Fleeing from Civil War in Africa, Family Finds Peace and Caring Community in Cedar Springs

In war-ravaged Somalia, Max and Maryan’s children did not go out to play. Quite the opposite: They told their young ones to stay inside, where it was safe.

“I just held that mentality in my mind, to not go outside, because something bad is happening,” recalled Ciise, one of their twin, eldest sons. “Sometimes you wake up hearing gun shots, rather than an alarm.”

Somalia at a Glance

Population: 10.4 million, 63 percent under age 25

Life expectancy: 51, 218th lowest among 224 countries

Infant mortality rate: 100 per 1,000 live births, 3rd highest in world

Government: collapsed in 1991, factions now in process of forming a federal paramilitary republic

Economy: informal, based largely on agriculture and livestock; government lacks ability to collect domestic revenue

Source: CIA World Factbook

How different life is now, in Cedar Springs, for Max, Maryan and their six children. Since coming here as refugees five years ago, the parents have found warm welcome in this small rural community. Their children have excelled in school, and are no longer afraid to go outside and play.

“It’s peaceful, it’s quiet. I like that,” said Abdulahi, a junior at Cedar Springs High School. “Not a lot of trouble. You can leave your bike out and nobody’s going to take it.”

He and his siblings have learned English, gotten excellent grades and had virtually perfect attendance with the help of principals, teachers and the community. The children have achieved much, from college and the military to becoming Teen Bible Challenge champions.

Now, with another school year coming to a close, a new blessing has come to Max and Maryan’s family: a home of their own.

They recently were approved to build a new house sponsored by the Inner City Christian Federation, an affordable-housing nonprofit. In a meeting with ICCF officials, where they thought they would just go over their application, the couple were stunned to learn they already had been approved to build on a vacant lot in Cedar Springs.

“We say, ‘Thank you, God,’” beamed Max, sitting in the kitchen of their small apartment. “He brought us here. We are thankful, we are thankful.”

♥Perfect Attendance, Hard Work

The family’s journey from Somalia, a land riven by violence, poverty and lawlessness, to a sleepy town in West Michigan is one of determination and faith. Educators in Cedar Springs Public Schools played no small part.

Maxamed Ceymoy and Maryan Jibriil, whose different last names follow Somali custom, came to Cedar Springs in June 2010, drawn by the availability of subsidized housing. Here they found jobs, a church that supported them and a school system that nurtured their children: the twins Ciise and Jibriil, now graduated from high school; Cabdul, who attends Grand Valley State University; Abdulahi, a junior; Mumina, a freshman; and Abdul, an eighth-grader.

The children knew very little English when they arrived. But with full inclusion in classes, and plenty of one-on-one help after school, they learned the language and then some.

Deb Marquez, an English-language learner paraprofessional, began working with the children right away, accompanying them and their dad to school open houses. Besides teaching them English, she took them on social outings such as Lake Michigan, ArtPrize and the movies. To her knowledge, they are the first family of African refugees in Cedar Springs, creating a “special learning opportunity for the whole community to rally behind.”

“I absolutely love this family,” Marquez said. “The children are all kind, hard-working and honest. They also respect their teachers and realize what opportunities come with a good education.”

Middle School Principal Sue Spahr teamed with tutors to help teach comprehension and vocabulary. To illustrate the word “barricade,” she had some of them get under a table surrounded by chairs.

‘We are blessed. The Lord led us to Cedar Springs.’Maxamed Ceymoy

The children learned well, and their grades showed it. Spahr attributes their study habits and near-perfect attendance to their parents’ expectations.

“They do not miss school,” Spahr said. “They came prepared to learn, and prepared to give and get respect. They are just absolutely wonderful children.”  

They are typified by Mumina, a cheerful straight-A student who has never missed a day of school here. She wants to become a teacher.

“People helped me become successful,” she explained, smiling broadly. “I want to do that someday.”

Abdul and Mumina have won many trophies in Teen Bible Challenge competitionsFleeing from Chaos   

Mumina’s enthusiasm for school doesn’t fall far from the tree. Her father sums up his belief in education poetically: “When you become educated, you read. When you read, you know. When you know, you act.”

Education was a powerful motivator in the family’s flight from Somalia, where the children were home-schooled because schools were unsafe. Increasingly, so was their home, after the government’s 1991 collapse gave rise to chaos and civil war. Militias took their money and possessions, threatening to rape his wife and kill his children if they didn’t cooperate, said Max, who owned a car dealership there.

“You couldn’t trust anybody,” he recalled. “They took all of our property in front of our eyes.”

Blocked from leaving by militia-controlled airports, Max said, he deeded his last piece of property to a ship’s captain in exchange for their escape. They hid below deck in a ship transporting livestock, where “the stink was impossible to withstand,” according to a family memoir. Max said he thought they were going to Italy, but they landed in Turkey instead.

There, life improved and they sent the children to school for the first time. “(O)ur kids’ education became a priority to us, and with that, we slowly gained our lives back,” their memoir states.

