The Southerner

From Somalia to the stage: South teacher brings immigrant story to life

 Actor Mohamed Ahmed portrays Ahmed Yusuf as a struggling college student. On either side of him (from left to right) are actors Tracey Maloney and Mikell Sapp playing Camel and Owl, characters that represent Ahmed’s conscience and help him through difficult times

Actor Mohamed Ahmed portrays Ahmed Yusuf as a struggling college student. On either side of him (from left to right) are actors Tracey Maloney and Mikell Sapp playing Camel and Owl, characters that represent Ahmed’s conscience and help him through difficult times

Siobhan Sullivan, Staff Writer

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“It’s a Somali proverb that says ‘If people come together, we can mend a crack in the sky,” said actor Mohamed Ahmed. That is exactly what South teacher and playwright Ahmed Yusuf has portrayed in his play A Crack in the Sky now playing at the History Theater in St. Paul.  

A Crack in the Sky was written by Ahmed Yusuf and Harrison Rivers, and is about Yusuf’s life in the United States after leaving his home country of Somalia during the Somali civil war in the 1980’s. The play begins with the main character Ahmed in college as a struggling student who hasn’t eaten in weeks, has no money to send to his family in Somalia to save his ill mother, and whose cousin (a General in the war) has just been shot and severely injured. Ahmed gets through these hard times by recalling folk tales his mother used to tell him, along with his support from his conscience which is portrayed by a talking camel and owl that guide him.

One day a professor notices him struggling and does all that she can to help him. Slowly, his determination and persistence mixed with support from his professors allows him to succeed and his life begins to change for the better.

The play tells the story of writer and Somali language teacher Ahmed Yusuf, over 80% of the play is about him and his experiences. Yusuf left Somalia as a teen who was, “raging with anger” as he described, in hopes of escaping the Somali Civil War and starting a new life through education in the United States. The Civil War was just beginning but Yusuf knew that to stay would be the wrong decision. “I did not want to get involved because I knew like anyone else that they would give me a gun and I didn’t want to kill anybody, but I was really really angry,” said Yusuf.

So he traveled to the United States and after moving from state to state, ended up at Trinity College in Connecticut where he earned his degree in creative writing and psychology. As a high school dropout this was very difficult, but with the help of his professors Yusuf was able to succeed.

Eventually Yusuf found himself in Minneapolis. “I was trying to find out where the largest Somali community was and all of a sudden I find out it was Minnesota. I thought ‘My goodness these people are completely lost, they have no idea what they are getting into. I’m going to go there and tell them that’s not the place for them.” He laughed and continued, “I thought they lost their mind, so I lost my mind too. I love it here.” Yusuf is in his fourth year as the Somali language teacher here at South.

Yusuf has written three plays but this is his first to be performed on stage. Seeing this play has been a completely new and exciting experience for Yusuf. “It is somewhat surreal. It is as though you are a parent and you send your child into the world. You nurture them and send them out into the world and you have no idea what they are going to make of themselves. That was what I was feeling until it got to the stage… and I got to see that the child was doing really well,” he said. He has also written three books and his newest called The Lion’s Binding Oath will be released this June.

The story of A Crack in the Sky is extremely relevant and relatable to audiences today. As artistic director Ron Peluso explained, “we are a land of immigrants, aside from the millions of African-Americans who came via slavery and our Native-American brothers and sisters, and Ahmed’s story is as relevant in today’s society as it was at the turn of the 20th century. It is a common thread that many share,” Yusuf continued, “It’s an immigrant story, it’s not only mine.”

There are two important messages Yusuf hopes audiences see: “first, if you are a struggling student there is always someone who cares about you, a teacher that cares about you. All teachers care about you but there is going to be someone that is absolutely going out of their way just trying to accomodate you.”

And second, “A single book can change your entire life. And actually that is what the play is seriously about. A single book changed me.” After reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Yusuf became obsessed with literature. “I consumed the book. And when I was done with it, I was a completely different person”, said Yusuf. “It meant everything to me about everything.”

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About the Writer
Siobhan Sullivan, Staff Writer

Junior Siobhan Sullivan is new to the Southerner this year but she is not new to the world of news. In 6th grade Sullivan joined the Mousetrap, the school newspaper at her middle school, with her first story covering the redevlopment of the playground. Eventually, Sullivan proved her strength as a writer and rose to the rank of editor-in-chief. Sullivan enjoys journalism because she likes hearing about other peoples lives and sharing it with the world.

Music is a big part of Sullivan’s life and she has been playing the violin since 4th grade. On the average day here at South you might find Sullivan playing away in Chamber Orchestra or singing her heart out in Pop Singers. Sullivan enjoys working with people who are just as passionate about challenging music as she is. When she has time outside of South, Sullivan relaxes by hanging out with her friends or particpating in Irish Dance.

This year in Sullivan hopes to learn more about higher level newspaper and is excited for the fast-paced environment. We are are very excited to welcome Sullivan’s expertise to the Southerner and are sure she will make a strong addition to the staff. 

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From Somalia to the stage: South teacher brings immigrant story to life