Casco Bay High School teacher Ekhlas Ahmed credits Ellen DeGeneres with helping her learn English. Now the former Sudanese refugee is thanking the TV star for a $22,000 check to pay off her student loan debt.
Ahmed, 24, wrote a letter to DeGeneres about a year ago telling the Hollywood comedian and actress about how she watched “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to learn English when she came to the United States with her family in 2005 to escape the genocide in Darfur.
Ahmed’s letter, and a recent follow-up note, made an impression on DeGeneres and earned the Portland resident a trip to the West Coast this week that included a surprise appearance on the show and the check to pay off her student loans.
“I am still crying,” Ahmed said during a telephone interview from California Thursday night. Ahmed had no idea that she would be invited to join DeGeneres on stage or that she would be presented with a check.
Ahmed said she had written the follow-up note to DeGeneres about three weeks ago. The note, which said, “I hope this brings a smile to your face,” was attached to a copy of a calendar that her students at Casco Bay High School designed. Called “Celebrating Africa,” the calendar was made to recognize the beauty of the continent.
Apparently the calendar did get someone’s attention because on Feb. 10 a staffer from the show contacted Ahmed and invited her to meet DeGeneres. The show paid to fly Ahmed to the West Coast on Tuesday, following Monday’s snowstorm.
Her appearance on the popular syndicated talk show was taped Wednesday, and did not air until Thursday. Ahmed was seated in the audience when the show began and was surprised when DeGeneres invited her on stage.
Ahmed’s Facebook page was flooded with more than 800 messages after the show aired and the Portland School Department decided it should issue a statement.
“Ahmed finds Ellen an inspirational and positive figure and was thrilled to meet the television star in person,” the school department said.
DeGeneres called Ahmed’s letter “so inspiring” and read it aloud on the show. In the letter, Ahmed said she did not know a word of English when she arrived in the United States.
At one point after her arrival, she became lost for eight hours after getting off at the wrong bus stop. After that incident, Ahmed, who attended and graduated from Casco Bay High School, vowed to learn English and began watching DeGeneres’ show after school. One method she used to learn English involved writing down and memorizing the words DeGeneres spoke.
The studio audience gave her a standing ovation when DeGeneres introduced her.
“Every once in a while a story makes it to me that puts everything into perspective,” DeGeneres told the audience.
When DeGeneres asked Ahmed, “There are other shows on TV, why my show?” Ahmed laughed nervously telling DeGeneres that her family did not have cable back then – only local channels such as CBS, which broadcast the show – and that DeGeneres’ show was on at a convenient time after classes ended.
But she said the real reason she tuned into Ellen was its positive message. “There is so much negativity in the world. All I had to do was turn on your show and be happy for an hour,” Ahmed wrote in the original letter.
Ahmed graduated from Casco Bay High in 2009 and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Maine. She is currently working on her master’s degree in education.
Ahmed teaches English to about 120 ELL (English Language Learners) students at Casco Bay and is the school’s first alumni to become a staff member. She is also the coordinator of an after-school program called “Make It Happen” that helps prepare multilingual students for college.
“I wake up every morning with the biggest smile on my face because of them (her students),” Ahmed told DeGeneres.
Ahmed told the audience that Sudan is a beautiful country, but her parents wanted their children to be safe so they fled Sudan when she was 12. She cited the Darfur genocide as their reason for leaving the war-torn nation.
“My parents wanted a better life for us and they had to take us out of there,” she said.
Sudan is one of the seven predominantly Muslim countries targeted by President Trump’s travel ban, which has been blocked by the courts.
Ahmed, who came to Portland as a refugee with her parents and three brothers, said the Trump administration’s immigration policies are disturbing and discriminatory. She participated in the protests held in Portland recently because the president’s policies target Muslims.
“When something is wrong, I always stand up for what is right,” she said.
When her father, Ismail Ahmed, tried to return to Sudan during the travel ban he was detained at a New York airport for two days. Her father became a U.S. citizen in 2009.
“It was really upsetting,” Ahmed said of her father being detained. “I saw myself on television being judged on my race and religion.”
Casco Bay High School Principal Derek Pierce said Ahmed deserves the recognition.
“It’s nice when the world is just. She deserves this incredible honor,” Pierce said.
“The kids just love her. She is a terrific teacher and a great role model for our students,” Pierce added. “She has a regalness about her that the kids find captivating.”
The expeditionary learning school opened in 2005, with its campus located off Allen Avenue. It is one of three public high schools in Portland, along with Deering High School and Portland High School.
DeGeneres promised to sell the “Celebrating Africa” calendar on her show’s shop – an online retail store. All of the proceeds from the calendar sales will go toward helping to build a school in Sudan.
DeGeneres also presented Ahmed with the $22,000 check from Shutterfly, the web-based publishing service, to pay off her student loans.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: