Sunday, February 19, 2017

Immigrant story

She was as dark as a coffee bean with skin as smooth as glass. Her parents named her Hani, meaning happy, as she almost always had a smile. She was tall and graceful and usually wore a guntiino that flowed with her movement and accentuated her elegance.

Hani would often be seen waiting for the bus to downtown as we all lived in the lake area in Minneapolis, although a generation later many newly-arrived Somali immigrants would tend to live more in the Cedar-Riverside area. The time I speak of was the late 1970s. The bus stop was where I met her as we both worked downtown, even though I drove several days of the week. I always admired her headscarves of which she seemed to have many, but I finally overcame my shyness in order to say more than good morning to her. She also seemed a bit shy, but also confident and self-assured. I tried not to ask too many questions so as not to intrude on her life too much, but my curiosity was piqued by this exotic woman.  It didn’t take much to be exotic in South Minneapolis as we all seemed to be fair complexioned Northern European types so Hani stood out in the neighborhood. I was surprised to find out that she was an attorney, fresh out of law school and specializing in immigrant law. This also brought up many questions from me as my parents had been immigrants to this country a few years after the Second World War. 

We got to know each other better over a few months and I was invited to a party at her house a few blocks away.  I had no idea what to expect that Saturday afternoon knowing that she still lived with her parents. I had no idea what they would be like so I focused to be on my best behavior with my best respectful manners. I was greeted at the front door by Hani’s father, Maxamed, who met me with a big smile and warm handshake. He put me immediately at ease with his openness and introduced me to his wife, Ladan. I knew immediately where Hani’s exquisite beauty came from. I recognized the faint aroma of Frankincense from my old hippie days and felt amazingly relaxed in this home.
Hani’s parents had come to the U.S. in the mid 1960s a few years after Somali Independence from the Italians, French, and British. They wanted stability for their small family and chose to come to Minneapolis with their young children. Maxamed (one who is worthy), was a civil engineer and apparently quite good at designing infrastructural needs for future use. He had secured a teaching position at the university and was loved by his students for his insight and informality. He was often referred to as “Professor Max”.  

As more guests arrived and the party grew we gravitated to the backyard. While Max led me through their home we went by a slightly open door revealing Hani with her hair uncovered. I barely recognized her. We went out the back door and into the yard which was surrounded by a tall, solid fence. This had added mystery to these immigrants’ lives, but was in place when they bought the house and offered some privacy from nosy neighbors. 

Hani entered the backyard with her thick, black, wavy hair draped well past her shoulders. Her natural grace and beauty always turned heads, yet she was always humble and kind. She was very at ease and mixed easily with the guests, many of whom she seemed to already know.  
It was an interesting and eclectic bunch of guests at the party. Students and staff from the university, many from other parts of the world, as well as a few people I recognized from the neighborhood. There was no alcohol being served for those who might find it offensive, although the hosts seemed quite secular, but those of you who know me at all will know that I was there for the food. I was not disappointed.

Some of the appetizers were wonderful. I remember one called sambusa that was a spicy little triangular shaped snack, as well as kabaab, tropical fruits, and some hot dipping sauces. I was in taste bud heaven! There were chicken, rice, and pasta dishes that Hani and her mother had made that were spiced a little differently than what I was used to, but it was all delicious.  I did need a fair amount of liquid to cool it all down. 

These were regular parties, about one every other month and I managed to get to most of them. I got to know Hani and her family better and found out how supportive they were of the immigrant population of the Twin Cities. They were always there to help people adapt to the culture of their new country without forgetting the old and Hani taught English to non-native speakers once a week at the downtown YMCA.

I moved away from the neighborhood a year or two later to get on with the next part of my life, but never forgot my old neighbors and old neighborhood. Last I heard, Hani was working at the university supporting, counseling, and advising foreign students.


This was inspired by some Somali women I observed at a hospital near the University of Minnesota while my brother was having a procedure last year.  They were jaw-droppingly beautiful in appearance and I found myself wishing to talk to them. When my father, Otto, attended North Carolina State University for graduate studies he had an advisor, Professor Hank Rutherford, with whom he stayed in contact until the professor’s death. He told me stories about the foreign student parties and gatherings at the professor’s house and about his other foreign student friends. One of these friends was his roommate, Steve Yang, who taught my father some basic conversational Mandarin. I also have an old roommate who practices immigrant law in an advisory capacity at the University of Minnesota.

I have this daydream of visiting Twin City’s restaurants trying a different cuisine every day until I run out of places to eat. I know that I better start soon. My parents were immigrants and I love immigration stories as well as meeting people from all over the world. I don’t get enough of it, but do the best I can when I can. If you have the opportunity go eat an exotic or ethnic meal and think of me when you do. I’ll be there with you in spirit.


  1. Loved this story!

    When we lived in South Carolina, my youngest son (about 10 at the time) was invited to a birthday party for a kid whose parents had come from Lebanon. There were people from that country, from India, Korea, and - of course - a bunch of native Americans. When I said that I was from Germany, someone made the remark that this party was "like the United Nations" and she wished all countries would get along as well as the people at this birthday party.

    I'll always remember this party as the time when I had mango for the first time in my life. Imagine, I was in my early 40's and had never had mango! Now it's one of my favorite fruits and I always think of that birthday party when I eat it.

