Nearly 12 years ago, Hamdia Ahmed boarded a plane bound for America.
She had spent nearly all her young life in the Dadaab in Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp, along with hundreds of thousands of other Somalis fleeing civil war. And she had no knowledge of the country she would be calling home.
Now the 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Southern Maine is finding her voice advocating for Portland’s Muslim and immigrant community, which is on edge since Donald Trump was elected president using anti-immigrant rhetoric and vowing “America first” policies, such as tightening the borders.
Ahmed recently organized a rally in support of Maine’s Muslim and immigrant communities. A lively – and peaceful – crowd of roughly 1,500 congregated near the steps of Portland City Hall.
The predominantly white audience held signs, cheered and chanted enthusiastic opposition to Trump’s executive orders on immigration, including one later struck down in federal court that sought to suspend refugee resettlement for 120 days and temporarily ban entry of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, including Ahmed’s native Somalia.
This week, Ahmed will travel to New York City, where she will speak at the United Nations headquarters on behalf of an international program trying to increase funding for school programs in refugee camps, like the school where Ahmed said she found happiness as a child in Dadaab.
It’s a remarkable rise for the kind and motivated young woman studying political science at USM. She plans to attend law school and hopes get a job at the United Nations, or some other humanitarian organization.
Better yet, Ahmed may want to become an ambassador.
“I’ve always known I wanted to help people – since I was a little girl,” Ahmed said in an interview at USM’s multicultural center. “Now that I am an American citizen, I’m able to follow my dreams and give back to those who are less fortunate, in developing countries and here in the U.S.”
Ahmed was born in 1997 as a brutal civil war raged in Somalia.
When she was a baby, her parents decided it was too dangerous to stay in their home village of Bardera. They gathered up their five children, left all of their possessions behind and set off on foot for the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.
Ahmed was too young to remember the journey, but she’s told the roughly 370-mile trek took a long time.
“My whole family is very strong,” she said. “They have been through a lot.”
The Dadaab camp was originally established in 1991 for an estimated 90,000 people. Now roughly 300,000 refugees call it home, some for more than a decade. Somali refugees make up 95 percent of the camp’s population, according to the international humanitarian organization CARE.
Ahmed said her family spent seven years at the camp, living in a mud-wall house built by her mother and other refugees. They would get rations of food from the U.N., including vegetable oil and nutrient-enriched flour.
But she said tribal tensions penetrated the camp, making life tense. One of her primary means of coping was going to school – a place where children could escape, get a meal and simply be kids.
“We looked forward to school, because it made us all happy,” she said.
The family finally left the camp and immigrated to the United States in 2005.
Ahmed and her family are now U.S. citizens. She is the first in her family to attend college. Her 62-year-old father works as a dishwasher at a local hotel, while also taking English classes through adult education. Ahmed said her dad and two sisters are looking to earn their GEDs. The family lives in Portland, except for an older brother who lives and works in Minnesota.
Since those early years in the refugee camp, Ahmed knew that she wanted her life’s work to be helping other people. Now she has been given a rare platform to do exactly that.
On Thursday, she will speak at the United Nations in New York City on behalf of Adopt A Future, a new program by the United Nations Association of the United States of America and the U.N. Refugee Agency to provide additional resources to educate children in refugee camps. The following day, she will participate in a panel discussion, she said.
Ahmed said she feels a personal connection to the program, which was launched in the Dadaab camp after she left. She plans on speaking for about 20 minutes about her own refugee experience. She wants to avoid having a “lost generation” of Somali youth, who are raised in the camp with inadequate education.
“I know what it’s like to see traumatic things and I want them to be able to get a sense of normalcy,” she said. “School is a place where they can feel normal, build a community and hang out with their friends and laugh.”
Jo Freedman has known Ahmed for a decade. The behavioral health professional saw the young refugee’s trauma and sought to heal it with love, trust and support.
Three years ago, she became the girl’s mentor, encouraging her to share her story.
