Minnesota

Dream Refugee nonprofit counters stereotypes, fights isolation

“My family and I have been through trials and tribulations in our journey, but at the end of the day we made it.” It’s been three years since Mohamed Malim, a senior at Edina High School at the time, submitted these words as part of his Cecil E. Newman Scholarship-winning essay. Now a student at the University of St. Thomas where he will be a senior this fall, Malim has found a way to turn his trials into opportunities to help others.

In March of this year, Malim launched Dream Refugee, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, to help refugees share their stories and tackle the troubling climate of “exclusion, xenophobia and apathy,” according to press materials.

Malim explains, “With everything going on politically and how refugees are being labeled in a negative way with stereotypes, I just want to counter-attack that by sharing positive stories around the community of refugees. So, we go around local communities and share their stories.”

Personal experience fuels Malim’s passion for Dream Refugee. In the ’90s, his family left Somalia during the civil war for the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, where Malim was born. “My family and I were paired with thousands of starving, desperate people in the largest refugee complex in the world… Basic necessities such as clean running water, food, medications, proper schooling and a future seemed so out of reach,” recalls Malim on the nonprofit’s website.

“We stayed in a refugee camp for about three years, and we got out of the camp through a lottery,” Malim told the MSR. “Half of my family went to Europe and the other half went to America. We were fortunate to get out of that condition and have a better life.”

A new life came, but so did more struggle. “Although life here is great, life in America came with a new set of problems that we had to face. Learning a new language, feeling isolated around so many people, not fitting in, not knowing our way around, just to name a few.”

Malim hopes Dream Refugee can help ease that isolation for refugees by fostering understanding through storytelling, and by pairing new refugees with professionals in a new mentoring initiative that starts this fall.

Since the launch five months ago, the nonprofit has shared five stories from refugees on the website. The most recent story is of Ka Vang, director of Impact & Community Engagement at American Public Media. Vang gives a powerful account of her memories of a refugee camp in Thailand and the self-identity issues she overcame after arriving to America.

“We record the stories, and one of our [St. Thomas] colleagues transcribes it and edits and writes it in the words of the refugee,” said Malim of the narratives shared on the website. The organization holds fundraising events to pitch to potential investors. They also received a grant from St. Thomas and hope to do more grant writing in the future.

Dream Refugee is also on the move. The organization was recently invited to Canada to speak on refugee advocacy, and the nonprofit hosted its first World Refugee Day gathering at St. Thomas. Rep. Ilhan Omar was one of the speakers. “She is an amazing woman,” said Malim of Omar, the nation’s first Somali American lawmaker.

Malim lit up when recalling the 2014 Spokesman-Recorder Graduation Celebration, where he and other Cecil E. Newman Scholarship winners were celebrated. “It was a beautiful thing — just seeing all these other ambitious students and beautiful stories with goals of contributing to society and making an impact. That was my first scholarship…a very exciting time,” he said with a smile.

Although he didn’t quite remember the details of his essay, he did remember mentioning how the Edina High staff helped him power through his studies. He also remembers some of the struggles at the school. “One of the biggest challenges was the lack of diversity. Obviously you’re the only person of color in the classroom — it was all White people.

“At first, during the freshman and sophomore years, it was hard to break that barrier, but as I joined clubs and sports — football and track and field — that opened up things.” Malim still runs track at St. Thomas and is majoring in marketing with a minor in design. He also interns at an ad agency.

“I’ll be the first in my family to graduate from college. [Neither of] my parents got a high school diploma or even reached freshman [level] in high school,” said Malim, the oldest of six kids.

“[My parents] only have their skills, that’s it. And in my community education is a big factor. I just want to make my mom happy and my dad happy and break that barrier.”

Malim said he’d like to run Dream Refugee full-time when he finishes school, but his immediate future remains open. “I don’t have a plan. Every day is a new opportunity for me, and God has blessed me with a lot. God leads me,” he said. He added that his long-term goal is to work for the United Nations doing humanitarian work.

Ultimately, Malim said he sees himself continuing to draw upon his past to create opportunities for others. “My struggles and my parents’ struggles have [compelled] me to give back. It’s part of my DNA.

“I want people to know that no matter where you’re from or the tribulation you go through in life, giving back is one of the best and most rewarding things you can do.”

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