Monday, April 14, 2008

Muslim prayer in the workplace

In response to a question I received today ...

Prayer is one of the required elements of Islam. (

There is a short window of time during which the evening prayer may be done. This time changes slightly each day, according to the length of the day, and according to the location. (See for a daily time calculator for any location worldwide.) Currently, the sunset prayer in Columbus should be performed at 8:10 p.m.

The length of time of the "window" during which a Muslim may pray appears to vary somewhat according to sect, although I haven't been able to clarify this completely. I have been told by one Muslim that there is a 45-minute window; another told me there is a 10-minute window. The prayer itself should take about 10 minutes.

The most reasonable accommodation, in my view, would be to provide a room where the Muslims could pray out of sight of others. This could be a meeting room or some other room not in use at the time. The employees would also need to have the opportunity to perform ritual washing (wudu) before prayer if that is needed. ( If washing is needed, that would require a few extra minutes.

However, this is only my opinion, based on experience and research. For legal requirements and any recent findings regarding accommodations for prayer in the workplace, I recommend that you contact your company's attorney.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

It takes a village

Last September I first met “Manuel.” He stood in our registration office with a handful of official-looking papers and a terribly sorrowful look on his face. He was having a very hard time communicating his needs to the office staff. It wasn’t just that he needed English; there was something more, and he didn’t know how to express it. Since I speak Spanish and some French, I’m occasionally called on to ensure the correct information gets transmitted to our Spanish-speaking students.

(And as for the other language speakers we see every day? We are tremendously fortunate to have staff members who can cover us in French, Somali, Arabic, Kiswahili, Spanish, Russian, Fulani and Wolof.)

At any rate, Manuel came back to my office with me, head down, apologizing and excusing himself the whole way.

He was apologizing for not explaining things clearly to the office staff, for taking my time, for not getting the door for me, for not knowing the right places to go, for being a bother. In short, it seemed the poor man was apologizing for being alive.

I explained to him that it’s our job and our pleasure to help people; that’s why we’re here. But his misery was pretty deep-seated, so I focused on the fistful of forms and letters he had with him. It was mostly government paperwork (which is occasionally a cause of misery for me, too).

The job he’d held for over 20 years in Southern California had been outsourced to China, and Manuel had been laid off, according to the letter from the California unemployment office. Manuel was to enter a training program so he could get the certification he needed for another position in the same field (or one closely related). It was clear that the job had been a source of great satisfaction to him; now, through no fault of his, it was gone.

That kind of training involved a one-year certificate program at our community college. Several pages of forms were dedicated to the requirements of such a plan of study, how to submit the forms correctly and - of course - the forms themselves.

I don’t know how such programs work in California; all I knew was that to enter the college here in Ohio, he’d need a better knowledge of English than my initial conversation with him suggested he possessed.

And what had brought him to Ohio? Family matters - which were the other source of his misery. Unfortunately, I could provide no help there, other than to refer him to a Spanish-speaking counseling service.

Just as well. We were going to have our hands full just getting him what he needed to take care of his educational needs. And that needed to be accomplished quickly because the information he showed me specified that he wouldn’t receive any unemployment benefits unless he entered a qualified, approved training program.

The first step was to get an assessment of his level of English. My first guess had ben pretty close to the mark. At best, it would be at least a year and a half before he could move beyond ESL and into the actual certificate program.

So the situation was this:
1) He couldn’t enter the training program because his level of English was too low.
2) The training vouchers don’t [normally] pay for noncredit courses, which is where he would have to begin (as his English was too low even for the credit ESL courses).
3) Without entering the training program, he wouldn’t receive any unemployment benefits, which meant he’d have no money on which to eat or to live indoors.

At this point, I have to preemptively respond ("prespond"?) to those people who would say, “Why didn’t he learn English a long time ago?”

The answer is so very simple: He didn’t need to! There was nothing in his life in California that required a knowledge of English. Even the letter from the California unemployment office was in English on one side of the page and in Spanish on the other.

But that’s another topic for another time. Right now we had to make the unworkable work, for Manuel and also for future cases like his because we knew that it would happen again.

I can’t claim all the credit for the way the pieces were finally put together; it was truly a group effort.

After some calls from a lovely woman in our Registration Office and another one in our Admissions Department, the unemployment office agreed to continue his benefits while he took noncredit English if we could arrange an intensive program of 15 hours a week over the next six months. I did that part.

Then, in order to increase Manuel’s familiarity with the English vocabulary of the field, Admissions contacted the head of the certificate program and got permission for him to sit in on the classes even before he would be able to take them.

When I ran into him a few months later, I was stunned - and very pleased - at the change in Manuel. He no longer looked down at the ground; he didn’t constantly apologize for being a bother (which he wasn’t in the first place, of course); he shook my hand with confidence and he spoke to me in English.