“The reflection of her spirit has always been clear to me,” Freedman said. “She is purposeful, amazing, kind and a leader. Her story is about strength and the power of hope.”
Mahmoud Hassan, an interpreter and community liaison for Portland public schools, has known Ahmed since she was in the seventh or eighth grade. He said Ahmed has always been passionate, opinionated and determined. And he was impressed by the young woman’s composure and control in front of a large crowd in her adopted home of Portland.
“I was very happy to see her mature to this young lady,” said Hassan, who is also the president of the Somali Community Center of Maine. “To see that confidence and poise, I was very much warmed about that.”
Olivia Orr, operations manager for the Portland-based Immigrant Advocacy Project, which provides free legal services to immigrants, got to know Ahmed in 2015 through the Martin Luther King Jr. Fellows, a group seeking to advance racial equity and social justice in the Portland area.
Orr was not surprised to learn Ahmed was behind the Portland rally. She was always eager to learn and educate others about systemic racism in U.S. culture.
“She was definitely a leader,” Orr said. “She was a seriously motivated student.”
Jeffrey Young said he had never met Ahmed until the rally. The civil rights attorney was one of a handful of speakers. He said he was struck by her ability to draw a crowd. After all, she lacked experience and didn’t rely on established organizations to do the work for her.
“She wound up bringing in some fresh faces,” said Young, who emphasized his Jewish roots at the pro-Muslim rally. “There was just a great youthful enthusiasm. It made me – in these dark days – have a ray of hope the younger generation is going to lead us to a higher plane.”
Those new faces included Mohamed Omar, a 16-year-old Casco Bay High School student, and Hawah Ahmed, a 24-year-old law student from USM, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants.
While HAMDIA Ahmed’s immediate family is now all in Maine, she still has extended family living in the Dadaab, including an elderly grandmother and uncle, among others. They have been waiting 10 years to be approved for visas to come to the U.S.
To get here, they face a difficult road.
Refugees must undergo a rigorous screening process before they enter the U.S. That process includes several background checks by multiple international agencies, several face-to-face interviews to determine the veracity of the refugee’s claims, fingerprinting, biometric testing, a national security threat assessment and health screening.
And now, they have to get by President Trump’s new policies and orders.
In preparation for the day her extended family arrives, Ahmed is doing what she can to ensure her adopted country remains a welcoming place – a task made more difficult under the new administration.
Since Trump’s campaign began over a year ago, Ahmed has been the target of an increase in hateful messages on social media and in person. People yell at her to go home. One person told her to take off her head scarf, warning that Trump was going to deport immigrants like her, she said.
Ahmed said her brother-in-law, a taxi driver, was punched in the face by someone who warned that this was now “Trump’s America.”
“People actually show their racism more because he encourages them to,” she said.
Ahmed said she organized the rally at Portland City Hall as a way to cope with – and ultimately resist – Trump’s executive orders on immigration.
She originally hoped that 100 to 200 people would show up. But her Facebook invite took off and over 1,000 people said they’d come, prompting her to reschedule the event and get a permit from the city.
That cold wintry day, Ahmed stood before a crowd of 1,500 waving signs in support of Muslims and immigrants and opposing Trump. She led the crowd with warm chants of “No hate. No fear. Immigrants are welcome here.”
She reminded everyone that the Constitution ensures freedom of religion and warned that any attack on any one group of people or religion was an attack on American values.
“It meant so much to me,” Ahmed said days later, reflecting on the rally. “It showed our community actually wants to come together and show solidarity with the Muslim community.”
If Ahmed could tell Trump one thing, she would tell him to put himself in a refugee’s shoes: forced from home by a bloody civil war; leaving everything behind; living years in a refugee camp, separated from family members with no guarantee of seeing them again; and then fearing for your safety in a country that promised to protect you.
“I want people to keep fighting against any kind of hate or injustice,” Ahmed said. “I want people to know I am an immigrant. I work hard every single day. And I want to make a change in the world.”
“(America) is the place that allows me to do it.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: