Suban Nur Cooley
Writer and editor
Suban Nur Cooley has been a world traveler since birth. Born in Switzerland to Somali parents, Nur Cooley, 36, lived in Kenya and Somalia before her parents fled to Australia in 1988 to escape the impending Somali Civil War. She moved to Lansing in 2006 to marry her husband, Caleb Cooley, whom she had met online. A writer and editor, Nur Cooley recently started doctoral work in MSU’s Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures Department.
— Ty Forquer
You grew up in Australia and you love traveling, so what keeps you in Lansing?
When Caleb and I decided where we were going to start together, we had the option of him moving to Australia or me moving to Lansing. I like adventure, and the thought of living in America for a while seemed enticing. But the thought of not going back to Australia was not an option. Still, in the back of my mind, I’m always going back, even though I’ve been here 10 years. We bought a house, then we had a child and I got hyper-involved in the community.
I love the community here. I’ve met some of my greatest friends here. I love the capacity to have an impact, because of the size of the community. I have grown to love Lansing, as much as I didn’t want to.
Tell me about your research at MSU.
My research is looking at the Somali diaspora and the ways they are connecting online, specifically women, to create what’s called a “transnational imagined community.” The diaspora is spread across the globe; they engage a lot online. What the women are doing that is interesting is that they’re bucking against the norms of Somali culture, which is Islamic and patriarchal. So they’re challenging some of the patrilineal elements of our society. My research looks specifically at the narratives of women who are engaged in that practice and how they’re building a voice and an identity for themselves as members of the diaspora.
How do you feel about the political climate in the U.S.?
When you live such an intersectional life — being a woman, being black, being from Somalia, from a Muslim community — it’s very hard to navigate current news and media without feeling weary and concerned for the global landscape. It’s a hopeless feeling.
That’s why I went back to school, feeling that hopelessness and thinking that if I could educate a few people to understand the ways that refugees aren’t that different, that would be monumental. I think that’s the problem with our world today, that we’re so siloed. People from different cultural backgrounds and orientations and life experiences are not connecting as much as they should. That, alongside what’s happening in the media, generates a fear that shouldn’t be there.
What do you think Americans, especially the media and politicians, fail to understand about refugees?
They’re more concerned with the impact of the influx of these populations without considering why they would choose to leave. What people aren’t seeing is that they’re not leaving because they want to leave. Most of the time, they’re seeking asylum, because they are in places that are not safe. For people in the Western world, it’s very hard to comprehend what that uncertainty and unsafety feels like. So they’re more inclined to be afraid of the people coming in without considering what refugees had to go through to even be in our communities in the first place.
What is the best way to help local refugees?
The best thing to do is, at the very beginning, educate yourself with what has caused the conflict in their home country. Look into it, read about it, ask some people who might know about it.
I ask people to imagine if things got really bad here, and you had to move to Japan. And you have three months to learn the language and get a job. And maybe you’re a scientist, but nobody cares. You have to go back to school. Think about what it would be like to restart your life somewhere where you don’t know any of the cultural customs.
There are lots of organizations in Lansing; the Refugee Development Center and St. Vincent Catholic Charities do a lot of great work. It’s a great way to get to know some of these people from different populations.
Now it’s more important than ever to reach out to communities of color, people of color, migrants, refugees who are in your communities. Because they may have felt vulnerable before, but they definitely feel more vulnerable now. Even for those like myself, who grew up in the West, it’s a very isolating feeling to think that someone would distrust you because of what they have heard about your population, without knowing anything about your population or the people in it.