Growing up in Somalia, my family always opened its doors to people who needed help. If we had food to share, we shared it. If we had an extra room, we offered it. We were like a social service program of our own.
In addition to helping our community, education was always the top priority in my home. My father, who was a farmer, saved up money to send me and my siblings to a school run by Mennonite missionaries. There I learned to speak and read books in English.
My education led me to many opportunities, including going to University. Eventually I got a job with the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia. This was a very a good job and I learned a lot being there.
At the conclusion of the Cold War, a rapidly changing world led to disintegration of the government in Somalia. The situation gave rise to a battle for control by warlord factions, and then a civil war.
My Country Manager at the U.S. Embassy told me that Somalia was rapidly destabilizing. He recommended that we all make our preparations to leave the country. Educated, professional people were being targeted and killed. I knew I would eventually end up on someone’s list.
I went home and told my wife we needed to leave Somalia. She was hesitant to agree. Then, that week a stray bullet came through the wall in my home where I was eating lunch with my children. We left immediately.
We made it to Kenya, where we spent three years in a refugee camp. The conditions were very difficult. I had $25 in my pocket when my wife and six children got our passports to fly to the U.S. It was exciting, but very scary.
We first lived in Cleveland, Ohio, where I took on my first job. It was for $5/hr working on an assembly line. I had to take three buses to get to work. And I saw snow for the first time.
We soon relocated to Minneapolis, after my sister convinced me that there were better opportunities for us here. We settled in the Cedar-Riverside community, where I still make my home today.
Twenty years ago, I walked into the Brian Coyle Center employment office because I heard they could help me get my resume copied. There I met a man named Chuck Risser, who managed the program. He asked me – with my background and language skills – why was I applying for manufacturing positions? He invited me back for a meeting the next day and three days later he offered me a job. The rest is history I guess!
I’ve worked for EMERGE for 20 years, and presently am Director of the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center. Sometimes people ask me why I have worked here so long. I ask them, “Where else would I go? EMERGE is my family.” For me, EMERGE holds the same values as the ones I grew up with: helping your neighbors succeed, encouraging all people to value education, and doing whatever I can to help others realize their potential.