8/19/2019
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Somali refugee and activist earns St. Cloud State degree this week


Friday May 10, 2019
By Nora G. Hertel


ST. CLOUD — Suud Olat's parents never dreamed their children would earn bachelor's degrees, he said Tuesday.

Olat's family left Somalia for the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya when Olat was about six months old.

They spent more than two decades there.

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On Friday Olat, 28, will receive his bachelor of arts degree from St. Cloud State University. He joins his older sister in the family's first generation of college graduates.

"We thank God and the American government that they're generous to open their arms and welcome refugees," Olat said. "You can see these kind of success stories."

Since Olat and his family came to the U.S., President Donald Trump's immigration and travel ban took effect, halting the flow of people from several Muslim-majority countries, including Somali nationals.

Olat left Kenya in 2012 and landed in Nashville, where he worked at a Dell Inc. warehouse, he said. He came to St. Cloud in 2015, because he heard other refugees had success here.

"I saw once I got to Minnesota that I have the potential to make a difference," Olat said. He advocates for peace in Somalia, global health and efforts to combat poverty.

His efforts to make a difference began in the refugee camp. Despite limited resources, Olat advocated there for girls' education, even though his own access to education was limited.

As a whole, life in Dadaab was "tough and rough," Olat said. Food was scarce.

"All kind of human aspects of life, everything was inadequate living in the refugee camp," he said.

He completed high school there and picked up training in journalism and film making by FilmAid, a group that taught Olat about cameras, social media and telling his story.


Suud Olat shares his experiences as a refugee during an interview Tuesday, May 7, at St. Cloud State University. Olat will graduate Friday with a degree in international relations.  (Photo: Dave Schwarz, [email protected])

Olat started his college education at the St. Cloud Technical and Community College and finished his degree in international relations this spring at St. Cloud State.

"He's very committed and very focused. I think he's a really good role model for overcoming a challenging situation," said Michelle Kukoleca Hammes, associate professor in political science and Olat's advisor.

Olat sought practical applications for his lessons, exploring how political science shed light on the situation in Somalia or on the refugee experience here, Kukoleca Hammes said. Olat showed her that he wants to use his education to help other people.

Through his advocacy work, Olat has met several U.S. and Somali leaders. Current Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, a dual U.S.-Somali citizen, even mentored Olat and encouraged him to pursue his education, Olat said.

Olat has joined the efforts of The ONE Campaign, co-founded by Bono of U2. As a ONE activist, Olat stood before thousands of people in Washington, D.C., at the Together 2016 Christian event and talked about being a refugee.

He is the 6th Congressional District leader with ONE, U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer's district. Olat coordinates letters and phone calls to Minnesota officials, attends town halls and visits with Emmer and Minnesota's U.S. senators.

"He's one of our very best activists in the Midwest," said ONE Regional Field Director Shawn Phetteplace for the Great Lakes Region.

Olat has a compelling personal story, and he uses it to motivate other people, Phetteplace said. And the fact that Olat has persevered through the challenges of his life is a "testament to his spirit."

"For him, being an organizer on these issues is not something he does," Phetteplace said. "It's who he is. It's really his life mission."

In February Olat went to Washington to meet with Emmer and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. He asked them to take steps against preventable diseases and support the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.

And in the last Congress Olat helped lobby for the READ Act, which passed. That policy seeks "to provide access to education for some of the 263 million children and adolescents who are currently not in school, or who do not have access to education because of conflict or political instability," according to the ONE website.

It's important to U.S. prosperity and security that the U.S. be a global leader, Olat said. America's influence comes from its involvement around the world, he said.

Plus, he said, if people have peace and education, international immigration is not such a problem.

"Each of us has a responsibility to use our voice to make a difference on the things that matter to us," Olat said. "I'm using my voice, trying to inspire others to make investments in the world's poorest countries.

After graduation, Olat will travel to Africa. He plans to visit his wife in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Somali president in Mogadisu.

And when he returns to Minnesota, he may run for office, he said. "I have the potential. I have the motivation. I have the talent."

Olat will continue his advocacy. And he's optimistic when he looks to the future.

"As a young man I have hope that we'll see solutions, durable solutions for ... diseases, refugees, racism," Olat said. "I see hope and believe together, regardless of who you are, regardless of where you come from, there's a world for all of us. And we can make the world a better place for us and the next generation."



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