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Adan Amin Awil

Adan Amin Awil

Adan was raised in a nomadic family, yet able to secure a college degree in London, England. He worked for the Somalian government, but was forced to flee with his family from the Civil War to the United States in 1996. Adan worked in the Minneapolis Public School District until retiring.

Born: Somalia
Heritage: Somali

Share with the students your words of advice. 
My age, at my age, normally in Somalia, they call us wise men because not only because I have been through schooling, but because also I have a lot of experience in life. If somebody has good education, if somebody has long experience, then you have to be successful in life. The small advice I can give you, please listen, listen, listen.

One: respect your parents. If mom asks you to get up, get up without asking anything. Your friends, your teachers. You know in Arabic, I speak Arabic. {speaks Arabic} It says, I will translate. Stand up for your teachers because teacher almost became a prophet. {speaks in Arabic} That’s the biggest thing you can hear. Stand up for your teacher and give her respect because the prophet and the teacher… G-d almost made the teacher a prophet. You know a prophet? God’s messenger!

If, for example, you don’t have somebody to teach you how to be successful in life, you may be lost. The teacher is the man who helps you a lot.

Adan Amin Awil

Adan was raised in a nomadic family, yet able to secure a college degree in London, England. He worked for the Somalian government, but was forced to flee with his family from the Civil War to the United States in 1996. Adan worked in the Minneapolis Public School District until retiring.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. You are now grownups. I hope you get some wisdom out of what I say. My name is Adan Amin Awil. I am from Somalia. You see the map there? You must have some Somalis in this school.

It’s in the horn of Africa, horn of Africa. This is what used to be Somalia, now that portion of Somalia is called Somaliland. They are not internationally recognized, but they hope. There’s a split. This used to be British Somaliland. This used to be Italian Somaliland. This part, this long Indian Ocean coast. You must know your map, yes?

This used to be French Somaliland, Côte française des Somalis. This used to be Utopian Somaliland and this used to be Kenyan Somaliland. Somaliland was divided into five different colonies when the colonial powers split up Africa. Everybody wanted to have a share and it ended up that way.

In 1960, we became independent and British Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, united. That’s why I say I come from Somalia. Now, I was born in a nomadic environment. In 1954, May, 1954, I’m not young. I was born in an environment, nomadic environment, you can have an idea. Looks like this.

I had a pet! You see that pet? You think about, that’s when you come to town, but even outside the town, you can have pets. We used to play small goats and small sheep. In nomadic environment, the huts we used to live in and the livestock we used to eat, were numerous. My family used to move from place to place, searching for grazing and water. That’s what still we do large part of Somalia.
Seventy-five percent of Somalis are still live a nomadic life. We don’t have a lot of water in that area. It’s savannah, what they call in geographics, savannah, less rain. Not like that. Rain fall a very, very small rainfall.

When I was living in this environment, I was taken out of the village almost at that age, ten years old, almost. I was taken to town to my cousin’s house and I was put in a school, starting with Koranic school.

We are Muslims in this area and I was put in a Koranic school where we learn Arabic. Now, I was put in an elementary school. I did not know ABC, I did not know alphabatah, what they call in Arabic. My parents never held a pen. And nomadic life, this the environment. We only understood animals. We milk them, we kill them for food, for meat. And we knew little about towns.

When I went to town, I had to join other children and go to school. It was not easy at the beginning. There were no books. There were no books and pads you are using. We used to write Arabic on the soil. You will see how lucky you are.

I was almost ten years old when I went to elementary school—first grade! First grade, ten years old. Twelve, thirteen. When I was thirteen and I was learning everything in Arabic, no English! You learned geography in Arabic. You learn maths in Arabic. You learn history in Arabic. As a language, you learn Arabic. You learn the Koran.

On those days, in 19--, when I went to school in 1946, people did not never used to like schools, only Koranic. If you say, I go to school. People used to stone you, they didn’t know. They didn’t like that type of foreign input. Foreign input by the British.

