As University of St. Thomas community members celebrated the school’s designation as an Ashoka Changemaker Campus, junior Mohamed Malim took up the microphone. Malim was asked to share his story, which started as a baby in war-torn Somalia and brought him to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya as a young boy, to Minnesota and, now, St. Thomas.
“Many of us living in America, the land of the free and home of the brave, have probably never experienced the challenges and trauma that stem from the disaster of a civil war,” he said. “We often find ourselves trying to understand but are not fully able to comprehend the refugee experience, but I have lived this life and I’m grateful for the lessons it has taught me as a Somali-American.”
Audience members listened as Malim described the memories his mother has relayed to him and his siblings as they’ve grown older: fleeing to Kenya, listening to the cries of babies who didn’t have enough to eat in the Dadaab camp, venturing out by herself at night to try to pull together enough food and water to get their family through another day.
“Nights of starvation, fear and hopelessness were the everlasting theme,” he said. “Basic necessities such as clean running water, food, medications, proper schooling and a future seemed so out of reach.”
When Malim was 4 years old, his family arrived in Minnesota, and he went on to attend an all-Somali charter school and then Edina High School. Throughout his early life, he saw the challenges his parents continued to negotiate as they worked hard to adapt to their new home, all the while stressing the importance of education as the pathway to a good life to their children.
“I’m now the first in my family to go to college. My little brother is a sophomore at North Dakota, majoring in air traffic control, and my little sister is going to Hamline next year,” Malim said. “[My mom] now has three children on their way to college, so she’s very happy, very proud.”
Stories like his family’s are the kinds Malim has known growing up. Because the political conversation in the United States recently has focused on a different depiction, Malim felt he had to act. Last year, Malim and fellow St. Thomas business student Amin Mahamoud began Dream Refugee, a nonprofit “whose mission is to begin to tackle today’s most relevant and troubling themes of exclusion, xenophobia and apathy by connecting refugees with disparate communities in unique ways.” They used advice from judges at the St. Thomas Opus College for Business Fowler Business Concept Challenge while creating Dream Refugee.
“We can change people’s minds from negative to the fact we are hardworking people; we are contributing to society,” Malim said. “We have the same common ground and are the same human beings who want to have a better life.”
Sharing stories and making connections
Their initial idea was to develop refugee-themed clothing to raise money. When Malim and Mahamoud began discussing the power of storytelling as a tool to help shift the narrative around refugees, that idea become the centerpiece for Dream Refugee. They seek out success stories that articulate positive examples of the many refugees in Minnesota.
“Storytelling is compelling. You can pull up a scholarly article and it doesn’t really capture the audience or change people’s minds unless they’ve really set out on changing their perspectives or belief,” Mahamoud said. “We all have similar story lines: I was born here, I faced these challenges, I don’t deserve to be categorized by the actions of a few. Those are universal, and storytelling is a great way of merging those two [refugee and nonrefugee] communities.”
Initial stories have centered on fellow Somali refugees, including a local business owner and a specialist in the U.S. Army. Malim and Mahamoud both said, as their efforts continue, they hope to include stories from many different refugee communities.
As they’ve explored ways of finding and sharing stories, Mahamoud said the experience has helped him flesh out his own family’s history: His mother immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia before he was born.
“Whenever I’ve asked my mom these questions in the past she has shied away, and I don’t want to bother her … but she came here when she’s 19 and now has four kids. How was your experience?” he said. “It has been fulfilling to fill in those things. … It was intriguing and fun to learn the tidbits of this story that has become her life, and my history, in America.”
Beyond storytelling, Dream Refugee is in the midst of launching a mentoring program to pair newer refugees with more established refugees who have similar professional or educational interests.
“Most refugees have a common ground of struggling. The tools are here in America to help but the guiding through it isn’t always there, so having a guide is huge,” Malim said.
As they continue to develop programming and find more stories to share, Malim said he is inspired by his own family’s experience and others he learns more about.
“I’m proud to be a refugee. I’m happy. Refugees are hardworking people; with our current president and everything he’s labeling, it’s sad and disappointing. But look at all the successful refugees contributing to society; it’s amazing. It’s a beautiful thing. Coming through this struggle and being successful? Wow,” he said. “It’s hard when people don’t understand each other. … But growing up in America is a great opportunity, a great privilege. It’s unfortunate that people are left behind and don’t have those same opportunities. I’m doing this for those people. I don’t want to waste my opportunity; there are other people who want this spot to come to America.”