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Coming from struggle, Somali student wants to ‘change someone’s life’

Volunteers to help other refugees


A Northern High School graduate born in war-torn Somalia plans to leverage the opportunities he has been given in this country to help children and families adjust to the U.S. and its culture.

Abdi Ahmed lived mostly in Ethiopia, and then Kenya, before coming to the U.S. at age 14 in the summer of 2014, with four of his siblings. His mother and one sister still live there.

He and his siblings were placed with a host family in the Forest Hills district. They spoke virtually no English.

This story is part of Grads with Grit, a series about students who have had to overcome unusual challenges and hardships to graduate this spring.

“Adapting to the new country was not easy at all, school-wise, socially, even communicating with the foster family,” Abdi said. “America is way, way different than all the other countries we had lived in in Eastern Africa.”

Abdi is the second-oldest child and the oldest son. He felt a great responsibility for his siblings, he said, but acknowledges he was still a child when they arrived.

“We were all kids when we came here,” he said. “Kids want to do kid things, they want to have fun, and to do that you need to grow up with other kids. For us to jump in in the middle was hard. Even if kids wanted to play with us, we sometimes didn’t know how to play what they were playing, or what to say. We didn’t know toy names or superhero names. In the beginning it was just gestures.

“We were all determined to fit in and adapt, learn and grow. It was lonely, yeah, but we did have each other.”

They also got a lot of support from their host parents, he said, who introduced them to the Refugee Education Center, which helps students and families adjust to life in West Michigan.

“It was kind of nice to see other kids like us, in the same situation as us.”

Abdi competing at a fall 2017 cross country meet. Photo: Molly Mullett, Northern High yearbook staff

Desire and Hard Work

Sue VanderVeen, his ELL teacher, said Abdi studied hard, often coming for extra help, and challenging himself with word lists and books outside of class. His determination carried over to cross country, where he has become one of Northern’s top runners.

“He has always challenged himself, and has overcome huge obstacles to do this,” VanderVeen added. “His desire to learn and his hard work ethic have brought him to where he is today, and will continue to in his future.”

One of the motivators clearly is keeping his family in the forefront. He communicates near daily via social media with his mother and sister, who are still in a Kenyan refugee camp. He also keeps in touch regularly with his other siblings, who have resettled in Minnesota.

And Abdi continues to make an impact on the refugees who have come after him. He has volunteered at the Refugee Education Center, helping to teach newcomers about American culture, and also at Bethany Christian Services as a tutor and helping Somali children with their English skills.

‘I feel like I’m in this world for a purpose, and I’m not going to live forever, so I need to make a mark.’ — Abdi Ahmed, senior

He said he especially has enjoyed helping Somali families new to the U.S. make the transition to living in American households and shopping in American stores.

“I have a good heart for people, but also I have been through what they have been through, and I know it’s not easy unless someone is there for you.”

Aims to Help Others

Despite his grit, Abdi has found opportunities in his new home to allow himself to explore a lighter side.

“I still do a lot of childish stuff,” he said with a grin and a few typically teenage examples. “But when it comes to values, to what I want to do in life, I do take that seriously.”

Abdi will attend James Madison College at Michigan State University in the fall, where he was awarded a scholarship in track and cross country.  His plan is to study international relations and human development. He said he can envision himself working for either Save the Children, the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) or IOM (International Organization for Migration), or a similar agency.

“My whole focus is helping not only refugee people, but people in general,” he said. “Homeless people: there are so many kids in America who don’t have homes, and they’re not refugees. Seeing about all those things is very important.

“I feel like I’m in this world for a purpose, and I’m not going to live forever, so I need to make a mark. I want to be proud that I once changed someone’s life. That’s what makes me happy.”

At Northern High, Abdi currently is the only Somali student. But he is quick to point out that the school is a melting pot of cultures, and said he is impressed that his peers have been so curious to learn about other countries.

Speaking of melting: “You know, people in Minnesota say Michigan is colder than there? I say no. When I visited for Christmas, the whole week I was there it was negative, negative, negative. I tried to run in negative 16 degrees and a wind chill; that was not fun at all.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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