Stand Together Hand-in-Hand: Poetry by Somali Girls from Rochester STEM Academy


Is where we all come from
A piece of it lives within all of us
A land as old as time itself
Jagged edges divide the land
Yet we all stand together hand-in-hand

It began as a challenge. Visiting spoken word artist Frank Sentwali prompted his class at Rochester STEM Academy to create something new. The students had written poetry before but never on a blank canvas. That was the beginning of the journey that would ultimately take these talented poets to Augsburg College where they performed in front of former President Jimmy Carter and an international community at the 2015 Youth Forum as part of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.


There is a vibrant Somali community in Rochester, and many of the youth attend STEM. Bisharo Nahir, a senior at STEM, explains, “We tell stories and share poetry in our community. When Dr. Rossi [director of STEM] was trying to decide what we were all good at, he concluded that we all talk, a lot.” Oral tradition and storytelling are integral parts of the Somali culture, so it wasn’t a stretch to understand why writing and sharing poetry became a major part of the curriculum there.

The second writing assignment brought four young women—Bishara Nahir, Hibaq Mohamed, Sagal Abdi and Muna Abdiasis— together to co-create a piece about who they are and who they are not. Living as Somalis in the United States can be a difficult experience, for teenage girls especially. “We have a triple whammy,” Sagal shares. “We are girls. We are African-American. We are Muslim. If you don’t tell people who you are, they will just make assumptions.” This assignment allowed them to break stereotypes and share what they celebrate about their home country. 


The group of four girls gathered for three intense days to write the piece, “East Africa’s Most Beautiful: Somalia.” 

“Frank taught us to write the details and allow the framework to come out later,” says Bisharo. Their framework became a powerfully written and beautifully performed poem that they first presented at Rochester International Association’s World Festival 2015. 


You never met a force as strong as me
I come from a country that breeds revolutionaries
Sent soldiers and brothers to Angola, South Africa, Mozambique
Taught the world how to stand on its own two feet
What we are is what they wish they could be
A country of speakers
Poetry in our heart
Beautiful songs on our tongues
I may never have seen it
But vividly I dream it.


Initially, they didn’t understand what it meant to perform a piece of poetry.  They recited their work but their instructor wanted them to go deeper.  “[Frank] wanted third-degree burns,” laughs Hibaq, “I didn’t think I could be that powerful.”  Soon they learned the storytelling arts of facial expression, choreography and modulating the projection of their voices. 

Even experiencing the performance wasn’t enough to impress upon the performers the depth of their impact. “We didn’t know we had that potential, that impact on the audience, until we saw the video of our performance. It was really powerful,” Sagal remembers.

A large part of sharing their work is accurately being able to read or assess the audience and their potential reaction.  “Regardless of what you write, you regulate your performance to the audience,” explains Bisharo. During their performance at Augsburg College, there were over 1,000 people in the audience, with countries streaming in live from all over the world. When the girls took the stage, they realized that the audience had begun snapping their fingers in cadence with the poetry and vocalizing affirmations. They were emboldened to put their hearts and souls into the performance resulting in a standing ovation from the audience. 

Rochester STEM Academy students will be performing at the World Festival on Friday April 29, 2016 at 7 p.m. at Mayo High School. Other performances will be listed on the STEM web site as they are scheduled:

Terri is the owner of Third Eye Tribal Dance Studio and Business Consulting.  She lives in Rochester with her husband and two sons.