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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Journey From Immigrant To U.S. Citizen, Via Starbucks

Barwaqo Mohamed, a Starbucks employee and immigrant from Somalia, becomes a U.S. citizen on September 11, 2012. She stopped by our studio for an interview. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Here in Boston Tuesday, about 2,400 immigrants from 132 countries will be sworn in as citizens of the United States, and one of those people is someone Here & Now‘s Sacha Pfeiffer knows well. Her name is Barwaqo Mohamed –her family members and close friends call her Muna and Sacha has been her volunteer English tutor for more than four years.

Barwaqo takes free English classes through a program in Cambridge, Mass., called the Community Learning Center. But her main classroom is Starbucks, where she has worked full-time for the past six years filling orders from countless English-speaking customers.

The job made her remarkably fluent very quickly, and it has given her an unusual vocabulary that includes words like “Tall Skinny Vanilla Latte” and “Chocolate Cookie Crumble Frappuccino.” Barwaqo was born in Somalia, but left when war broke out there, first going to Saudi Arabia and then Egypt before moving to the U.S. in 2006 and eventually settling in Boston. Sacha spoke with Barwaqo, and the conversation is excerpted below:

When I was first assigned to teach you, I heard you were a lower level student and I worried we wouldn’t be able to communicate. Then I met you and I said “Hello” very slowly, and you just said, “Hey, how you doing?” I asked you how you learned to speak English, and you said “I’m a barista!”

Barwaqo Mohamed works at the Starbucks in Logan Airport in Boston, Mass. (Chris Ballman/Here & Now)

You’re right. [laughing] Oh my God. That changed my life a lot. American people are different [from people] where I came from. Over there they’re very shy; over here you have to look at the person eye to eye. It took me almost three years to do eye contact.

In Africa or Somalia is it rude to make eye contact? Or are women not supposed to do that?

We can’t do eye contact like that; for us it’s rude.

Then you got this job and you had to look people directly in the eye.

Yeah. Oh my goodness. It was so nervousing [sic]. It wasn’t easy.

This is at a Starbucks at Logan Airport in Boston, where you started soon after you got here, and you still work today. What was it like having thousands of people talk to you in English even though you barely spoke it?

It was really hard. Sometimes I come home [and thought], “I don’t want to say nothing.” I used to come home… so nervous, [thinking] “I don’t want to go back to airport.”

And now you’ve passed the citizenship test. You had this big book of the hundred [possible exam] questions. And you studied it, you listened to the audio companion on your iPod. 

Yes. I was cooking, I was listening. It wasn’t easy. I [thought] they gonna ask me all these questions. I had a nightmare about it.

You told me that you ended up getting only three questions in the citizenship test. One was, “How many justices are on the Supreme Court?” Do you remember the answer?

Yes, nine justices.

The second was, “What does the president’s Cabinet do?”

Advises the president. The third question was what month we celebrate Columbus Day… October.

You’ve been living here for a long time, you’re very American in many ways. But what are the things that you really miss about Somalia?

Let me be honest. I do miss my country. It’s my country no matter what happen [sic]. But I don’t really miss it that much. I get used to live a life in different way… Except absolutely I miss my family.

What is it like living as a Muslim in America?

It’s easy. It’s not hard, actually. Over here you can practice any religion.

Although some people would say it’s really hard to be a Muslim in America, especially because of all these things that have happened in the world, some people are suspicious of all Muslims. Have you ever felt any of that?

I haven’t. [Except] some people ask weird questions, [like] “Why you put these things on your head.”

Referring to the hijab that you wear. Customers at Starbucks ask you this?

Yeah and some will be like, “Where are you from?” I’m like, “I’m from Somalia.” And they were like, “Are you one of the pirates?” And I will be like, “Are you kidding? Do I look like a pirate to you? [laughs]

One guy [asked me], Are you al Shabaab. I’m like, “Excuse me?”

A terrorist?

Yeah. It was a weird question to me. I told him… I’m here with you in the United States.

You told me once that even though you have a nice life here, you still would like to go back one day to Africa or the Middle East, because you said the United States is too busy. What is it about the United States that is sometimes too much?

[People] working a lot, and constantly busy. People are running. Even when they’re sitting at home their brain is busy.

Is that different from the other countries you’ve lived in?

Way different. Over there they get together, they drink coffee together. They even call each other saying, “Come over and have some tea.” [They know how to] relax and talk.

What does it mean for you now that you are about to have citizenship?

Exciting. A lot of friends they will be [at the ceremony]. I’m so excited.

Congratulations. It’s been really exciting to watch everything you’ve done since you got here. And I’m really happy that you passed your citizenship test, it’s going to be an exciting day.

Thank you so much. You [were] there all the time. Remember [when we had to] read question over and over again, we take a test over and over and we write over and over. So finally I do it.


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