This is from the Ottawa Hills chapter of the book, “Warda: My Journey from the Horn of Africa to a College Education,” by Somali-American writer Warda Mohamed Abdullahi.
While my father was getting the car and finding a job, my siblings and I were enrolled in nearby schools. Since we’d arrived in November, however, and there was plenty of work to do to get us ready for our first day of classes, we didn’t actually start until after winter break. For one, we were all behind on our immunizations. In fact, we weren’t allowed to start until we could prove our vaccinations were all up to date. That meant my siblings and I needed to get all kinds of shots, everywhere from our arms, to our hips, and even our buttocks. My siblings didn’t need nearly as many shots as I did because they’d already had some as babies in South Africa. Unlike my brothers and sisters, I was just a farm girl from the Ethiopian bush. We hadn’t had any access to formal medical treatment. In fact, I didn’t have any medical records at all. Of course, I couldn’t help but point out that my natural immune system had protected me so far.
I also wondered aloud if some of the vaccinations might be unnecessary. Unfortunately, none of the medical professionals—much less the school system—saw it that way. Instead, when it was my turn, the nurse carefully laid out fifteen separate syringes. My eyes got very big and my heart started to pound.
“Are those all for me?” I asked, already knowing the answer, but desperately hoping I was wrong.
“Yes, they are all for you,” said the nurse, hardly even looking at me. To her, it was no big deal. She did it every day. I looked at all the needles arranged in a long, straight row—an image that will stay with me for the rest of my life—and thought, How can she do this to me? Why didn’t she just show me one syringe at a time? I stared at the fifteen needles, knowing that everyone would pierce my body somewhere and asked, hoping above hope, “Can I do them another day?”
“No,” she responded drily, without any emotion. “We are doing them all today.”
It was excruciating to watch as she prepped all the needles but much worse when she began. Each time she stuck a needle into my arm, hip, or butt, it hurt so bad I thought I couldn’t possibly bear it. Even worse than that, after each painful poke, there were so many left to go! “Please, let’s stop for today,” I pleaded with her. “I can’t handle on more!” She would only say something utterly meaningless, like, “You can do it,” or even worse, “You’re a big girl.” I assume she meant to be encouraging, but it only made things worse.
Each time, I yelled back at her, “No! I’m not a big girl” or “I cannot do this!”
She didn’t seem to care how much it hurt; she just kept going and going. Honestly, I wished I could do the same thing to her. Now, when I tell the story, I like to tease that someday I will be a doctor and then I can give that lady sixteen shots, one more shot than I was forced to endure that day.
I’m not really sure how many vaccines were injected into my butt, but in the days that followed, I’d have sworn it was every one. I couldn’t bear to sit down and my backside was so sore it was hard to sleep. To make matters even worse, I was already in pain, suffering in my heart as a result of missing my friends and family back in Africa. Now that my body hurt, too, I cried nearly every day and virtually every night.
To help ease some of the pain, I read through the letters and cards I’d brought with me. There were nearly fifty in all, maybe even more. In some ways, they helped me feel better. In other ways, I felt worse. I longed to be with my friends in Port Elizabeth and often daydreamed about how we’d walk down the street after school and on weekends, talking and joking and laughing. Or I’d remember how we sat in the park and told stories or went to the beach when it was hot. I’d brought a journal with me as well, and every night I spent hours writing about my emotions, especially the heart-wrenching loneliness I felt being so far away from everything familiar, everything I had loved. I kept telling myself everything would be okay.
Deep down I knew, I’d always found a way not merely to survive but to thrive. There was nothing new about a challenging situation. I’d been in plenty of those. I tried to talk myself up, telling myself, You can do this. And I knew I could, but still, I was scared.
It was about this time that I first took notice of the boy named Abu Bakar (usually just Bakar to me). Since I’d arrived in Grand Rapids, I’d stayed in constant contact with my friends in South Africa, despite the distance between us. I still felt like part of the friend group and we all communicated every chance we got. There was always so much to say and we never ran out of topics.
