People often comment on what a great politician (is that an oxymoron?!) my oldest son could be. He can strike up a conversation anywhere, with anyone. So, when he was 4 years old and telling some stranger behind us at the checkout line at Target that he owned a construction company, I just continued to unload my cart.
The stranger was clearly a captive audience. As I was about to pay, I faintly heard the lady ask, “What’s your name?” to which my son responded, “Jonathan.” I stopped dead in my tracks. My heart sank. It was happening. My son’s name is not Jonathan, but at 4 years old he had already learned that “Jonathan” was a much more accepted name to have in our town than his name – which is also his grandfather’s name and an Arabic name we lovingly gave him before he was even born.
We moved to St Cloud when I was pregnant with my first son – “Jonathan.” I was raised in New York and my husband was raised in Lebanon (a country in the Middle East). We both knew nothing of Minnesota, but it seemed a nice place for a family and we were following my husband’s career as a Professor. A quick google search of “diversity St Cloud, MN” before we moved raised a few red flags for me when the results seemed to highlight a law suit against the University for anti-Semitism and discrimination. We shrugged it off and jumped in.
We quickly were busy with preparing for our baby and all the life changes that come from becoming parents. Before we knew it, he had arrived and we were perfectly sleep deprived and happy as could be. Yes, there was the cashier at the grocery store that asked what my baby’s name was (he was 3 months old) and then quickly told me that I had “ruined his life” by giving him “such a silly ethnic name.” And, there were several others who asked, “What kind of name is THAT?!” However, little could put a dent in our new family bliss. We even bought a lovely house in small town neighboring St. Cloud.
In an effort to make new “mommy” friends, I called our town’s school district and attempted to register for the community education infant/mother class. No one answered and I left a message with my name and number. A few days passed and no one called me back. I called again and left another message. A week later, no call back. Then, it dawned on me — my Arabic name might suggest that we are Somali. I had heard and seen that it wasn’t easy to be Somali locally. I called back one last time and left another message, this time clearly stating, “I am not Somali, I just live in this town and want to meet other moms…” An hour later someone called me back and I registered for the class. When I showed up, though, I was told the class was full and so I was in a class alone.
We had some painful conversations after that. About what would happen if someone hurt us. What if our son was bullied? Would we move? Would my husband leave the job he loved and was great at? Would we sell the house we called home? How would we deal with the financial losses? If we stayed, despite any problems, would we know how to be part of the solution, if there was one? How would this impact our children?
I wasn’t expecting my son to know at age four that “Jonathan” would be more welcome than the name he had just recently learned to spell all by himself. He had already heard countless negative reactions to his name – so why wouldn’t he know? Children often know more about their surroundings than we realize. We’ve since added two more sons to our family – each with Arabic names, each named after beloved family members. “Jonathan” is now six, and no longer hiding his real name — but we went through something similar with our second son as well (our third is still a baby). We’ve met some incredibly welcoming and kind friends in Minnesota. We drive our kids into St Cloud for an awesome school with a diverse student body. We’ve settled in and we’ve made this place our home. Our sons proudly declare themselves “real Minnesotans” to their New York grandparents and Connecticut cousins. We know, first hand, there is work to do here and we want to be active workers in spreading tolerance here — no matter your name.
I have wanted to launch a playgroup — where my kids play along side your kids. The parents sit around and talk, compare notes about life and share advice. A diverse playgroup*, where my kids are just as different as your kids and their kids — just as same, too. I want to reach out to Somali families and non-Somali families and I hope that while our kids play, we can all teach each other to appreciate our own differences and similarities. I believe that in embracing each other, we can better our city and teach our children to better it as well.
*Sara is working with #unitecloud to bring a multi-cultural playgroup to the St. Cloud area. Look for more information to come out Summer 2016!