by Michelle DeRusha
When Abdinur Muqtar fled war-torn Somalia with his family, he was just 4. They walked for two days and nights to the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, where Abdinur lived for 13 years in a mud hut and survived on meager monthly food rations. When his high school teacher in the camp was murdered, Abdinur and his five friends taught themselves the curriculum, and all six passed the national exam two months later.
“It’s tough where he came from,” said Haji Salad, a youth mentor at the Omaha, Neb., Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. Haji knows first-hand about life in Dadaab because he, too, lived in the same refugee camp as a child before coming to the United States.
Although the two didn’t know each other in the camp, they met this spring at the D.J.’s Heroes Award luncheon where Abdinur was one of 10 Nebraska high school students who received a $10,000 college scholarship. Haji said hearing Abdinur’s story was “like seeing a reflection of myself.”
After moving to Nebraska and graduating from Omaha South High Magnet School, Haji became the first person in his family to attend college. He recently finished his sophomore year at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. When he’s not taking psychology and sociology courses, Haji works as a youth mentor at the Kroc Center.
“Being a youth mentor is a way for me to give back to The Salvation Army for what they provided for my family. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if my dad hadn’t gotten me involved with the Kroc Center when I was a kid,” Haji said.
While living at Dadaab, Abdinur dreamed of coming to America, earning a degree in economics and one day working at the United Nations as an advocate for refugees. This fall, he’ll take the next step toward making his dream a reality when he enrolls in the economics program at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.
“This is all very motivating to me,” Abdinur said. “It’s a dream come true.”
“I’m so happy for him,” added Haji, “and I can’t wait to see where he goes.”
The Salvation Army D.J.’s Hero Scholarship Award recognizes teens who have overcome adversity. The scholarships and event were founded by David and Peggy Sokol in memory of their son, D.J., who was active in his school and his community even while he battled cancer. D.J. died in 1999 at age 18. This year’s 20th anniversary luncheon was attended by more than 1,400 people and raised a record $586,000 to support youth development programs in the Omaha metro area.