  2. These story was a feast for the senses and food for the heart. Thanks, Jono. Lovely words and descriptions.

  3. Jono--You'd better to do your "restaurant tour" soon. Soon, Trump is going to build that wall. Soon, he's going to find a way to send all the "bad people"--like Hani and her family--back to where they came from. Soon, the only restaurants we'll have will be the kind that old, white men with bad comb-overs like.

  4. My mouth is watering! And I'm a picky eater! (partly by nature, partly out of necessity due to a finicky GI system) Just goes to show the power of writing.

    Nice descriptions here, Jono.

  5. I love trying different ethnic foods too! Wonderful restaurants are a real bonus of a multicultural society!

  6. anne marie, We had a Thai restaurant in town that did very well during the summer, but the rest of the year was tough so they moved south. It was a delicious place to eat. Our local Reservation has a wonderful history and really good mooseburgers during pow wow.

    Pixel Peeper, Immigrant stories, customs, and food are always an education and always a delight for me. My uncle worked for UNESCO for most of his working life.

    Robyn, Thanks! I often make myself hungry with these fantasies.

    Sioux, It's difficult to find "authentic" Mexican food this far from the border, but I will take it personally if that jerk starts to undo this country. He's making me angry and to quote the Incredible Hulk, "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

    jenny_o, Success! If it's edible I will put just about anything in my pie hole.

    Shoshanah, That kind of divine is about as close to religion as I get.

    Debra, Canada seems to celebrate multiculturalism much more than we do on this side. Thunder Bay is only an hour and a half away and the money conversion is in my favor at the moment.

    Bill the Butcher, I am only one small voice and doubt that I make a difference to those in power. I do write to them, but it is getting time to be much louder. We have had too many greedy, self-serving idiots in charge of too much for too long. I am getting old, but hope I live long enough to see this change for the better. At the moment I am completely disappointed.

  7. I am an immigrant too. I know how it feels to be trying to understand how to survive in a new country. But I am white, and I already spoke the language of my new country, so it was a lot easier to fit in than those immigrants from places like Somalia.
    I love to try different foods and as my small town grows with families moving in with many different ethnic backgrounds, so the choice of food in the supermarket changes, and new restaurants pop up. I enjoy this multi-cultural society that we live in today.
    Loved your story!!

  8. I have regretted not questioning my grandmother, born in 1890, about her early life and her family. It would be interesting to sit and talk with some of the middle-easterners that have experienced life so much different than our own.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  9. Did you ever take a picture of Hani with her long wavy hair? Maybe that would have been too forward. The triangular snacks sound like samosas.

  10. Lovely story! I spent some time teaching ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages, the successor to ESL) and I remember in one session I had students from 19 different countries! They were all lovely people but two of my favorites were from Iran. living here because their son works here. I worry that on one of their trips home to see lots of relatives that they won't be able to come back.

  11. I applaud your willingness to learn about new people, new stories, and new cuisines. I'm glad that Hani and her loved ones are thriving in the U.S.

  12. This is the America I want to live in!

  13. Some eye candy, some taste bud porn, and a bunch of great folks. Now THIS is a story! I love exotic food. I sound like a total douche when I'm like, "Hey, you guys want to try my saag paneer with some homemade halva for dessert?" but dammit, I like learning other culture's cuisines.

  14. There is a big, bold, wonderful world out there and I am glad you want to be a part of it.

  15. Shammickite, As a white man with a funny last name I've had it pretty easy and my father didn't run into much trouble either. A little, but not much.

    JACKIESUE, Thanks!

    Ol'Buzzard, I really do love those stories, both from the past and the present. "People of New York" has some.

    Gorilla B, Hani would have been a striking exotic beauty in this part of the world.

    knittergran, What a wonderful teaching experience. I would think it would be a challenge, but with eager students it would be quite rewarding.

    Ahab, I don't believe this is an atypical story. I have run across some others of my own experience and tales from other folks.

    Anne Johnson, That America is out there, but it's not as pervasive as I would like it. It is the Ideal America that so many of us envision.

    ABFTS, I think food is a gateway to understanding and I love food porn. I can get all drooly from just a description.

    Onevikinggirl, I am so happy for you to be able to experience it. Your description of Portugal sounds wonderful.

  16. When I started University over 500 years ago, Chinese food and Pizzas were new to Saskatchewan. Now, even in a city of 200,000 you can find restaurants of all kinds. An Ethiopian Restaurant opened shortly before i moved away. A couple of Ukrainian restaurants but they were not too popular as you could get Ukrainian food at home. Or at weddings. No wedding reception was complete without cabbage rolls, perogies, and sausage.

    In Ukraine, there are restaurants of all kinds in the large centres. Pizzas are big everywhere though they are thin crust. I would dearly love a Chicago style. Armenian and Georgian food is about as exotic as it gets in a small city like ours.

  17. What a wonderful memory! It's always a privilege to be welcomed into someone else's home and traditions, especially when there's food involved. I grew up out in the sticks where my first taste of 'exotic' foods (pizza and lasagna) didn't occur until my teens. As soon as I left home I tried every food I could find, and I love discovering new foods and flavours! I don't really enjoy travelling for its own sake, but the promise of exciting new food always entices me to go. I'll think of you the next time I enjoy something yummy! :-)