But tragedy struck when their oldest daughter, Fatima, died of an intestinal disorder, a loss that still makes Maryan weep. Max’s health also deteriorated with diabetes, a bleeding foot and eye problems. Turkey was far better than Somalia, but it was not home. They began looking toward America.

They came prepared to learn, and prepared to give and get respect.’Sue Spahr, middle school principal

Finally, with the help of the U.S. Embassy, the UnitedNations High Commission for Refugees and a financial benefactor, they were accepted for passage to the United States as refugees. It fulfilled a dream Maryan first shared with Max on their wedding day.

Her eyes sparkled as she recalled their plane landing in Miami: “I said ‘Max, the dream came! I told you the day we married, one day we would be in America!’“

School, Community Gather Around Newcomers

After a year in Lansing, they came to Cedar Springs five years ago. They found a community and school system that embraced them, confirming their conviction their journey was divinely planned.

“We are blessed,” Max said expansively, sitting in Spahr’s middle-school office. “The Lord led us from our community to Cedar Springs. It was an amazing journey.”

The community met their needs in many ways. From residents’ donations and North Kent Community Services they received furniture, dishes and clothing. Athletic Director Autumn Mattson drummed up contributions for a used van. A dentist donated braces to Mumina. Ciise was given a scholarship to a church camp.

Unlike Somalia, where no one could be trusted, in Cedar Springs they seemed to have countless friends. But then, many were happy to help such respectful children, who themselves went on to volunteer for community and school.  

“I love this place,” said Abdulahi, the tall and friendly 11th-grader. “People are nice to you. I’m thankful.”

With his muscular frame, he played football for one year but dropped it to concentrate on his studies. He plans to attend Grand Valley State University for mechanical engineering. “I love learning new things,” he said. “Every day I go to school, I learn something new.”  

Like his siblings, Abdulahi speaks eloquent English, even though Somali and Turkish were his first languages. Also like them, he has been active in Bella Vista Church, which Max and Maryan joined at the invitation of a neighbor. A shelf full of trophies attests to the children’s success in Teen Bible Challenges.

Although the family came here as Muslims, Max said they have found joy in the Christian Gospel. He frequently cites biblical quotes when giving thanks for Cedar Springs.

“People ask me, why do you stay in that small town?” Max said with a smile. “I say ‘Romans 14:19: Let us do all we can to live in peace, and let us work hard to build each other up.’”

Maryan and Max thank God and the community for their new home from the Inner City Christian Federation Early to Bed, Eager to Learn

For their success in school, the children credit their parents’ strict rules, and their teachers’ and tutors’ dedication.

Abdul, the eighth-grader, goes to bed by 7 p.m. most days. He’s up by a little after 6 a.m., ready to learn for another day.

“I like the teachers, because they push you to be better,” Abdul said confidently. With enough practice, he added, “Nothing’s really difficult” – although he admitted, “Let’s say I have trouble in world history.” He wants to be a veterinarian.

Cabdul just finished his first year at GVSU, studying electrical engineering. Since coming here as a freshman, he said, he got the individual help he needed.

“Everyone’s lovely here,” said Cabdul, who has a summer landscaping job to help pay for college. “The teachers have more time to connect with you.”

Ciise, having finished two years at Grand Rapids Community College, is headed to the Army, joining his twin brother Jibriil in the military. Ciise hopes to finish college in the service and earn a surgical-technician certificate to work in an emergency room.

He spoke warmly of the family’s reception by the community and of the friends he’s made. After all they have been through, he marvels at where they are now.

“When I was a kid, I never thought I would be driving a car to school, just by myself, safely – wow,” Ciise said. “I feel extremely happy that I live in this town, and I’m proud I’m going to be serving this country.”

New Home a Godsend

As for Max and Maryan, they eagerly look forward to building their new home. It will be on Cedar Street, within walking distance of the schools. The four-bedroom colonial will suit their needs far better than their two-bedroom apartment behind a karate studio on North Main.

I love this place. People are nice to you.’ – Abdulahi, high school junior

They obtained the Inner City Christian Federation house with assistance from Spahr, and by taking home ownership classes and meeting credit score requirements. Grants helped them afford the down payment and closing costs, but they will use Maryan’s job at Meijer and other family income to pay the mortgage of about $107,000. Max is taking classes in criminal justice at GRCC.

First, they must help renovate a nearby ICCF home before investing sweat equity into theirs. Spahr is looking for community, school and church members to help the family donate a total of 1,000 volunteer hours to the project. Anyone interested can contact her at sue.spahr@csredhawks.org.

Max and Maryan are grateful to her, Marquez and everyone else who has helped them start life anew in small-town America. “God is good,” Maryan said, more than once.

Mumina’s smile shone as she recalled hearing the news from ICCF. “I was, like, screaming – real happy,” she said.

“I’ve never had my own house,” Abdul said. “Our own house,” Mumina corrected him.

CONNECT

CIA World Factbook profile of Somalia

Inner City Christian Federation

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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