It has been a tough few weeks on immigrants and Muslims, both locally and across the country. There have been threats, assaults and graffiti demanding certain groups get out of the country.
In Minnesota, one Muslim group even called on schools to watch out for violence against students after a child in Lakeland was reportedly threatened. In another incident, someone assaulted a Somali man for speaking his native language on the bus.
The day before the election, Donald Trump even made a quick stop at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, where he broadly criticized our Somali immigrants in a speech: “Everybody’s reading about this disaster taking place in Minnesota,” Trump said. “You don’t even have the right to talk about it. You don’t even know who is coming in. You’ll find out.”
It might be a good time to introduce you to Ahmed M. Ahmed, a graduate of Rochester John Marshall High School, currently a senior at Cornell University, who was last week chosen as one of 32 U.S. Rhodes scholars. Ahmed will receive a scholarship, worth up to $250,000, to attend graduate school at Oxford University in England next year.
Ahmed was eager to tell his story, which is a very American story and a very Minnesota story.
“With all the messages we are getting about immigrants and Somalis, it’s important to show the good stories coming out of my community,” Ahmed said during a phone call from Cornell.
Ahmed was born in a refugee camp in Kenya and came to the U.S. with his parents and seven siblings when he was a year old. He lived in a ghetto in Riverdale, Md., filled with drug dealers and crime.
“It was a very poor neighborhood,” he said. “It was the norm to drop out of school. You never saw people become doctors or teachers or professionals.”
His parents both worked two jobs to make ends meet, and they kept Ahmed and his seven siblings off the streets and in their apartment.
His parents divorced, and Ahmed’s mother moved the family to Rochester. “Living in Minnesota was more challenging for me, it was far different having a single mom.”
Ahmed said his mother worked a day job, picked up her kids from school, then worked the night shift for Manpower, a temporary agency.
Ahmed said he was a decent student, but didn’t take his education seriously. Then when Ahmed was in the seventh grade, his father died of disease during a trip to Kenya.
“That’s where my life really turned around,” Ahmed said. “I realized that life could come and go like that.”
With pressure and encouragement from his older sisters, Ahmed focused on his studies. He would often arrive at 5:30 a.m. for school to study for his calculus exams with teacher Jacob Johnson.
“It was very obvious to anyone that Ahmed was a special young scholar,” said Johnson. “He would arrive early for study sessions and leave late. His perseverance in the face of difficult situations always drove him to improve. He always wanted to grow and learn, not for a grade, but for what the learning meant to him. He was an absolute joy to teach.”
Ahmed also kept busy with extracurricular activities. He was on the student council, ran track and was a member of the National Honor Society.
At Cornell, Ahmed is majoring in biology but also works in research in organic and polymer chemistry. He eventually wants to get a medical degree and split his time between research and working with patients, applying what he’s learned in the laboratory to the real world. His father’s death from disease in Kenya has inspired him to work against wide disparities in the quality of care both here and abroad.
Ahmed said he keeps a rigorous schedule. Besides his studies and work, he mentors African-American students and has helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity.
Ahmed said he could never have become a Rhodes scholar without the support of Rochester teachers and Cornell professors who “filled that father role that I didn’t have for a long time.”
Ahmed is also grateful that the city of Rochester always accepted him. “There was never this kind of [immigrant] hatred in Rochester,” said Ahmed. “I think there was a kind of glass ceiling put over minorities though. You weren’t expected to accomplish much beyond high school.”
Ahmed, however, has proved to everyone how much a refugee with a single mom can do, much to the delight of his friends and family.
“It’s finally hitting them how cool this is,” Ahmed said.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin