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Keep The Somali Experience in Context

Imagine this. The United States has been devastated by a 20-year-old civil war. Washington DC is under siege by rebel forces. The UN says the situation is too chaotic to send peacekeepers. The only help anyone will offer comes from a few thousand Mexican and Central American troops.

Imagine that one in ten Americans has died in the fighting. An even bigger number - equal to the populations of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky combined - has been forced to flee their homes. Even more Americans have left the country altogether. Basic things like food, water and shelter are often hard to find.

You probably can't imagine that. We'd need to go back to the Civil War to find trauma and loss on that scale in US history. But many of the 45,000 Somalis in Columbus can imagine it, because what I've described is their experience.

Somalis are the largest migrant population in the world. Right now, almost 300,000 of them live in Kenya in the world's biggest refugee camp, which was built to hold 90,000. Toilets overflow. People share space with garbage. Children suffer from malnutrition and dehydration. Men and women are housed together and rape is common. Earlier this year the camp saw an outbreak of cholera, but medicine, like water, is scarce. UN Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie visited the camp earlier this month. "I wish more people could meet them," she said, referring to the refugees. "Then they would have a stronger desire to help."

Many Somalis avoid the camps, but wherever they go the odds of finding true sanctuary are slim.

The syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer thinks we should just say no to Somalis. "No people is more different from Americans than Somalis," she said. QUOTE "They live in ethnic enclaves, they are anti-individualist, they fear the outside... we cannot and should not attempt to engage and assimilate people from non-amenable cultures, particularly in an age of radical Islam." UNQUOTE.

If Somalis live in enclaves they are only doing what most every group of newcomers to the US does at first. If they fear the outside, maybe that has something to do with lessons learned from life in war zones and refugee camps. And if they are oriented toward family and community - and what else could Geyer mean by anti-individualist? -- then I say we have a lot to learn from them.

But beyond all this, Somalis in Columbus are people with histories, aspirations, friends and family members they've lost, others they hope to see again. Most have made grueling journeys, impossible choices, and had experiences the rest of us wouldn't want to have nightmares about. Let's engage each other, and when we do let's keep that backdrop in mind.