It truly does take a village.

I'm King (or Queen) of the World!

Several years ago one of my staff members, “Khadija,” came to me to ask a favor. One of the local Somali elders very much wanted to take our Basic English classes, but, even though the cost was as low as we could keep it, it was still out of his reach.

She brought him in to the office and we went to the conference room to talk. He was a tall, gaunt, white-haired man who carried himself with great dignity and looked very somber.

Khadija translated as he told me how much he wanted to learn English for himself, for his family and as an example to the community, but he simply couldn’t afford the cost. Without English, he couldn’t get a job.

To be honest, I’d decided from the moment Khadija mentioned it to me that I’d do my best to say yes. She had never asked for anything like that before; this clearly was important to her.

But how to sell it to my boss? As soon as the gentleman mentioned “an example to the community,” I had the answer. He’d end up serving as a goodwill ambassador for our program by encouraging other paying students to come.

So I said yes. That needed no translation. Immediately his face broke into a smile as he clapped his hands and searched for some English words to tell me how much this meant to him.

“Thank you,” he said. “You are king of the world.”

Khadija gently corrected him. “Queen,” she said. “She’s a queen.”

“King,” he persisted. “King more than queen.”

Khadija leaned over (why, I don’t know) and in Somali explained the difference. “Queen,” he repeated nodding. “Queen. You are queen of the world."

All Somalis ... ?

I’ve had the opportunity lately to give workshops on Somali culture to a local hospital. The rapidly-growing Somali population here (estimated at 45,000 and growing) has caused a heavy load on the local health-care system -- in part because many of them are poor, but mostly because there is a serious language barrier, and, to a lesser extent, a cultural barrier.

Interpreters can tell each party what the other one is saying, but to have the words make sense requires a different kind of interpretation. And that’s where we come in.

We tailor the presentation details to the specific group to which we’re presenting, but overall I’ve found it’s very important to ensure the audience hears the answers to these two questions:

(1) What are Somalis like?
In the big ways, they are like everyone else. People are people. They love, they laugh, they cry. Some are wonderful, kind and gentle. Others are mean. People are people everywhere.

(2) But aren’t there some things that are true of all Somalis?
Good question.
Let’s take the most common cultural stereotypes:

- All Somalis are Muslim.
No. It’s estimated that 98-99% are, however. And within the label of “Muslim” is a wide range of beliefs and behaviors, from extremely conservative to very liberal. As I said above, people are people. No cookie cutters were used to make the Somalis any more than any other people on Earth.

- All Somali women cover their heads.
No. Many do; some, particularly some of the younger ones here in the U.S., choose not to. It is largely a matter of religious feeling - and it is a choice. As it says in the Qur’an. “There is no compulsion in religion.”

- Somalis don’t smoke.
Actually tobacco use is a major problem, particularly among men.

- Somalis never drink alcohol.
Nope, not so. It is definitely not common but there are a few Somalis of my acquaintance who will occasionally indulge, and I find it hard to imagine I’ve met all of them, so there are likely a couple others out there somewhere.

- Somalis don’t eat pork.
Pork is one of the items forbidden in the Qur’an. I have no statistics, but in eight years of working with Somalis, I have met Somalis who smoked, some who drank, some who used other drugs, but I have yet to meet a Somali who would admit to having ever tasted pork.
Then, all Somalis avoid pork?
Pork is forbidden for Muslims and Jews, and there are some Somali Christians. I have no idea what their dietary habits are; I’ve never looked into that.

So...eating, drinking, behavior, personality, dressing -- these will vary. Is there one single thing that can be said to be true of all Somalis living in the world today?
Sure. All Somalis breathe.

Fly me to Tacoma

Whenever I fly, I take along something (or a few somethings) from my large and ever-growing collection of reading I want to do. Choosing what to take, though, was more difficult than usual as I prepared for this week’s trip.

A couple of standard rules I always follow: don’t carry anything that will weigh down the carry-on bag (no hardbacks); and avoid titles that might incite annoying people to strike up conversation. I have no objection at all to pleasant conversation with nice people; however, the books I specifically avoid reading on planes are those metaphysical or political ones that might make me a target for someone’s attempt to convert me.

Usually novels are fine. Until recently, academic and historical titles have been pretty safe, too. Maybe I’m worrying overmuch, but I picked up “The Invention of Somalia”, “Gender in Islam” and “Muslim Friends”...and put each one back down again on the shelf. It didn’t seem worth the risk.

Paranoid? Maybe. But one of my Somali co-workers - a gentle, peaceful person if there ever was one - is pulled aside for a “random” search every single time she flies. If it’s a coincidence, it’s a very interesting one. Someday I’ll do a survey of my friends and co-workers to see how many of them have been through the random searches. It will be interesting. But not today. I have a plane to catch.