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From Childhood Terrors to Lofty Dreams

Former Refugee Student Wins State Honor

For weeks on end, she chose to hold her tongue, and at one point, an instructor finally asked her why.

With absolutely no malice, she gently replied that perhaps her classmates chose their words too carelessly. That maybe some talked too much, without forethought, with little regard of meaning, of impact.

“Where I come from,” Binti Abdi would later explain, “when someone speaks, you listen.”

Well. Finally, it was Binti’s turn to speak,pressed into making a presentation for her Criminal Justice class at Kent Career Tech Center. Each student was assigned the task of explaining which branch of the military they found most appealing.

Binti chose the civil affairs unit, charged largely with working in conjunction with the United Nations toward global peacekeeping efforts.

“Because,” she explained, “this is the unit that saved my family.”

And then she went on to stun her classmates with a story none of them – nor her instructors – saw coming.

For the story she unveiled, and the manner in which she conveyed it, this quiet young woman will step up May 11 to receive one of the highest honors bestowed annually by the State of Michigan’s Department of Education — the “Breaking Traditions Excellence Award.”

Many thanks to Grand Rapids Community College for sponsoring “Reading & Writing with Rademacher”

The award, given to dignify her accomplishments in a nontraditional career and technical education program, is presented to no more than two high school students yearly, one male and one female.

And as far as awards go, Tech Center Principal John Kraus observes, “Not every student gets recognized like they should, but this speaks especially well of Binti, her family and our center. She came to us as great clay, and we’re grateful we’ve been able to help mold her into someone who already is impacting the greater world beyond.”

A Tale of Trauma
Indeed. If the rest of the world would stop long enough to absorb Binti’s chilling story of trauma, survival and recovery, veritable millions of us might stop sweating the small stuff, and focus instead on people and things that truly matter.

Consider, for instance, that although Binti presently lives on a quiet, tree-lined street on the North End of Grand Rapids, her early life was marked by fear of everything from being hacked to death by a machete to being eaten by wild animals.

She grew up in Kenya, one of eight children born to father Abdikadir and mother Adey. And from the time she was born in 2000 until the family finally escaped their homeland in 2008, it was a life of hardship and too many episodes of terror.

Their horrific odyssey was tied to long-standing conflicts between Kenya and its neighboring country, Somalia. Over the last century, their relationship has been affected by everything from petty skirmishes to full-blown massacres, resulting in the displacement of thousands.

Staying alive even during peaceful times was a chore. The nearest water source was more than eight miles away from the tiny village of Masai, which housed Binti’s family and fewer than 200 members of the Wazigua people.

“You would carry a bucket, but it was always an adult, and not the younger people because we were always afraid of wild animals,” Binti recalls. “Or there would be a person that would kill you.”

Toys? Yes. A game they played in the dirt with rocks. Video games? Hardly. Where would one charge it up, as there was no electricity. No indoor plumbing, either. “We would just walk away from the hut and dig a big hole.”

She owned exactly three changes of clothes. And for shoes, they would fashion crude covering from soda bottles, lashed with twigs.

Which begs the question, How do you feel surrounded by peers who complain about their personal effects, who crave a better mobile phone, whine about needing more cash?

She smiles faintly. “I understand where they’re coming from. And I am proud of where I came from. But I am OK to be humbled a bit.”

She draws a little breath. “I am just happy to have food. I will eat anything that is put in front of me.” A little laugh: “As long as it’s not meat.”

Holding Classmates Spellbound

This is the story she shared with her teachers and classmates, in what was supposed to be a presentation of a few minutes’ time, but extended far into the class period.

Instructor Gregg Isenhoff remembers the moment with extreme clarity: “She starts talking about the genocide of her people. And literally, I stop her presentation, and every student is looking at her.

“I’d known she was active in ROTC at her home school (Union High), and that she was interested in the civil affairs unit. But suddenly, you can hear this pin drop. And in the next moment, every student is raising their hands with questions: Did you have a refrigerator (‘No’), did you have a bed (‘We slept on the bare ground’), stuff like that. And now, it’s become a multi-cultural lesson on diversity. And her five-minute talk is now going on 20, 25 minutes.”

Isenhoff was so impressed – and spellbound himself — he asked Binti to recast her story and tell it to all 147 students enrolled in Criminal Justice there. Subsequent to that, Isenhoff helped Binti write an application for the state of Michigan award, and it ran to some two dozen pages.

In that essay, Binti described how “My brother, my cousin and others in my family were killed in front of me, fighting for freedom. My family stayed in constant motion, running for our lives.”

Isenhoff emphasizes that the ripple effect of Binti’s story is something for both students and teachers to savor.

“Every now and then, a student will make an impact on your life,” he says. “Hearing Binti’s story was important for me to recognize how I should be appreciating my own life.”

Even after telling her story, Binti continues to lead by example, often times without even realizing it.

Earlier this year, for another assignment, Binti was scheduled to give remarks for a “SkillsUSA” competition, being held in downtown Grand Rapids at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. The organization is a partnership of students, teachers and industry focused on maintaining a skilled workforce.

As things were winding down, Binti was spotted walking away from the hotel with a briefcase in hand. Someone wondered if her ride was nearby.

“Oh, no,” she replied, “I walked here” — a distance of some two miles.

“That alone,” says Isenhoff, “demonstrates that Binti has what it takes to achieve whatever she wants to achieve in life. When some of the other students heard this story, they realized some of their own inadequacies, that they’re not pushing themselves enough to succeed in their own lives.

“That captured the attention of other students, who realized that perhaps they weren’t working as hard as they should for the things they want the most.”

Setting Her Sights High

Binti – who attends Union during most the school day but attends the Tech Center from 6:45 a.m. until 9:10 a.m. – exults in the Criminal Justice program, especially since she has a deep respect for American officers.

That counters her opinion of law enforcement officers she and her family encountered in Africa, who can be corrupt, depending on varying circumstances from country to country.

“When I came here and started hearing about police actually helping people, I thought ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ so I decided to apply,” Binti says. “I just love the fact that law enforcement here is for the people. I look up to them to a high degree.”

She has her sights set a bit higher, though, given her experience spent in a refugee camp in Somalia, which was a precursor to arriving in the States.

When she is asked about a dream career, the young woman who chooses her words carefully does not miss a beat: “I would like to be Prime Minister of Somalia.”

Who’sto doubt her?

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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary.


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