Husain was a long-time learner and community leader at the English Learning Center. He started learning with us in 2007 and passed away recently from complications due to COVID-19 at the age of 88.
Husain was a gentle person and dedicated learner. He was a leader at our school – always setting the tone for his classmates, energetically participating, and actively listening. His warm and welcoming smile was a constant presence in our Level 3 classroom, as many of our veteran ELC staff, teachers, and students know well. Husain was a man of strong faith and determination. He was proud to still have been coming to school at his age and was as much a teacher in our community as he was a student.
In memory of Husain, we’d like to share an interview he did with ELC staff in 2019 for our organization’s annual report. Excerpts were used for that piece, but this is more of Husain’s story, which we tell so that his memory and spirit may live on.
What do you want others to know about your journey?
My name is Husain Elmi. I call Minneapolis my second home. Somalia will always be my first home. I immigrated here after the Civil War [in Somalia]. My wife and brother died during the war, it was a very tough time.
Before the war I left my hometown, Harardhere, at the age of 14 and went to Mogadishu. I was a small business owner. It was a small type of grocery store. We sold rice, sugar, oil, beans and clothes for children. I listened to my customers. Whatever they wanted, I would try to sell it. It was for them.
After that I tried looking for other work, because the business was not going as well as I wanted. I did construction and other things, but wasn’t successful at finding something that felt right. At the age of 18, I enrolled to be a policeman in Mogadishu.
I felt strong, healthy; I was young. The world was mine. I could do anything — I even used to do the high jump to practice training — almost 6 feet!
I trained for this role for 9 months. Six of us learned how to crank the electricity generator (back in that time, the policemen’s main responsibility was taking care of the energy if power was not available — the power was not always on, so people had to manually make it happen). I felt very responsible because we were in charge if anything bad happens (damage, disaster).
After a few years, a few newer team members framed me for a robbery once when I took a day off. I couldn’t trust them after that, and I felt things were changing. The war happened a few decades after that.
I came to the U.S. in April 2004. I started school in 2007. From 2004-2007, I helped my nephew run his small shop at the 24th street mall. My nephew told me one day, I have to do something. Better to go out and do something rather than just sit at home. I was already older at this point, but I liked working there and spending time with him. He wanted to be a Senator (he was a lawyer in Somalia). He wanted to go back when they rebuilt Somalia, and he did. Those who were well educated had to return to rebuild our home. Unfortunately, he was later killed in Somalia in 2010 as he was trying to rebuild the nation.
When I was working in the shop, students from this school would tell me about it. They encouraged me to walk down the street and go to school. It was only for adults, to learn. I had to go. I would often work at 24th Street mall in the shop, come to school, and then go back to work. It was a fun rhythm.
Why did you come to school?
Husain: The reason I came to school was to learn the language. I wanted to answer my community when they asked me questions. I wanted to talk to the doctor myself, go to the grocery store and feel calm about what I was saying.
I’ve had to wait for this learning experience to feel this good. I’ve started in the lowest class and now I feel very good about my reading/writing. Even when others taunted me for being so old and going to school, I kept trying. I am proud of that.
How has school changed things for you?
Today I feel confident, because anywhere I go, I can get what I need and not worry they are fooling me. [Now] I am free. I can go anywhere I want. No one can stop me. People ask me for directions and I can tell them.
What does change mean for you?
Change for me is good. Change for me meant safety, a simple life, peace. Here you can do anything you like. There [in Somalia] you can’t do anything you like. Life is harder there. Change means having opportunities.
In Africa people ask me for help all the time; my neighbors, my brothers, friends. If they were in trouble they asked me for help. Here [in Minnesota] you have opportunities. If you can work, you can work. That’s the difference between home and here.
What have you taught others here?
I’ve taught others that you can learn at my age. When I would tell my customers, “I need to leave and go to school,” they would respond, “You’re old now, what can you learn from school now?” I would tell them, “Instead of staying here with you and staying the same, I’ll go and I’ll learn one more word I didn’t know before today. That’s more than you can say.”
Instead of staying home or at the mall, I have a desire to come to school. I don’t want to just sit there. When I have an appointment, I want to miss the appointment, not my class at school. I always want to be here, always on time.
What would you say to someone on their first day at the ELC?
Welcome to our school. You are here now. You can go to school or you can go to work, but you must learn and you must do something now that you are here.
“You must learn and you must do something now that you are here.”