When San Diego schools have to send home stacks of paperwork or confer with parents, Ahmed Abdille is their gateway to Somali families. For more than a decade, Abdille has helped translate as families and educators figure out what extra help is needed for kids with disabilities or when other issues arise.
The 55-year-old translator fled Somalia two decades ago, leaving his job as a linguistics lecturer at the University of Somalia to escape warlords and killings in a country roiled by civil war. In a Kenyan refugee camp without running water, he translated off and on for foreign agencies and collected Somali oral poetry before coming to San Diego just before the new millennium.
Next year, as budget cuts bear down on schools, his hours are slated to be cut in half. Ana Morales, who oversees the translation unit, said she had to cut her budget and Somali was the smallest group of English language learners in San Diego Unified that still had a translator. While there are an estimated 30,000 Somalis living in the San Diego region, Morales said many of their children are already fluent.
We joined Abdille at his Birdland office to talk about what he does and what’s at stake.
What are the most difficult things you have to translate?
I have to explain scientific words or new technology that is being used in advanced countries. Somalia is an underdeveloped country. Every time there is a new technology or a program coming out, we have to figure out how to translate them. Also things like special education. Back home we do not have any special education. All the students are placed in the same class. That kind of terminology is difficult.
The documents that come from the central office are intended for someone who can read and write. But most of the Somalis here are illiterate. I have to put it in common language they can understand.
What do you like best about your job?
When a kid has got some kind of disability, most Somalis, when it comes to special education, they see the (assessment) teams coming together — the school psychologist, the nurse, the teacher, the administrator — most of time they say, “No, my child is not sick, they do not have a problem.”
I persuade them to accept if the child has got some kind of learning disability. The whole thing is new to them. I tell them they have parent rights. I tell them the school doesn’t have any right to give them any prescription unless the parent gives some consent. Parents are a little bit hesitant.
What has been the worst misunderstanding that you’ve had to smooth out as a translator?
Some of the parents cannot understand the system and they get very mad. In Somalia, you send the child to the school. So they think that the teacher, when it comes to behavior, when it comes to teaching, every responsibility is on the teacher. So the parents do nothing, except feeding them.
When they come to this country things are different. They’re being called to meetings, not like in Somalia. The students have got lots of assignments that the parents have to help.
The kids when they come to here, some of them they are 15 or 14. They are placed according to their age. They go to high school even though some of them have never been to school. They start in tenth grade with no knowledge of English or the subjects or even how to handle the pen. It is very hard for them to finish high school. Most of them drop out from school. They just end up driving taxis.
Can you tell me a personal story that has stayed with you?
I remember a single mother who was living here. Her boy was disabled. Every time when she came to the school, she was shouting and yelling and nobody understood her. She doesn’t speak good English. Nobody could help.
She can cook and drive, but she’s a little emotionally unstable. It was a culture shock for her. She’d say, “You don’t teach my child well.” She believed the school was picking on her child and mistreating him.
I came to know her family and her. I talked to her in Somali. I said to keep cool. Tell me your questions. I gave her my cell phone number. I said “Whatever you need, you can call me.” She keeps calling me when she has got problems. The child got a referral to a specialist at the children’s hospital.
Since I have a close contact and relationships with my fellow Somali families, they were comfortable and trust me. And they listened to my recommendations, like taking the child to the doctor.
I heard that your position is supposed to be reduced next year to half time. What are some of the impacts that you think it will have?
I didn’t agree at all with that decision. I go from school to school, from La Jolla to Paradise Valley. There are Somalis in every part of the city.
Before there were two Somali guidance assistants. Both have been laid off. There is a woman working at Crawford High School, but she is confined to that school. The school has to give me two weeks or a week in advance to do some kind of interpretation. My calendar gets full. So most of the time, they cannot communicate. If my position is cut in half, there is no point in me staying in the district.
So you would leave?
It would be too much. I’ve been singled out. Somali is needed because we are recent refugees. So I filed a complaint to my boss. Hours are not being cut from any other staff. If it were one hour, one hour, one hour from each person, it would be fair.
Do you ever hope to go back to Somalia?
The situation back home is still very, very bad. So I don’t think of going back there.
What’s your favorite Somali term? If you could teach any phrase, what would it be?
Mahadsanid — thank you. And soo dhawow — welcome.
Interview conducted and edited by Emily Alpert, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5665. You can also follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.