On the daily drive home from the Islamic center, the girls constantly mentioned my name. Abu Bakar, brother to one of the girls and the one who drove them every afternoon, soon began to wonder who they were talking about. He asked the girls about me, but they only laughed and refused to give him an answer. At that point, all he knew was my name, Warda, which he admitted he’d never heard before. Honestly, I don’t know if one of my friends eventually told him or he looked it up himself, but as you well know by now, Warda is the Arabic name for rose. It’s a fairly popular name throughout the Middle East but not very common at all in the Somali community. In any case, with only that name to go on, Bakar thought of me many nights in a row, pondering who I was and what I might look like. From that point forward, every time Bakar drove his sister and her friends home from the Islamic center, he continued to ask many questions, searching for details about me in spite of the fact no one ever gave him any. Finally, as the story goes, one particularly beautiful evening while the girls were talking about me, Bakar simply refused to give up. He asked his sister to show him just one picture of me.
She said no, but he persisted. This time Bakar was not going to take no for an answer. Finally, she showed him my picture.
“Wow!” he exclaimed. “I would like to get to know her. Can you give me her number?”
“No, you can’t have her number!” his sister responded, as the back seat exploded with giggles from all of the other girls.
“Please, I only want to be friends with her, like you are all friends with her. Then at least I will know who you are talking about in my car!”
After a few days of Bakar begging his sister for my number, she finally asked me if she could give it to him. Part of me wanted to say no, but she was my friend and I wanted to respect her family. So compromised and said that she could give him my full name so he could find me on Facebook.
Almost immediately, he sent me a Facebook message. After a few minutes of asking each other basic questions, we started talking about all the things going on in our lives. He was curious, kind, and very open and wanted to know all about my transition to America. When I told him how hard everything had been for my family and me so far, he comforted me by listening and staying positive, hoping to make me smile and feel a little bit better. Soon after that, I couldn’t go a day without messaging Bakar.
Abu Bakar Ibrahim Ali was born on Thursday, March 3, 1992, in Kenya. He lived there until his family moved to South Africa six years later. He was born in the middle of five beautiful sisters. As the only son, he was often favored and even spoiled. Whenever his sisters picked on him, his parents always seemed to side with him.
He was tall, light skinned, and handsome; quiet, shy, and respectful. Other than his friends, Islamic studies were his biggest priority.
Countless times we shared our favorite thoughts and prayers. In his heart, Bakar believes you don’t need money, or to be rich, in order to help others. All you really need are pure, good intentions.
Many months later I heard a story from my uncle Mohamed that exemplifies the way I think of Bakar and clearly demonstrates the kind of person he is.
When Mohamed lived in South Africa, he regularly got together with the same group of men to play soccer every weekend. Bakar was one of the soccer players. Unlike most of the others, however, Bakar woke up to pray every morning at 5:00 a.m. He always sat in the front row and paid very close attention. Even on the days of the biggest matches, Bakar went to the mosque before going off to meet the other men.
Uncle Mohamed admired how dedicated Bakar was to his faith every day, no matter what. Hearing this confirmed how I thought and felt about Bakar as soon as we connected and began to speak frequently. His morals, his thoughts, his faith were all aligned with mine.
This is who he is: a man with a golden heart, one that money can’t buy. He would give you his life to save yours and he’s always been like that. In that rough time of transition—as well as countless times after—he was always there for me. During my hardest moments, the times that I was down, the times I felt I lost and alone in a world full of darkness, he always made sure to put a smile on my face. Every morning when I woke up, he’d already sent a long inspirational message to help keep me going. He quickly became my friend, my mentor, my champion. For a long time Bakar was the only friend who truly knew the goals and dreams I didn’t dare to share with others. I trusted him and respected him above everyone but Aabo. Soon, we were so close
I considered him my family. Knowing somebody was out there who cared so much about me and wanted to hear all my troubles made even my hardest days better.
The timing was especially fortunate since right about then I learned I would be attending a school called Ottawa Hills High School, apart from my younger siblings. Abdi Fatah, the next oldest, was enrolled at Alger Middle School, while my other school-aged siblings were enrolled at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. I didn’t know a soul at Ottawa Hills High School and spoke very little English besides. I was intimidated, scared, and bewildered. As much as I’d always dreamed of pursuing a high school education, I did not want to go. I didn’t want to be there at all. I wanted to be home, in bright, sunny Africa. Since the moment we’d first arrived, it felt like my hands, feet, and ears were perpetually numb. I was physically and mentally drained. We’d only just arrived, but I was already exhausted by life in cold, unfriendly, perpetually gray Michigan.
