture.


The Somali culture is one of beauty that has suffered from the ravages of war and a violent history.  Their exodus to the U.S. is not the peaceful journey that many immigrants have experienced, but rather a flight into the arms of a country that may view them with distrust.  However, they are armed with a passionate faith in their Islamic religion and strong familial bonds.  Our journey began with curiosity.  The knowledge that can be gained or acquired about the Somali culture will be invaluable to one's development as a practitioner.  We recognize that we have not learned all that there is to know about the Somali culture; it is too complex and too wondrous, but the knowledge is there as long as you keep seeking it.   


Abdullahi, M.  (2001). Culture and customs of Somalia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Carter, R.B. (1999). Counseling Muslim children in school settings.  Professional School Counseling, 2, 183-189.

Cutural Orientation Project (2004). Somalis: Their history and culture. Retrieved September 4, 2004 from http://www.culturalorientation.net/Somali/sbib.html

Greeson, C. J., Veach, P. M., & LeRoy, B. S. (2001).  A qualitative investigation of Somali immigrant perceptions of disability:  Implications for genetic counseling.  Journal of Genetic Counseling, 10, 359-378.

Kelly, E.W., Jr., Aridi, A., & Bakhtiar, L.  (1996). Muslims in the United States: An exploratory study of universal and mental health values.  Counseling & Values, 40, 206-218.

Kemp, C., & Rasbridge, L. A. (2001). East African cultures: Part I, Somali.  Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing, 3(2), 59-61.

Minnesota Foundation (2004). Immigration in Minnesota (Somalia). Retrieved September 4, 2004 from http://www.minneapolisfoundation.org/

Research & Data Group, Ontario Ministry of Citizenship, Culture & Recreation (2003).  Somali settlement experiences in Canada.  Retrieved October 4, 2003, from http://collections.ic.gc.ca/somalia/arrival.html

© 2004, National Association of School Psychologists. Abigail F. Castel and Susie Kurata are second-year students in the School Psychology program at San Diego State University.  They would like to thank all of the cultural brokers that helped guide them through the complexity and richness of Somali culture. Many thanks to Tonika Duren Green, PhD, and her first-year students (2003-04) for contributing their papers to this series. We hope to have another round of journeys to share next spring.