Presentation provides Horizon West students insight into the journey to America
April 3, 2019
Choir teacher Erin Gaffaney’s efforts to broaden her students’ perspectives led to a collaboration with custodian Cani Adan and presentations for all students at Horizon Middle School West Campus. Adan shared his story and Gaffaney’s choir students sang two songs: “Bahihii Waaliidkay Dhaqay” in Somali and “Sisi Ni Moja” (“We Are One”) in Swahili and English.
According to Gaffaney, choral music is an inexpensive form of musical collaboration. Since no instruments need to be purchased, students can join choir with no additional cost.
“Because there are little to no barriers to being in a curricular choir, I have the privilege of gathering together a wonderfully diverse group of students,” Gaffaney said. “One of my personal goals as an educator this year was to adjust my teaching, and in particular, choral repertoire selections, in such a way that those selections more accurately reflect who my students are, and who our students are in Moorhead as a whole.”
After examining district data on languages spoken, Gaffaney learned that besides English, students are likely to speak Arabic, Somali and Kurdish.
“Of course, our students speak an even wider array of languages, but that district data gave me a starting point,” she said. “I started looking for music last summer and turned to music teacher colleagues in our state for quality recommendations.”
While the repertoire was limited, Gaffaney found a couple of gems — including “Bahihii Waaliidkay Dhaqay,” a collaboration between Somalian poet Ahmed Ismail Yusuf and choral composer Timothy Takach who both live in Minneapolis. This piece, which was the most challenging to learn, became one of the favorites of her students based on the results from a survey she gave students.
“As part of this repertoire planning process, I knew that I wanted to invite community members into my classroom to talk about their culture, music, and their journey to the United States,” Gaffaney said. “I wanted my students to hear from a local community member about what it’s like to be a refugee or asylum seeker in the United States so they might gain a broader perspective on the many different realities of humanity.”
Gaffaney connected with Cani Adan, night lead custodian at Horizon West. As planning began, Adan’s speech for Gaffaney’s grades 5 and 6 choir students grew into a presentation for all the students in the school last month.
Adan, who was born in Somalia, is one of eight children. His state Bakool is a clan-based state, like other Somalia states. Minority clans had to follow what the majority clans said to do.
“My father used to have good job when the central Somali government was in place,” Adan said.
But around 1990, when the Somali government failed, his father lost his job and developed an addiction, Adan said. That left him unable to care for the family.
“When I was young I used to love soccer, which we used to play peacefully,” Adan said. “I faced many challenges as a soccer player simply because I am from a minority clan.”
As a good player, Adan was selected as a team captain. At the end of 2010 he joined the Center for Peace and Human Rights, a local non-profit human rights organization, as a volunteer.
“I saw them helping our weak people and street children, promoting women empowerment, organizing soccer tournaments, and working toward reconciliation of the clans who had been fighting,” Adan said. “In 2011 I was hired and became one of the CPHR workers as human rights officer. I really enjoyed having this job. I enjoyed it because it’s my habit helping needy people. I was also known for organizing soccer events. I used to organize tournaments, called peace cups.”
By 2012 the militant group Al Shabaab had captured Bakool and the capital city Huddur and killed those who would stand up against them. Al Shabaab announced that playing and watching soccer were prohibited. Although they lived in fear, Adan and other teammates continued watching soccer in secret.
One of the Al Shabaab asked to marry Adan’s sister, but because she was underage Adan refused him.
“I was aware that they were looking for a chance to hurt me,” he said.
One night, several Al Shabaab arrested Adan and took his sister. They beat him with a chain and then pushed him into a hole. He broke his hand as he fell. Adan’s uncle was able to take him to a hospital in Kenya where he stayed for 35 days for medical treatment.
“During that time I was worried about my little sister and my family,” Adan said. “I have never seen her back since that night.”
At the end of 2012, Adan came to Mogadishu, Somalia, where he became a teacher and was paid $150 per month. Since he was staying with a friend he was able to send his entire salary to his mom.