Before I could begin taking classes at Ottawa Hills, Aabo and I had to meet with a school counselor. Her name was Ms. Price and I immediately liked her. She knew we were from Africa and that we were refugees, but that was pretty much it. She had no real idea about everything we’d gone through to get there. Still, she was friendly and warm, unlike most of the people we’d met, and she didn’t judge us. She spoke to us in English, but I didn’t understand very much because of her American accent. Even so, I was relieved to finally meet someone nice. Thankfully, my father understood her well enough to converse more readily. He gave her a short summary of my past and my education in Port Elizabeth. Once Ms. Price understood my academic history and our situation, she agreed to enroll me as a ninth grader, even though I was at least two years older than my classmates. After taking a look at my school certificates—and considering my age—she insisted that I be enrolled in the school’s honors program. Of course, I had no idea what that meant, but it seemed like a good thing and I was excited she thought I could do it.
For the first time since I’d stepped off the airplane into the biting cold back in November, I felt alive. This place, and Ms. Price specifically, made me feel safe and welcome. The numbness melted away and I couldn’t wait to get going. Suddenly, I saw the incredible opportunity that lay in front of me. The possibility of not only graduating high school, but going to college, was amazingly real. My mind started racing, dreaming of the things I could do here. I was inspired. I was motivated. I was determined to seize the opportunity I’d been given.
The following morning, my father and I took the bus to Ottawa Hills together. He wanted to ensure I knew the way to school. Once we arrived, he turned around and went home to take my younger siblings to their new schools. I was on my own, but not for long. Ms. Price met me at the office and greeted me with a smile. She even took the time to walk me to my first class, helping me to navigate the busy hallways, excitedly pointing out the different landmarks we passed. Almost immediately, I noticed all eyes on me. Some kids only stared, whispering comments to their friends, but others openly laughed, pointing and making jokes. Of course, I was wearing one of my finest abayas and a hijab, the traditional feminine clothing of my culture and faith. Given how the other kids looked at me, though, I might as well have had a giant green alien head with antennae sticking out. They gawked at me as if I’d literally come from another planet.
Ms. Price introduced me to my first-period teacher and I took a seat at the back of the classroom. Given my limited English, I couldn’t understand what the other students were saying or even figure out if their words referred to me. Either way, they wouldn’t stop staring. It was uncomfortable right from the start and it wasn’t about to get better. The teacher began to read from a book of Shakespeare and a boy shouted something I didn’t understand. He followed that up with a cuss and the kids around him all laughed. The teacher simply ignored them and continued reading, pressing forward without revealing any emotion, as though her only goal was to make it through the hour unscathed.
I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. Did these students not understand the opportunity we’d all been given? I looked around the classroom in disbelief. At least half of the students were messing around on their phones, completely ignoring the teacher like they were hanging out in the park or kicking back at the mall. I couldn’t help but think, This would never happen in South Africa. Education was too precious. All the students I’d known were grate-ful to go to school. They considered it a privilege, studied hard, and paid close attention. These students didn’t care. In fact, they were so actively disrespectful I had to wonder why they even bothered to show up in the first place.
Nonetheless, I remained optimistic. Wasn’t I supposed to be in the so-called honors program? Didn’t that count for something? Certainly some of my classes must be filled with other students hungry to learn. By the end of class I’d convinced myself this had to be an isolated incident. Nope, every class I attended was more of the same. Disrespect was endemic. Students talked and laughed, played with their phones and paid no attention—not to the teacher, anyway. They certainly stared at me! Pointing and making jokes, asking dumb questions and making rude comments. Of course, I couldn’t understand most of what they were saying, but it still hurt. Ironically, most of the other students at Ottawa Hills were African American, but none of them looked like me. Nor did they dress or sound anything like me. In some small ways we had certain things in common, but in other ways we were nothing alike.
Months later, I was shocked to learn that many American cities are as just segregated—if not more so—than they were in the 1960s at the start of the civil rights movement. More than half a century later, inner city schools, attended primarily by students of color, tend to receive the fewest resources, attract the least experienced teachers and staff, and generally fail to provide the comprehensive support their students often require. As my first school day ended, I felt deflated and uninspired, and the worst was yet to come. Despite Aabo riding the bus with me that morning, so many hours later—and never having done it before—I didn’t know how to
get home. If it hadn’t been so cold outside, I may have just walked, despite the distance, but it was utterly frigid, so I didn’t dare chance it. Thankfully, I was able to find the bus we’d taken that morning, but that was the only thing that seemed to go right. I knew I was supposed to get off at Franklin Street Southeast, but I never saw it. I was all turned around and didn’t recognize any of the streets or the buildings. Unsure where I was, I remained glued to my seat. When we drove past the school for the third time, I knew something wasn’t right. Finally, I asked an old lady sitting next to me if we were near Franklin.
