In his book, “Optimism in the Face of Death”, Ahmed Egag says that what impressed him when he came to the United States from Somalia at age 18 wasn’t the cars, the infrastructure or the big buildings. “I was more into the fat people,” he recalled. “I thought they were wealthy. I thought, ‘I want to get rich and eat too much and be like that’.”

Egag had lived on his own in refugee camps beginning at the age of 14, when the civil war broke out. Separated from his parents, he came to the U.S. with relatives he had found in the camps, settling in Washington, D.C. Egag passed the GED a year later. He wanted to continue his education, so he came to Minnesota because a friend told him, “This is a perfect place. You can earn $10 an hour, and there are lots of schools.”

Egag worked full time while going to school full time. After getting an Associate Degree in electronics, he worked in maintenance for five years. Then he went to Dunwoody College to get another Associate Degree — this time in electrical construction and maintenance. “Now I can program computers, build control panels, and I have the skills to wire high voltage,” he said.

He graduated in 2009. “You remember how bleak it was,” he said. “Especially for an electrician — factories weren’t hiring, houses weren’t building. I sent a lot of résumés, got nothing. I thought, ‘I’m going to do this different.’ I made a number of résumés and started going everyplace, knocking on doors. They were looking at me like I was crazy.” When he finally got an interview, he told the manager, “I’m not going to tell you I can solve all your problems, but I understand equipment and I can fix machines. Just give me a chance.” A week later, the company called and offered him two days’ work. “The first day, a machine broke. I said, ‘I think I can take care of this.’ That week I worked six days.” At the end of the week, they offered him a full-time job as a maintenance manager.

For the past year, he’s been a Senior Electrician at W.A. Gedney in Chaska. “I’m making good money for a refugee,” he said. “I used to go three days without food.”

What do you like about your work?

When I see a machine that’s down, I understand the financial ramifications to that company. It gives me the opportunity to come in, fix the machine, make everyone happy. If the line is down, there are 10 people sitting around. Seeing people get back to work, it’s priceless.

What have been the biggest challenges?

When I got into the field, especially in maintenance and technical, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me. You’re an outsider, and they want to know how much you know. I felt discrimination a little bit, but I thought, “This is my first job, and as long as my supervisor doesn’t physically hurt me, I’m going to follow him and learn everything he can teach me.”

What advice would you give to other people?

If you already have an education, fine, but if you don’t, go to any kind of college and get some skills. I think Dunwoody is a great school. Karen Schmitt taught me most of the things that I use every day. Just knowing her gives me extra strength. Always do things right, even if nobody’s watching. □