"no community wants too many"


these are the names of some of the somalian refugees whose lives were portrayed in the film, "rain in a dry land," part of the human rights watch film festival going on from june 9-22, 2006 in new york city. the film follows two somali bantu families on their journey from refugee camps in kenya to their new lives in the united state, in springfield, massachusetts and atlanta, georgia, respectively.
several things struck me about these interwoven stories, but perhaps none as strongly as the role that linguistic communication plays in enabling or preventing these families' transition to their new surroundings. there is frustration at not being able to navigate forms, institutions, and new ways of doing things far from familiar homes. the children negotiate institutionalized schooling, teachers, classmates, tests, assignments, and dating. and we are shown the families' struggle to retain communal ways of life in a highly individualistic society.

one narrative cut particularly deep:
ali, living in springfield, drops out of high school after one year. the filmmaker, anne makepeace, shows ali's evolution as he goes from receiving verbal accolades in school to giving up on homework; the latter point is juxtaposed by text that tells the viewer that ali is too old to play on the high school soccer team. the interviewer underscores this by noting that ali is not able to do the one thing he truly loves. ali's face resembles his father, aden, but does not show the weight of war survival. he is often shown scratching his head from the back, with a soft smile on his face, which, by the time the film comes to a close, is not as constant as in the beginning. it appeared, from the images and vocals we were shown, that ali's reasons for dropping out were not so unfamiliar from the reasons that many native US high school students drop out - feeling disconnected from and frustrated by school. in ali's case, his teachers were supportive of him - the ones that talked on camera, at least - but it was his difficulty "getting it" (as one teacher put it) that hindered him from achieving his previously stated goal of focusing on and obtaining an education. he said he wanted to go to college to be a doctor. he imagined pursuing college on an athletic scholarship.

it feels naive to focus on language, and certainly the film's description and presumably the filmmaker would agree. there is more going on in ali's and the others' lives than a "failure to communicate." but as i bow my head in shame at the recent press my adopted hometown has gotten over the language requirements at a well known food establishment, i recognize that a failed congressional gesture isn't going to negate the reality that english not only functions as a national language in the linguistic sense - e.g., the language of forms, dominant media, restaurant menus - but in the visceral sense, as well. as an immigrant, i devoured the english language and prided myself on diagramming perfection, grammatical precision, and a laudable vocabulary. as a faculty member at an education school in a technology and ed program, i advocate for the wider use of multiple modes of communication - including multilingual, multimodal, and multiple literacies. however, at no time was mine a refugee reality.

as i exited the cool comfort of the theater, i overheard two women talking. one wondered aloud why the refugees were sent to different cities and her friend responded matter-of-factly, "because no community wants too many." ali's dashed dreams, aden's new found passion for gardening, arbai's daughter's wedding - all reduced in that phrase to the singular category of "too many." yes, language is significant - certainly, like gloria anzaldua notes, "ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity - i am my language." but, like anzaldua, who offers opportunities for language to flourish despite, and because of, linguistic barriers? where are the chances for these barriers to provide bridges to new understandings and relationships? there isn't time in the school day, in the trigonometry class, to slow down for one student who math acumen is evident but whose ability to comprehend a new linguistic code is not given sufficient nurturing. what happens to these adolescents? and what new ways of supporting refugee youth can we imagine and enact in the every day, moment-t0-moment decisions that inform the routinized practices of teaching, learning, and knowing...?

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