“Oh, no,” she said, “we just passed it. But you can take the bus back if you have the money.”
I was ashamed to admit I didn’t have any money, so I didn’t say anything and just looked down at my toes. After a minute, she asked if I had any money, but I just shook my head no and kept looking at my toes. In a calm, assuring voice, she told me not to worry, explaining that the bus would pass Franklin again in about thirty minutes. All I had to do, she said, was remain seated, pay attention, and watch for my stop.
I thought I could probably do that, but when the current bus driver got off and a new, male driver got on, it threw me for a loop. Normally, I don’t speak to strange men, since it is contrary to my customs and faith. But I also knew I desperately needed help if I was ever going to get home. So, I screwed up my courage, spoke to the bus driver, and explained that I’d missed my stop several times already. I told him I was new to the city and didn’t quite understand where I was, and asked if he would kindly let me know when we were approaching my destination. He asked where I needed to go and I explained it as best I could. After listening to me, he said the exact same thing as the old woman:
“You should’ve gotten off at Franklin Street Southeast. You just passed it a few minutes ago.”
I was so embarrassed, I didn’t know what to say. I just looked at my toes and didn’t say a word. On the next go-round, though, the bus driver told me when we reached Franklin and I finally got off the bus. School had ended at 2:50 p.m. It was almost seven o’clock. Aabo had been waiting at the bus stop the entire time, in the freezing cold, with no way to get in touch with me or figure out where I was. When I saw him standing there, waiting patiently at the bus stop, I was so relieved I almost broke down in tears. I felt so bad for making him stand in the freezing cold for hours on end. It was quite dark by then and I could only imagine how worried he must have been.
“Where have you been?” he asked, his voice shaking with concern.
He was obviously more scared than angry. I told him I’d gotten confused and explained how lost I’d felt. He gave me a great big hug and after a long, quiet moment, we both starting laughing. I think it was the first time that I’d really laughed in months and I’d forgotten how good it felt. In that moment—and many after— laughter truly was a lifeline that proved to be incredibly beneficial in helping me navigate those early, bewildering days at Ottawa Hills.
Soon after that, I also gained a small amount of self-confidence, knowing I’d persevered and conquered the city bus without experiencing any other further troubles. Later that night, however, after we’d eaten dinner and the huge relief of reuniting with Aabo had worn away, the discomfort and anxiety I’d felt enduring my first day of school came flooding back. Aabo asked how things went and I found it impossible to hide my irritation and disappointment. Obviously, I knew how hard Aabo had worked to bring his family to Michigan. I also knew he genuinely believed this city and these schools—including Ottawa Hills—offered his family the best opportunity to build a better life. With all of that in the back of my mind, it was especially painful to confess that I didn’t want to go back. My father’s face was riddled with sadness and confusion as I told him I had no desire to attend a school where students were so disrespectful and didn’t seem to value their educations at all. I told him some of the things I’d witnessed throughout the day and explained how shocking it felt compared to what I’d expected.
Before my first day of school, I’d imagined all of the students at Ottawa Hills to be driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. After all, they could go to American colleges and universities after completing high school. Back home in South Africa, at Nasruddin, this was only an option for a small, select group of students. And yet, all of the students at Nasruddin seemed to be far more ambitious, far more determined, and much more serious about their educations than anyone I’d seen at Ottawa Hills. The contrast was stunning to me, and frankly, incomprehensible.
The more I continued to talk about my first day at Ottawa Hills, the more I compared it to Nasruddin. In my experience, the students there were fully engaged, asked the teacher interesting questions, and sought extra help whenever they needed it. At Ottawa Hills, by contrast, the students seemed disconnected, unmotivated, and uninspired. I couldn’t imagine any of them asking for more help. They acted like they already knew everything and school was a waste of time. I was completely baffled.Of course, Aabo convinced me to give it another try, and the following day I rode the bus back to school. As bad as it might seem, I couldn’t let my father down. He’d worked far too hard and sacrificed too much.