In that area, where I lived, called the Boorama in that corner, that corner, there was only one white man, the district commissioner, the man who ruled us. Nobody used to be associated with this language. Infidels, no. If I say, “I go to school” some fanatics used to stone me. “What is school? Brought by the Arabians, ah!” But still, gradually, we settled down.

Our elementary school had one social studies Sudanese teacher. Sudanese, he came from Sudan; one Egyptian teacher and one Somali teacher. Somali teacher used to teach us maths. The Egyptians and the Sudanese use to teach subjects in Arabic because they come from countries where they are more advanced in education.

When I finished my elementary school at 13, I went to middle school. That middle school, like yours , was did not in my tongue. You are lucky, you have middle school here in your tongue. In the whole area, from here that way, we have only one middle school in a place called 7:25? Sheikh.

We used to have entrance examination when you finish the entrance examination, if you pass, you go to that school. You leave your tongue and go to Sheikh Everybody knows Sheikh because of my age because we all went there. Everybody from British Somaliland must have been through Sheikh and middle school in my days.

Over there, we stayed. We studied for three years from 1949 to 1953. In 1953, we sat for the high school, seventh grade. Excuse me, the high school, ?8:13 if you pass that one, you go to the secondary school.

Secondary school, I passed, luckily and then we had a new secondary school in 1954 in my tongue, Boorama. That means, if somebody lives here, they have to travel all the way to my town to come to high school. That was the only high school we had in British Somalia. I should it was the only high school in the horn of Africa after Haile Selassie’s country school and ?9:05 secondary school. They were only two high schools in Utopia. Our country school was the third in Somali territory. To that school we used to have student from Cotrin City ? Somali and from Utopia. We were in that school until 1957 when we sat for—what they call it—for the GCE. General Certificate of Education. You know that one, don’t you? General Certificate of Education. That’s the British system. If you pass that one, on all the subjects, most probably average six subjects, physics, chemistry, history, language, Arabic translation and English, and this and this, Civics and if you pass six subjects and it was corrected in England, if you pass that, you take the plane to England on an honor scholarship.

I have been through that mill, that long process, starting with this life. and graduating from high school to go to college in 1958. 1958, probably your fathers would not have been born at that time. 1958 I took a plane to England to London to a place called South End on Sea. It’s a tourist place. It was beautiful.

I studied there for two years in a poly-tech to get used to the British life. Read newspapers. Go to theater like West Side Story. It was new in those days. We used to come from South on the Sea, they used to take us to London to see new things all the time, to go to House of Parliament, go to the Queen’s house, from outside, no, you can’t get in.

Now, I finish my poly-tech, I took an examination called Advanced Level. I don’t know what you call it here. It’s almost the same, Advanced Level. When I passed my advanced level, I went to University for three years. Two years in that college and three years in University.

I went to a place called Leicester University. It’s east midlands. It’s near, you must have heard, Birmingham, Manchester in England. Have you heard about Manchester? The football team Manchester? From United, you must have heard? Manchester United, you heard about? Anybody, you know any town in England? Yes? London, good! It’s only 90 miles from London. Any town in England, of course London, everybody knows. You must know Manchester United. The most famous…huh? You have heard? Manchester, Birmingham…Nottingham, Leicester. Leicester is east midlands. It’s a beautiful place. It has houses, there’s a lot of small {??} factories. There’s a lot of farming. It’s a heavenly life. On those days when I went to college, you call it college here, over there they call it University because it’s five years. Only five percent of the British youth used to go to college. In those days, as I used to read, because I used to read American books most of the time, I read economics. Most of the books I used to buy and read were American in the library. Twenty-five percent of young people in America used to go to college. In those days, in 1960, only 25% in America, only 5% in England.

That means, I was very lucky in those days. I was very lucky to go to college in those days. I understand it as such. Young people like you, you have an idea about the life I went through, from a nomadic life: no pencils, no board, no chalk, no classes. And I went through and now—how old am I? If I was born in 1934? Seventy-seven. Old age, yes? Still, I can run. You know why? I was a sport man. And I was lucky not to get sick. I never lied down, G-d help me. I struggled a lot because of the life. when I came back from college, I went to Somalia. It was at that time united, British and Italian Republic of Somalia. Because the British, ex-British, Italian were united, then at that time, the biggest employer in the Horn of Africa was the government.