“I knew it was too little to them, but it was better than nothing,” he said.
In 2013 Ethiopian troops had captured Huddur, and Al Shabab had left. The CPHR office reopened and began a youth awareness program.
“A very positive thing that happened at this time was to see the whole Huddur community come together and work with the Ethiopian troops to secure the city,” Adan said.
After about three months, the Ethiopian troops prepared to withdraw from Huddur and encouraged residents concerned for their safety to come to the city of Alberde. Approximately 2,500 people from Huddur walked for four days to reach Alberde, which was 90 km away.
Unrest continued and one of Adan’s friends was killed. Adan’s mother urged him to leave for Europe or America. They finally sold some family land and using most of that that money, Adan arranged for his journey to America. He left on Feb. 20, 2015.
“That was the last date I have ever been in my home country of Somalia,” he said.
From Mogadishu, Adan flew to Nairobi, Kenya, where he spent four months waiting for the next part of his journey to begin. In June 2015 he flew to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. From Brazil his group of 56 people spent four days and nights on a bus traveling to Peru. Then he took another bus to Ecuador, cars to Colombia, and then a boat ride, before beginning a long and dangerous four-day walk through the Colombian jungle.
“In our group were men and women from Congo, India, Nepal, Somalia and other Africans,” Adan said. “All hoping they were walking toward a better life. But on that four-day walk we lost many people from our group. It was a terrible walk.”
They arrived at a Panama military station in the jungle. After two weeks in Panama, they again boarded a bus, making a stop in Costa Rica and then onto Nicaragua. They traveled on horseback and by motorcycle, and eventually they found themselves in Honduras and back on a bus. They stopped in Guatemala and then Tapachula, Mexico, spending a week in a Mexican detention center. From Tapachula, Adan flew to New Laredo, Mexico, and then a taxi drove him to Texas.
At the United States border, Adan was held for six days in a Texas detention center before being transferred by U.S. Homeland Security to a detention center in New York. Once he was released he didn’t really understand where he was and had only $100 left. Another Somali man who was released the same day had someone coming to pick him up. Adan was able to stay with them, and his cousin in Moorhead sent money for his train ticket to Minnesota.
“When I arrived in the Fargo-Moorhead area a few days later I had no idea where I really was, but there was my cousin waiting for me, and this would be the place where my new life would unfold,” Adan said. “The first weeks were so hard. I was scared, tired, and mostly alone. I could not stop thinking of my mother and my family so far away in Africa.”
Adan began volunteering at the Afro American Development Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping immigrants and refugees in the community, all of whom are missing their homes. He eventually became an employee there.
“This work has changed my life,” he said. “It gives me a way to help others like I was able to in my home country. Because I speak English I am able to help other immigrants complete paperwork, find jobs, find housing, seek legal assistance, and connect with community resources.”
In June 2016 Adan was hired by Moorhead Area Public Schools as a night custodian at Horizon Middle School.
“I love this work and how it allows me to support the school community,” he said. “I will always love my home country of Somalia and dream of returning there to be reunited with my family and friends. But America is my new home now, and I am so grateful for the opportunities here that have made it possible for me to help my family back in Africa.”
Adan is thankful for people, including Kari Yates, elementary supervisor for accountability and learning, and Jim Smith, director of property services, for their support and encouragement.
“I am the night lead custodian at Horizon West and community outreach director for the Afro American Development Association,” Adan said. “Yesterday I was just a poor kid from Somalia.”
After Adan shared his story, the Horizon West choir students sang “Bahihii Waaliidkay Dhaqay” and “Sisi Ni Moja” for their classmates and teachers.
“What started out as an initiative meant for my choir classroom grew to this event,” Gaffaney said. “I am so glad that Cani was willing to open up to so many about his heartbreaking story, and I am even more glad to see that he has turned his experience into a history that is building connections within our school and the FM area.”
Photo: While sharing his story with students during presentations in March, Cani Adan, night lead custodian at Horizon Middle School West Campus, describes how he helped buy a wheelchair for a former neighbor of his in Somalia.