People in the packed Minneapolis mosque gasped when Abdikadir Mohamed Adan stepped before them. Hadn’t he died?
The longtime teacher, mathematician and fixture of the local Somali community had been hospitalized with complications of diabetes, and rumors of his death had been widespread. Now he stood before them — tearful, frail and blind, but resolved to make the most of whatever time and health he has left.
“God has taken away my eyes,” he proclaimed, “but he has not taken away my knowledge. I want to leave it behind for you.”
In the weeks since his dramatic reappearance in October, the man known as “Macalin Xiito” (Skinny Teacher) has thrown himself into tutoring children, adapting to his new life and inspiring the people around him.
“When I tell people that a blind man tutors my children math, they don’t believe me,” Hussein Ismail said. “This is a miracle.”
Xiito (pronounced HEE-toe) had just graduated from Lafoole College with a degree in physics and math when the civil war in Somalia broke out. He fled to Kenya and spent several years in the Utanga refugee camp before coming to the United States in 1996.
He came with dreams. He wanted to make money, earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. and help his fellow Somalis.
Soon after his arrival, he found a janitorial job at the Ramsey County Courthouse, then went on to work at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for two years.
But education was his passion. After a few years of helping students with homework at the nonprofit CommonBond, in 2009 Xiito founded the Somali Education Center, an after-school program in Burnsville, St. Paul and Minneapolis. He taught math, reading and science. He opened another after-school program in Minneapolis, the Xiito Academy. He made YouTube videos to showcase his lessons.
“We didn’t have a strong real academic background because of the refugee camps we came from,” said Abdirahman Mukhtar, a youth manager at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis, who sometimes turns to Xiito for advice. “He shows families that homework help and out-of-school programs exist.”
But the economic recession hit hard, and in 2012, Xiito shut down the learning centers, handed over Xiito Academy to colleagues and moved to San Diego, Calif.
By then, he had type 2 diabetes. He knew the dangers, having seen what the disease did to his father. Xiito recalls holding his blinded father on his lap as he took his last breath. He wasn’t yet 40 when he died.
Xiito told himself he would get serious about his diet and get control of his diabetes. Instead, he got wrapped up in teaching again. He founded another Xiito Academy in California, which ran for about a year. Then his diabetes could no longer be ignored.
He was hospitalized in California with failing kidneys and failing eyesight. After his release, he returned to his beloved Minnesota, weakened but still willing himself to teach.
“This is a tough life,” he says. “I want to continue to put my effort on the young ones.”
Teaching a new generation
The 43-year-old’s days are now consumed by three weekly trips to a dialysis center and five days at a center for the blind, where he’s learning the Braille alphabet, basic computer skills and techniques to help him live independently again. He also finds time to socialize with people at a coffee shop.
Four days a week, he can be found in the children’s section at the East Lake branch of the Hennepin County Library, where he tutors a group of students in math.
Wearing a thick black blindfold, gray winter gloves and scarf, Xiito begins to quiz his students. “Listen carefully,” he says. “This question was invented by Macalin Xiito,” he says smiling. “Thirty-six divided by 9?”
The children, beaming with excitement, scribble in their notebooks and recite the answers out loud. “Four!”
“Can you check my work, Macalin Xiito?” shouts fourth-grader Iman.
“I cannot check. I am blind,” says Xiito. His voice cracks a little.
Iman’s father, Hussein Ismail, sits on Xiito’s left side and taps his shoulder gently, a soothing cultural gesture of encouragement.
Ismail, who has newly arrived from Norway, enlisted Xiito to polish his children’s math after meeting him at a coffee shop. Ismail’s kids have spent five weeks with Xiito and have already shown confidence in memorizing the multiplication table.
“His teaching method is fantastic,” Ismail said.
Xiito’s lessons go beyond math. He tells his students that it’s OK to have a disability. He tells them that he, too, has a blind teacher and talks about the progress he is making at the blind school.
His persistence does not surprise Halima Ali. As a young girl she studied with Xiito, and now her 10-year-old daughter Mariya Galbeite is doing the same thing. “He was always a hard worker,” she said.
Ali said her daughter was nervous at first. She had never seen a blind man teach. “Now she’s so excited,” Ali said. “She tells me, ‘I can’t believe. I can’t believe.’ ”
By her second day Galbeite was not afraid to fist-bump Xiito and rejoice at his constant praise. “You are very good,” he told her. “You will succeed in math.”
With no wife and children to lean on, Xiito lives in a group home as he adjusts to his new life. He works out, helps his peers with English and math and sometimes spends time on his other passion, the environment. He says a three-day environmental course he took six years ago from Hamline University in St. Paul sparked his interest.
Recently, Xiito took on a project from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization to do community education for Twin Cities Somalis about the importance of clean water and protecting the land. His YouTube video titled “Ilaalinta Wabiyada” or “Protecting the Rivers” has already generated conversation in the community.
His part-time personal care attendant, Khalid Warsame, says that Xiito has given him a deeper appreciation of life.
“I have friends who he taught,” Warsame said. “It was a little bit of a shock to see the transition. He still does what he loves and that is math.”
The future is unclear. Xiito remains hopeful that, after four years of dialysis, he might still be in line for a kidney transplant. He doesn’t want to die so soon.
In addition to helping his community, Xiito says he has other plans. “I want to garden, build an animal shelter and publish my books,” he said.
At the library, Xiito wraps up the tutoring session. He swings his white cane side-to-side, falters and jolts a nearby desk. Somali parents come to his aid, but he puts them off.
This is his new reality, he tells them. It is a “lifetime test I have to pass.”