Here you have companies, you have services, you have factories, you have farms. You can work anywhere you want. You can get a job. Over there, there was only one employer. Either you have a lot of money and you go into your own business or you work for the government.

I have to join the government service. I went to the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. I didn’t like it, but you couldn’t help because you can’t survive. As I told you, I came from the bush. I go to schooling in town, but I cannot look, I cannot go back to my environment. Anyone understand what I am talking about.

Although the land has not changed a lot, people were still poor. The schools were limited, we had no college, high schools were few and far although when I came back there were a number of intermediate schools and one or two secondary schools.

Still, people of your age had no chance to go to any school they like. They have to travel to another town to go to school. You don’t realize how lucky you are. In those days there were no computers. In college, you have no computers. There were no computers.

When I went to England, you have no jet plane to take you there. it was all propellers. This was after the war when I went to school. See? Can you imagine a world without computer, without microwave, without anything? In college, in the finals, I took twelve papers in economics. I was writing three hours a day. Three hours, hand-writing. Can you imagine that? It’s not easy.

Here, now you can email anything. You can read anything. You can go into Google, you can get any information you want in a second. Over there, we spent a lot of time in the library. When you get an assignment, when you get an assignment, you go to the library. That was the best friend we had. If you want to read novels—because I was a foreigner I had to improve my English—if you want to learn English, you read novels that will teach you better terminology, better sentences, how to build up your ideas, it broadens your mind and you’re more likely to succeed if you read, read, read instead of watching TV.

Revise your resumes. I told you, you all have a computer, yes? Who hasn’t got a computer? You are computer literate, you have it at school. You may not have it at home, but you have it at school, yes? And you know how to use it. I know very little, I use it very little. My sons, I assure you my sons, the people that I brought to America.

How to milk a camel, have any idea? Hmm? How to milk a cow, of course, you know this one. How to milk a cow, you must have seen this. You see that Somali man? And a nomadic life? Eh? They’re all my friends, you see. The Somali girl? Those old days, not now. You know when a Somali girl is not married, she can dress like…she used to dress like this. Not now. Now they have to cover their heads. If they don’t cover themselves altogether.

You see? Boys and girls could go together like this. There was no shame. Boys used to respect, in Somalia, girls are respected more than boys. Girls are respected more than boys and nobody can touch them.

Now, you see, the boys. The boys are near their camels. This life, you see, out of wood, they make their own comb to comb their hair. And this is a spoon out of wood. This culture was old, but nowadays people went to town and they bought whatever they…the spoons they use, the knives they use, and all this.

But in those days, people in the nomadic life never used to worry about what the people in town do. They were independent, they were proud, they kept their livestock, they only bartered their livestock when they wanted to buy something.

You know barter in economics? You take your goods to town and you buy clothes and food. Or you can take your camels, these are our trucks, you know, in the desert, in the nomadic life up here. Camels, we have millions of camels. If you own million camel, if you own hundred camels, you are a rich man.
And if you want to, young man, if this young man wants to marry a Somali girl, he has to give at least 50 camels. Not less, fifty camels. In those days. In India, the boy gets the dowry, but in Somalia, we give to the parents of the girl. To ask for the hand of a girl, you need to pay at least 25 camels, if possible, including a horse, if possible, including a sword. If you can afford, you know?

That was the traditional life. It was based on, not necessarily Islamic religion, but on Islamic traditional law. Somalis, when I came back to Somalia, I had three things. One, Islamic religion, you have the Shavot. You want to marry a girl, you do it through sheriot.

The colonial powers brought what they called the civil law, the civil law in the towns. And the criminal law. And then in Somali, we have our own law, traditional law. If you kill somebody, you pay 100 camels. But the Brits would say, If you kill somebody, we shoot you. We say, No, you don’t shoot. We have our own traditional law, that man’s tribe will pay 100 camels to the deceased man’s tribe. That’s the way it worked.

