A couple months back, I lit upon the idea of a web show called “I Am Haji Haji,” which would center on a kid of exactly that name. Haji’s been a player on the STL United FC youth team for the past couple years and he’s really blossomed as a person during that time. He’s a Somali immigrant with a certain spark for life, so it’s been amazing watching him become more Americanized, while serving as an intermediary between his parents and the world around them; oftentimes, Haji’s the one doing the translation in family business situations, heady stuff for an 11-year-old. So he’s the one doing a little of everything: he can help deal with a power company rep, or he can call for pizza. In some ways, as a mentor of Haji often mentions, he’s becoming a man of the house.
For now, the show’s not getting off the ground. Because just as we were going to start to filming the three-minute weekly segments, the Haji family decided to move to Lewiston, Maine, joining relatives there. If that seems a particularly strange place for Somali immigrants to resettle, well: it is and it isn’t. In fact, thousands of Somalis/Bantus now call Lewiston home, and the Haji family will raise that number by just shy of 10.
Figuring that we had only a week to catch Haji in his element, we decided to start taping him last week, catching his last seven days in St. Louis. My collaborator, Brian Spath, and I recorded him playing soccer and hanging around the flea market where he works in North City, just across the road from the “Welcome to Wellston” sign. We followed him to the off-license neighborhood snack shop, and joined him at home during a farewell celebration, which had him dancing with nearly two-dozen other Somali children under the age of 12. (If you’ve never seen 20-plus Somali kids dancing their hearts out to hip-hop radio, I’d advise you find the opportunity! Whoa.)
The most dramatic moment, though, came when we were standing with his parents in the gangway between two of the multi-family units in their apartment complex. Shots were heard in the distance, then steadily grew closer. Bullets began whistling, cars flew down the street and collided and were abandoned, bodies ran in every direction, police were called… all the usual stuff. Thanks to a police report I secured from a friend, we learned that the house next door was hit multiple times, with a family of three, including a baby, only four-feet away from one bullet’s path through their living room and into a wall. Unreal.
While we post that video below, it’s not the way we’ll frame Haji’s story. The kid’s got life, spunk, moxie, whatever phrase you wish to use. We’ll occasionally share some of that footage, while trying to piece together the larger story. If luck runs our way, Haji will back next summer; he wants to play soccer here and would be able to stay with an aunt. If that happens, we’ll have an opportunity to run through some of our “I Am Haji Haji” ideas. For a kid who’s never ever been to the movies, we hope to let him do a host of new things: cook goat in an organic kitchen; build something at the City Museum; shoot hoops with Billiken center Willie Reed; go foxhunting; and generally engage in educational merrymaking, allowing all of us a chance to watch life as an 11-year-old Somali kid in North City might see it.
Best of all is that the youngster wants to do it. And he’s a natural on-camera.
On Wednesday, we’ll be hopeful, saying “see you soon!” instead of “goodbye.”
(Seem to be having trouble embedding of late, but here’s the vid:)