Update: The United ReSisters of Green Bay wrote “The First Winter”—a collection of the experiences of 12 Somali-American women and their journeys as refugees and living in the United States. Five of the authors are UW-Green Bay students. Join them for a reading and discussion, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Alumni Room, University Union, Green Bay Campus. The following feature was written in Spring 2019.
While speaking with the five young Somali-American women at the Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs Center inside UW-Green Bay’s University Union, you’d never guess you were speaking with published authors. In fact, these inspiring young women can hardly believe it themselves.
“It’s weird to me that there’s one book that we are making together,” says Nade Abdi, UW-Green Bay freshman majoring in human biology. “I can’t believe how it’s turned out, it’s beautiful.” Their first published book titled, “The First Winter” is scheduled for release, with 100% of proceeds going to support the 12 young Somali-American women who contributed stories, artwork, poems and more to the publication.
They call themselves the “United Re-Sisters.” Formed in 2017 these smart, engaging women are working for peace and understanding in Green Bay and beyond, focused on using their voices and their experiences to educate the community about diversity, inclusion, empathy and what it means to be Somali-American in Northeast Wisconsin.
While all the authors completed high school in the Green Bay area and are pursuing further education, five of them are current freshman at UW-Green Bay.
“We want to inspire young girls or boys who are struggling or facing the things we faced,” says Nade with true passion in her voice. Yasmin Nur, a UW-Green Bay Human Biology major pipes in. “People in Green Bay don’t know the experience and difficulties that their fellow community members have faced,” she says, “I feel like everyone gets this information about Islam and Somalia through the internet or news, but it’s better to get it from a primary source rather than [hearing] the wrong message from the media.”
The United Re-Sisters came together with the help and support of a number of people, including two women, Diana Delbecchi, ‘10 and Katie Stockman, currently scheduled to graduate with her Masters in Social Work with an emphasis in school social work at the end of the month.
In the spring of 2017, Delbecchi was back home after spending time abroad, specifically working with refugees in Greece. This experience had a tremendous impact on her and she wanted to continue her humanitarian work in Northeast Wisconsin. She was contacted by a friend in the Green Bay Area Public School District (GBPSD) who suggested she start meeting with a group of high school Somali-American women at Green Bay East High School.
“I started attending the East High Diversity Club for several weeks after school, and that was where I met the majority of the young Somali women that are the authors in this book,” says Delbecchi. She started getting to know these young women, and soon the group decided to meet outside of school—The Art Garage was within walking distance of the high school and the perfect place to gather.
At the same time, Stockman was also part of a group of students and professors at UW-Green Bay, specifically Prof. David Curry (Humanities), who had invited local Somali-American students to visit the campus and learn more about the higher education opportunities available to them.
As Stockman and Delbecchi met weekly with the young women, Stockman started asking some questions. “I came up with these word clouds based on answers to “who is the group?” and “how would you want to be known in the community if we were to have a club name or group name?”
The “United ReSisters” were born.
Delbecchi and Stockman speak proudly about the transformation they have seen in these young women. In the beginning there was a lot of silence. “Oftentimes they were speaking Somali to one another, and I had no idea what was going on,” says Delbecchi.
The girls kept coming back, and opening up. They built relationships with Delbecchi and Stockman, as well as each other. Soon they were inquiring about things like learning to swim, getting their driver’s license, and having a “girls only” prom. “[Part of] the reason that this group was formed was just to have that sisterhood,” says Delbecchi. “…and go through the rites of passage and do the things that they’ve always kind of had questions about, or didn’t quite know how to start.”
And the stories. Stories of their childhood in the refugee camps. Stories of the challenges of relocating to a completely new country. Stories of trying to “fit in” in high school. Stories of attending mosque, spending time with friends and family, of childhoods that were filled with tragedy and love. Stories that were different, yet similar to all of our stories.
A $10,000 grant from The Women’s Fund helped turn this blossoming idea into reality. The United ReSisters got to work. “Some of the stories were ones that I had to write for a class [in high school],” says Yasmin, “and some were where we would write down our thoughts or record us talking about an experience.”
Their stories need to be told. “I think it’s very important to learn about this because it’s coming from the women themselves,” says Stockman. “They help us, because those of us who are not informed and for those of us who are…it helps us understand the experiences they’ve gone through. And I think when people start reading it, they’ll realize, wow, a lot of people weren’t aware of their stories and their survival and how strong they are now, where you have to be sitting with them in classes and working alongside of them in the community, or having our children play with their new friends.”
“They’re sharing very vulnerable stories of loss, of really joyful times in their lives and really anxious times in their lives, or just annoying times in their lives,” says Delbecchi. “Like having to go to gym class and be picked last and feel crappy about it. You know, like every time they tell stories, you can see yourself.”
Their stories were featured at the 2019 UntitledTown event. The authors participated in two sessions that featured them reading portions of the book. Both sessions were standing-room only.
“To see the girls in that moment, and to realize their community was rallying behind them in a way maybe they had never felt before,” said Delbecchi… “Rooting yourself in community is so important.”
Stockman agrees. “It’s just really encouraging, I think, to know that we live in a community that’s so supportive of young women; supporting their story, and being willing to work collaboratively with them.”
Now published authors, these amazing young women have a bright future ahead as they continue their educational path at UW-Green Bay. Four of the women share an apartment on campus, and talk of late nights studying, and the unrelenting pace of managing their schedules, family and most importantly, finding time to simply get together and talk.
By freelancer writer Kristin Bouchard ’93