Now I spent a lot of time in the employment of the government. I was in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce for almost 25 years. I became a general manager. I became I director general over a department. I moved from place to place. I used to work in the Ministry of Industry mainly in what they called skilled development, you know, industrial … in industry you have to develop skills. Whether it’s textiles, whether it’s canning, whether it’s sugar processing.

I used to work and go from place to place all the way here and I was one of the top civil servants until Somalia collapsed. We had a military dictatorship, that man ran away, and the country failed. I have to run away with my children and I brought six young ones, the last generation here. I will show you, I hope I have.

This is my graduation in 1963. I was a young man, smart. I came from this background. See, you can compare this background, eh?. My parents never held a pen. Some people say you were out of the dark. Wasn’t out of dark, we had our religion, we had our laws, but still, studying was something big. I brought my children, small ones. I brought six children here. The eldest one is Mohamed, and this was taken in Utopic before we came to America, before we came to America.

And when I brought them here, you know, they were huddled together. It was the end of 1996, probably you were not born at the time and it was the worst winter you’d had and you see how they are huddled together? The six of them here, you can see from far, they are there. when I came back to the United States of America, end of 1996, I did not look for a job. They ask me to teach, I said, I won’t teach. I will teach my kids. I stayed at home. I help these people, two of them now, the two boys who have never been to school before they came here, they have never been to school. They work with me.

Two of them now have Masters. One of them selected in Information Technology and he’s working. Two are studying in the University of Minnesota. And the younger one Amin Amin is South High. Still, I have secondary school children at this age, you see? That’s why I did not get a good job. I work as an interpreter. To earn 18 hours, 15 hours, 15 dollars an hour to pay for my food and rent.

I had to bring them up because I kept in mind the long run I have been through and I thought I should give them a hand to succeed. Now, I have something to look back to. They are successful. If you work hard, if you study hard, if you work with your teacher and your parents, I am sure you will succeed.
Just compare this, I succeeded and what do you think about yourselves? Huh? I was 18 years in school and I made it. You, with all the facilities you have, you all-day schooling, free schooling you have here! And with your parents beside you, man, you can work miracles. You can work miracles.

You will go beyond me. I won the honors, I won honors, but you can go beyond. Hope high, go through the sky. It is my advice to you, you understand that? You just remember what that old man said to you. From that life, nomadic life, living in a hut like this, in a hut, nomadic hut with all the family in one place, boys and girls and everybody. And you living in the comfortable life you have and the free education you have, you have to move, you have to move.


To Be All We Can Be

Honoring Adan Amin Awil

To Be All We Can Be
(Honoring Adan Amin Awil)

We had small goats, we had sheep
And livestock we used to eat.
From place to place we would graze
On a savannah with little rain.
Nomadic life, with no pen
At the age of ten, I begin
To study the Koran in school.

From the village into town
Without note pads on the ground
In the soil we would write
In Arabic day and night
With a teacher from Sudan
Right there in Somaliland
Divided up into five colonies

By the British, by the French
By the Italians we were split
And controlled by the powers that be
I was so lucky
To go to college far away
From a nomad to the USA
What more can I say to you, today?

With computers and email
How on earth can you fail
Compared to me when I was young
Had to learn in a foreign tongue
From civil servant to civil war
Now controlled by the war lords
Whoever has the gun rules

From the bullet we all fled
If we had not we would be dead
In this land of opportunity
I now give to charity
To help the old, the young, the poor
Who on Earth would want more?
Then to help those in need

Entitlements, a paradox
If you don’t help
those who walk and talk
What good to be a millionaire
If you’re not willing to share
500 camels can buy you wives
But not a successful life
All the way from heaven to here,
I fear

We must find a way
To do our best today
To give respect, dignity
To everyone and everything
To reach beyond the open sky
Of miracles, to wonder why
To be all we can be

Music by Larry Long. Words by Larry Long with Lisa Stuehringer 7th Grade Class of Sanford Middle School, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

© Larry Long 2011 / BMI