Wednesday, July 15, 2013
by Ibrahim Hirsi
Hamza Ahmed works at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota as a contact for refugees settling in Central Minnesota. He is shown at the LSS office Tuesday. / Jason Wachter, [email protected]
As a child, Hamza Ahmed often dodged bullets and passed corpses on deserted streets as he walked to English classes in Mogadishu, the battered capital city of war-ravaged Somalia.
His routine visits to American men in uniforms at a military base camp near his hometown were inspired by the mere ambition to be able to speak well in English. Ahmed was just in his early teenage years when he tried to speak louder than the roaring tanks and helicopters to assure his conversations with the English natives remained undisturbed.
“We were sent to chat with the soldiers because they were the only English-speaking people in my neighborhood,” Ahmed said of the early stages of the American presence in Somali. “They were friendly, and it was fun to practice the little we knew on them.”
Flash forward about 20 years, and it’s easy to see how Ahmed’s interest in the English language prepared him. He recently came to St. Cloud to work at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota as a contact for refugees settling in Central Minnesota.
Ahmed experienced the agony of living in anarchy in Somalia, which has had no formal institutions, law enforcement or strong central government for more than two decades. Somalis have turned on themselves, killing, looting and kidnapping in the name of tribalism.
In the early 1990s, the ousting of former president Mohamed Siad Barre’s dictatorial regime by armed clan militias lead to a prolonged civil war and famine that left hundreds of thousands dead and uprooted thousands of residents, sending them to Somalia’s neighboring countries, Europe, Canada and the United States.
An estimated 350,000-1 million Somalis have died because of the conflict since 1991, according to a report by GlobalSecurity.org.
The United States and United Nations troops arrived in Mogadishu for a peacekeeping and humanitarian mission, “Operation Restore Hope,” from 1992-94.
“The humanitarian objectives of the interventions were clouded by the UN’s ambiguous goals and rules of engagement,” the report stated. “The UN’s role in ‘nation building’ became a rallying point for united Somali opposition. On 03 October 1993, US troops received significant causalities: 19 dead over 80 others wounded.” Thousands of Somali civilians were killed during the clashes.
Growing up in the midst of this turmoil, Ahmed pursued education and saw hope beyond the flaming city of Mogadishu.
“Life was tough.” he said. “But I always wanted to make the best of that situation.”
And he did.
Ahmed completed his primary and secondary education in Mogadishu schools, which were funded by humanitarian organizations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
After graduating at the top of his high school class in 2005, Ahmed received a scholarship to study information technology at the International Islamic University in Malaysia.
Coming from Somalia to study with academically prepared students from the United States, Canada, Turkey and other parts of the world presented a challenge for him, Ahmed said.
Through hard work, however, Ahmed earned his information technology degree in 2009.
Journey to the U.S.
Most immigrants come to live permanently in the United States through employment, a family member’s sponsorship or student visa. Others, like Ahmed, come to the country through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which many refer to as the Green Card Lottery.
When Ahmed first arrived in Malaysia, he encountered college students whose biggest dream was entering the United States.
They spoke a lot about the Green Card Lottery, a program that makes available 50,000 visas every year for people living in countries with low rates of immigration to come to the United States, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
His Turkish college roommate Bilghan Evren, who now lives in New Jersey, encouraged Ahmed to apply for the lottery.
“Bilghan won the lottery when I was a junior in college,” Ahmed said. “When I became a senior, he helped me apply for the lottery. I never thought I was going to win it to come here.”
But he did win.
In 2010, Ahmed arrived in Colorado, where his older brother lives.
Working in St. Cloud
Ahmed, 28, has recently moved to St. Cloud to work with new refugees — mostly Somalis — who have had similar life experiences.
Between 1999 and 2007, more than 34,000 immigrants settled in Minnesota, which houses the largest Somali population in the United States. Census estimates range from 29,000 to 36,000, though many Somali community members believe the number is larger.
As a senior refugee specialist at the local Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, Ahmed helps the new arrivals get on their feet: He assists them with housing and employment applications, facilitates orientations on American culture and helps refugee children enroll in schools that best suit them.
“The majority of the refugees are hard workers,” he said. “They want to get a good education and find jobs right away. They want to make it in this country, despite many obstacles blocking their way.”
Kim Dettmer, director of refugee services at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, described Ahmed as a man who enjoys using his time and energy for the betterment of others.
“He’s very dedicated to improving the lives of the refugees that he works with,” Dettmer said. “He’s very hardworking, thoughtful and levelheaded.”
Despite reports of alleged discrimination against Somalis in St. Cloud and cultural tensions in the area over the years, Ahmed said more and more new refugees are making St. Cloud home.
Lutheran Social Service has resettled hundreds of refugees directly into the St. Cloud community over the past four years, Dettmer said.
“St. Cloud continues to provide welcoming environment for refugees,” she said. “And refugees resettled in other states continue to move from those states to St. Cloud because of the great opportunities there.”
About 8,000 Somalis now live in the St. Cloud area, Ahmed estimated.
Ahmed expects to join other Somali-American students at St. Cloud State University to pursue a master’s degree in IT.
He hopes his story of survival and redemption will not only inspire those around him in St. Cloud, but also keep his younger siblings in Mogadishu hopeful and convinced they must never give up on dreaming.