Posted by Elizabeth Zabel

Yellowed bike posters hang on the classroom’s grey and brown walls. Old bicycles hang down from the ceiling. I did not come to buy a bike or even to look at a bike, but to teach English to Somali speakers. I came here to check out a literacy program led by friends of mine in the Seabury neighborhood of Minneapolis.

The program was difficult to find because I did not know what I was looking for—an apartment, a schoolhouse? I pulled up in front of a small grocery store and a bike shop. I double-checked the address against what I had jotted down on an envelope. The address was the same. ‘There must have been a mistake,’ I thought.

I would have turned around and gone home, but I noticed my friend Jessica waving from behind the glass doors of Scallywag’s Bike Shop. She unlocked the door and let me in. Several women smiled at me from behind the fold-out tables in the corner. The bright, bursting colors of their hijabs contrasted starkly with the drab walls.

Two evenings every week, this group of Somali women meets with tutors to study English. The women learn through children’s books and flashcards, enjoying sweet tea and biscuits. Women aged 18 to 70 participate in the SALT program.

Somali Adult Literacy Training (SALT) is powered by American college students and middle-aged professionals who volunteer their time to tutor Somali women in English. Aside from the literacy training, the men and women in SALT form strong friendships with one another while learning about each other’s cultures in this fairly segregated city.

SALT is an outgrowth of World Relief Minnesota, a worldwide Christian evangelical agency that provides education and resources to those who need it most. The teachers bring a lesson and sit down one-on-one with the students to help with the coursework. SALT holds classes at several sites throughout the Twin Cities.

Missy Vanderwaal, who is a University of Minnesota student like me, has taught at SALT for two years. In this time she has been able to make friends with these women and learn from their experiences; to bake and shop together, and to witness one another’s cultural celebrations. As a result, teachers like Missy are enthusiastic about attending class. On weekends, Missy can be found shopping with friends for skirts or jewelry at the Karmel Center, a Somali mall.

This program is not what I expected it would be. I got by as a tutor with creative gestures and metaphors. “Banana” is easy to define when you have a picture of it on a flashcard, but what could I do when I have no pictures? Well, I made monkey noises and scratched myself, while the Somali women laughed graciously at my attempt to teach them.

Before the program I had no Somali friends. Now, when class ends and the Somali women climb back into the van, I wave from the parking lot feeling as though I had just left a party at an old friend’s house. This is the important stuff that goes on in our city. This is the stuff that matters and unites communities.

Somali Adult Literacy Training

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