“Without this school, I wouldn’t have my driver’s license or be a U.S. citizen. Now I can read my mail and better teach and help my kids. Before coming here, I couldn’t write my own name.”
Born the son of a nomadic farmer in rural Somalia, Muktar spent his youth tending the goats and cows that provided his family’s livelihood. He never went to school, instead traveling with his father to areas with the best grazing land. The work was exhausting and repetitive, and Muktar dreamed of something different.
In his mid-20s, Muktar moved to Kismaayo, a city on the Indian Ocean that had “big buildings and beautiful sand.” Life was peaceful. There were plenty of good jobs, and the government was strong. He worked loading cargo ships at port, married, and looked to start a family. But his wife and newborn died during childbirth, the first of a series of hardships that Muktar would soon face.
While he was still in the midst of grieving, civil war broke out in Somalia. “There was no peace and no life. Leaving home was the only thing to do.” So in 1992, Muktar fled to Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. Today, Dadaab is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Originally designed to hold 90,000 people, over the years it has grown to almost five times the intended capacity.¹
Life in the camp was not much better. There were no income opportunities, and there was a scarcity of food and other basic necessities. For 10 long years, Muktar waited to hear of peace in Somalia. During this time, he married again and started having children. He says, “My biggest desire was to simply live as a normal human being.” When he learned that the United States was accepting refugees, he immediately applied – and waited four more years for any form of relief.
After 14 years in the camp, Muktar left Kenya on a plane to Arizona with his wife and by then seven children. They arrived at their new apartment in the middle of the night, exhausted, and immediately went to sleep. As they explored the next day, they realized there were no other Somali people. There was no one they could talk to. Even the clothing they saw people wearing was foreign. Muktar remembers panicking, thinking, “Are we safe? Is my life over?” A resettlement caseworker provided some help, but they mostly felt very much alone.
Muktar and his family quickly realized they needed support that they would not find in Arizona. They decided to move to Minneapolis to join Muktar’s sister-in-law. When they arrived, she and others in the Somali community shared resources to help ease the transition to the U.S. – resources like the English Learning Center.
School was a new experience for Muktar. He loved it. He explains, “When you are blind, do you see a door or a tree? That’s how I was when I came to school. I was blind with no education. Then after coming for a little while, slowly, one eye started to open and then the second.”
Since he began, Muktar has come a long way. He says, “Without this school, I wouldn’t have my driver’s license or be a U.S. citizen. Now I can read parts of my mail and better teach and help my kids. Before coming here, I couldn’t write my own name.” Beyond learning English, Muktar also enjoys learning about the different cultures of his classmates.
In the future, Muktar plans to earn an adult high school diploma, concluding, “This is what is in my heart. Also, who knows? Maybe some day I will be a teacher!”