Anisa Hagi-Mohamed’s Affirmations

Anisa Hagi-Mohamed holds her Kalsooni cards at the 1st Annual Maangaar Conference on Autism Awareness in the Somali community. Anisa and her children are autistic, and Anisa helped host the conference and come up with more positive language to talk about autism in Somali. Photo Sarah Whiting

I was born in Somalia, two years prior to the civil war there. We fled to neighboring Kenya and were in refugee camps for three years. Then we came to America. I spent the majority of my childhood and early adult years in Fresno, California. My dad loved Fresno, which was home to many cultures; my mom, not so much, since there were only a few Somali families there. She missed being immersed in a bigger Somali community.

In 2010, we moved to San Diego, home to around 10,000 Somali people. I was about to enter graduate school when I met my husband. After we got married he said, “Minnesota is the promised land.” We moved to Saint Cloud to be near my husband’s family, and I transferred to the Teaching English as a Second Language master’s program.

The transition was difficult. I felt out of place. There was a Somali community in Saint Cloud, but I didn’t really know anyone. I finished graduate school and started teaching at the elementary school level as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. Teaching there was my introduction to the community. I got to know parents and community leaders, and I slowly started attending events and making new friends.

A lot of my creative work revolves around themes of healing, mental health, language, culture, and identity. I was always drawn to language as a child. It is not a surprise, considering my roots. Somalis are often called the nation of poets. My grandfather, Mohamed Omar Dage, was a famous poet from my mother’s side. My paternal grandfather, coincidentally also named Mohamed Omar, was a scholar and linguist. He knew seven languages and attended the famous Al-Azhar University in Egypt. I inherited their love of words. Growing up, I was an avid reader and lover of poetry and writing. I created countless blogs, started a YouTube channel. I was on every new platform.

My first product was My Diasporic Diary, created after I got my master’s degree in 2018. Going through the aisles at Target, I was drawn to the journals, but I never saw one that represented me. I wanted to have a space where I could talk about my unique diasporic experiences and inspire other people to tell their stories. I created a reflective journal, which included art therapy, separated into 10 chapters of questions on topics such as home language, culture, passions.

I started sharing My Diasporic Diary in an online healing circle with a few other Somali women. Even during the pandemic, when the whole world shut down, those friends and more would go on the Clubhouse app every Ramadan night. I would introduce prompts from my journal, starting with my own experiences, and then others would share.

One of the questions in my journal is: “What if they had stayed? Write an alternative life story [in which] your family never left or [had] not been forced to leave.” Creating that alternative story is equally painful and liberating.

I started to hear comments like: “I never see Somali people talking about mental health” and “I never see Somali people discussing the complicated relationships between parents and children.” There is a lot of dysfunction and trauma in our communities that we don’t talk about. It’s about time we do.

These conversations and realizations led to the creation of my second product: Kalsooni affirmation cards. War and trauma back home and the resulting loss of belonging — as well as racism, xenophobia, and other obstacles here — have left us with less positive language in family, friend, and community relationships. A child or an adult’s life isn’t defined by their mistakes or shortcomings, or their individual traumas.

Similarly, our community’s story did not start with trauma, nor does it have to be defined by it.

Many people in Somalia lived in villages and were camel herders or farmers. Connecting with the miracles of God in nature was a frequent theme in oral traditions and literature.

Decades later, I feel like colonialism, war, and trauma have changed our language and mindsets. It doesn’t feel right. We come from such an abundant culture.

Somalis are hospitable people who will host you for three days, even if we don’t know who you are or where you came from. You will sit and eat with us and our family. We will feed you and feed you. And if you need to stay longer, you can. If you would like to stay for good, you can. We’re those people.

We believe that God is the source of abundance. We don’t come from a scarcity mindset. But we live in a land where hospitality turned into hotels and where families and communities are split apart.

Adjusting to trauma has made many people in society hardened and worried about survival.

For me, I wanted to get out of that mindset. I created Kalsooni affirmation cards from that place. I was able to create these cards because of a grant from the Waterers Foundation, an organization based in Minnesota and the Dakotas. They are focused on disrupting the process of philanthropy by decolonizing the process of funding artists and community leaders. I received the award in a week, without having to deal with endless paperwork. I was able to create Kalsooni and use it in my community the next month.

Inside the deck of the Kalsooni cards box, there are 52 double-sided affirmation cards in both English and Somali. There are 13 different card designs inspired by Somali textiles and historical items.

I officially launched the cards in November 2021. The day after I completed a photo shoot, I received the heartbreaking news that my older brother had died in San Diego. He is the one who taught us everything about America. I didn’t know how to process this loss.

Then, 40 days later, my mother also suddenly died. That was soul crushing. My mother was the center of my world and my biggest supporter. I wanted her to see Kalsooni cards come to life and the impact they make. I was eager to show her the recording of my interview with Somali TV of Minnesota and BBC Somalia. She passed away on December 31, a week before the interviews aired. How could I continue positivity when I was drowning in grief?

The work pushed me to talk about grief. A few months after my mother passed, I facilitated monthly healing circles about grief in the Black and African community for Lyricality, which helps central Minnesota writers foster the art of empathy through poetry and story. This led me to more community events about healing, identity, belonging, home, and grief.

The journey here has been long and hard. It is also very powerful.