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Wednesday, Dec 25, 2002


Foreign student learns about the meaning of Christmas

FOREIGN CONCEPT:A St. Scholastica student, originally from West Africa, spends his first Christmas with a Lakewood Township family.


Christmas didn't feel unusual at all, Lakewood Township resident P.Z. Neilsen said Wednesday afternoon. She was surrounded by her family, all Catholics; the two dogs; new toys; and a family friend who couldn't go home for the holidays.

Except that the friend, who was raised in the Baha'i faith in a 90 percent Muslim West African country, had never been in a culture that celebrated Christmas.

This was Yacine Djoumbaye's first exposure to Christmas, complete with new Sony PlayStation, Star Wars action figures, an electric race-car track and a Catholic Mass.

"It's been special having someone who has never celebrated Christmas and yet be so open about it, and about the craziness of it," Neilsen said as she watched her children play with toys and reflected on the busyness of the holiday's activities.

Christmas dinner really was just one more step in a journey of discovery they all started last September, when Neilsen advertised for people willing to get paid to help the family move to their ranch-style home. Djoumbaye, a freshman at the College of St. Scholastica, answered the ad from Neilsen, a nursing professor at St. Scholastica.

They became friends. The Neilsens asked Djoumbaye to dinner a short time later and inadvertently started the process of learning about Djoumbaye's faith. They planned to cook a pork roast. Then they remembered Djoumbaye was from Mali, a predominantly Muslim country. The Quran prohibits Muslims from eating pork.

So they asked if he had dietary restrictions rather than broach the subject of religion. Later, they learned he was raised Baha'i, a religion that believes humanity and religions are evolving and that one day there will be unity among people and nations.

He could also eat pork.

Djoumbaye's parents were born in Niger, where they practiced the Baha'i religion. Church leaders asked them to move south to Mali to help teach the religion and they settled in Bamako, its largest city. His father sells cars and his mother operates a kindergarten.

Mali has a population of about 11 million people; it's in western Africa, south of Algeria.

It's also one of the poorest countries in the world. Most of its people make a living off farming and fishing, mostly near the Niger River, because 65 percent of its land is desert or semi-arid.

Djoumbaye, 21, wanted an education in the United States, and St. Scholastica offered a good financial aid package.

The Neilsens and Djoumbaye became friends. They hired Djoumbaye for other chores. Eventually, they invited him to share Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, Djoumbaye went to Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary. For one thing, one of P.Z. and Alan Neilsen's children, 10-year-old Elise, was singing in the Mass.

The ritual impressed Djoumbaye. He said he likes how pretty Duluth is with Christmas lights on houses. And learning about religion became a passion for all of them.

"I don't think any religion is better than another; they're just different," he said Wednesday as played with Kristian, 7,

The family's dogs, a golden retriever named Caimin and a yellow lab named Fiona, were on the floor nearby. Alan Neilsen, P.Z.'s husband, sat on the floor nearby, talking about Christmas and their religions.

"I think it's all the same," said P.Z. Neilsen. "It's all about peace and sharing."

"And being together," interjected Elise.

"That's right. It's all about being together," her mother said.

©Copyright 2002, DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE (MN, USA)

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