The first few weeks were depressing. At lunch, I sat alone. When a student did approach me, it was to ask a stupid question about my clothes or religion. In hindsight, I realize most of them didn’t mean to be rude or critical, but it sure sounded that way at first. It certainly didn’t help that I was often emotional and felt incredibly alone. It was such a stark contrast to Nasruddin, where the younger students had immediately welcomed me and helped me fit in. I struggled in my classes too. The teachers spoke so quickly, I often understood very little. Later, it took remarkably long for me to get through my homework. Sometimes, depending on the subject matter and level of English used, it took longer to figure out the instructions than to do the assignment.
At night, when I finally went to bed, I cried myself to sleep, praying for things to get better. I didn’t want to give up, but I was miserable. In the morning when I woke up, reality came crashing back and I dreaded going to school. It was so unlike my school in South Africa, when I couldn’t wait to get there and never wanted to leave.
Certain days, I was convinced things would never get better. I wasn’t merely different—an outsider from a foreign country—I was a Muslim too. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, as you must know, Islam became a religion to be feared and hated by many in the United States. It didn’t matter that I was from an entirely different continent than the terrorists who’d attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. No one ever thought about that. In their heads, I was brown and I wore a hijab, so maybe my people were terrorists too.
To me, it was ridiculous. I wasn’t from a radical sect. I don’t support violence in any form. Besides, almost all of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. One of them was from Egypt, but none were from Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, or anywhere else that had anything to do with my family. But people aren’t always reasonable when it comes to their fears and bigotry. They need someone to blame, somewhere to direct their anger, and I fit the stereotype that many of my fellow students clung to so fiercely. All day long at school, I felt belittled and judged. For the most part, I simply ignored the rude comments and outlandish questions of my classmates, pretending like I didn’t understand what they had said. By that time, of course, English had become much easier for me to grasp. Still, it was easier to keep my head down and not make waves. Their stereotypes were cartoonish and grossly unjust, but didn’t feel like the one who could even begin to tackle their persistent ignorance and insensitivity. Most days, I was barely getting by.
I knew I wasn’t the only brown Muslim girl facing these challenges, but I reminded myself that I was there for one reason: to get an education and ultimately become a doctor. For me, that was
the best way to shatter their stereotypes and overcome prejudice. By pushing myself and persisting, I could not only achieve my own dreams, I could also create more opportunities and spaces for other girls just like me. I was going to prove that I could do it—not just for me, but for my family, for my cousins, to show them it could be done—even if I’d been raised on a farm in the bush my first ten years. Thankfully, over time, my daily life at school got a little easier. Soon, I met a girl named Alexis, who remains my friend to this day. We sat together at lunch, and as we got to know each other, she really made me feel like I belonged at Ottawa Hills. She was a great student and I could tell that she valued education as much as I did. Eventually, we began to spend time together outside of school, as well. Often, we had long conversations about our personal histories and what we wanted to do after graduating high school.
With each passing day, I grew more and more comfortable reading, writing, and speaking English. At the same time, it became increasingly clear that my first impressions of the school were spot-on. Many of my fellow students either completely lacked motivation or simply didn’t have the basic skills to succeed. They were only there because they had to be there, not because they wanted to be. I still couldn’t understand how ungrateful some of them seemed for the opportunity we’d all been given. To make matters worse, drugs were prevalent at Ottawa Hills, especially marijuana. Some students smoked virtually every day, before and after school. Other students even got high during the school day, either right outside the building or in the bathrooms. I smelled marijuana constantly, in nearly every class. Theft was also quite common.
After the bus incident, Aabo bought me a cell phone so we could keep in touch throughout the day. Eventually, that phone was stolen, replaced, and stolen again. By the end of the school year, I was on my third phone. Once again, I couldn’t help but compare that experience to my time in South Africa. It was astonishing. Never once had I seen anything stolen at Nasruddin or my Islamic studies classes. And yet—here in America, the land of opportunity—thievery was common. Life in the US continued to be far more complicated, surprising, and confusing than I ever could have guessed.
Perhaps most distressing of all, I learned that only 65 percent of students at Ottawa Hills earned a high school diploma. Even then, a sizable percentage of those students are the first in their families to do so. Only about 20 to 30 percent go on to college or pursue another form of post-secondary education. Some students didn’t care; others never imagined college was even an option. Either way, there wasn’t a very strong culture of college readiness. For a lot of the students, this was the end of the line. Their formal education ended the last time they walked out the door. Every day, every class, I reminded myself I was different. I had other plans.
You can learn more about Warda’s book and where to buy it on her website. And be sure to learn more about Warda’s life from our conversation here.