From Somalian refugee camp to college: H.S. senior runs to success

In the summer of 2006, 9-year-old Abdirahman Mohamed spent most of his days in a refugee camp in Somalia with his grandmother, her 12 children and his three siblings.

Now 19, Mohamed will graduate from Desert Pines High School Friday. But the events of that summer are still vivid in his mind.

They were crowded into a small tent surrounded by hundreds of other tents, each holding another family whose lives had been fractured by a state of constant civil war and starvation. Years earlier, Mohamed’s father had died while fighting armed rebels in the army. His mother, who worked for the police, was killed as well. It was in the refugee camp that his twin brother, Abdiaziz, fell ill with meningitis and died after months in a coma.

“It was one of the scariest times of my life,” he said. “Nobody knew what was going on.”

With no hope of returning home, Mohamed and his family sat in the camp every day, waiting to hear United Nations relief workers call their names. Those lucky enough to be chosen were put on a plane to whatever country would take them.

“It was like winning the lottery,” Mohamed said. “You got sent wherever the dot landed.”

Mohamed’s dot landed on Las Vegas. On July 24, 2006, he and his family boarded a plane to Nairobi, Kenya, where they caught a long flight to Denmark and eventually Las Vegas.

When they arrived, Mohamed was in a deep depression. His first year attending third grade at John Park Elementary was horrible, he said, in part because he didn’t know English. One teacher, who he called Mrs. G, helped him by teaching him to send her an email whenever he had a question. Soon, Mohamed was on the honor roll, where he stayed throughout the rest of elementary and middle school.

When he and his family look back on photos from their life in Somalia now, they can hardly recognize the gaunt faces staring back at them. At 5 feet 11 inches and 123 pounds, Mohamed says he could still stand to gain some weight, but the rest of his life is nearly unrecognizable from the one he used to lead. He’s well-spoken, popular and respected among a wide circle of friends that includes a number of Desert Pines staff and faculty.

“I get mad when I see kids throwing their education away,” he said. “To waste it would be sad. That’s my biggest fear.”

As he went through high school, Mohamed realized he wanted to be a doctor. But, without a way to pay for medical school, he started to look elsewhere.

One day during his sophomore year in 2013, Mohamed walked up to the coach at a track and field practice at Desert Pines.

“I just said, ‘I want to run,’” Mohamed said. “I said, ‘I’m going to run, and I’m going to run long-distance.”

He trained and practiced constantly, balancing school work on the side. Pretty soon he was part of the team, and even found himself competing at state championships. His running style, he says, is to get out front early and stay there.

“I just go out there and kill myself. Every lap is just gruesome pain,” he said.

In 2013, he placed first in the 1-mile and 2-mile events. Last year, his grandmother decided to move the family to the United Kingdom, but Mohamed wanted to stay behind. He wanted to pursue running and, with interest coming in from colleges like Harvard and the University of Illinois, felt it could be a way to pay. So he emancipated himself, becoming a U.S. citizen last summer. Now he lives with a friend.

“Running was the door that I opened accidentally and glory came out,” he said.

Earlier this year, Mohamed broke a state record in the 800-meter dash and helped break another in a relay event. He also landed a track and field scholarship to Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., where he will study biology starting this fall. He chose the college because it also has a medical school.

Thursday is his last day of school at Desert Pines.

“It’s just so surreal,” he laughed, walking through the school’s quiet corridors for one of the last times. “When I started as a freshman, I thought, ‘Ugh. This is going to take forever!’”

While he does hope to eventually compete in the Olympics, running in college is just a way to achieve what he really wants: to become a doctor, specifically an anesthesiologist, and work for Doctors Without Borders in countries like Somalia.

“If I don’t get a gold medal, oh well,” Mohamed said. “The good you do for people, that’s what stays with you.”

Source: Las Vegas Sun

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