News & Stories

Refugee to Runner: Mohamed’s Story

From growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp to running for Loppet Run 365 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Mohamed shares his journey.

Life in the refugee camp

Born in Kismayo, Somalia, Mohamed’s family fled civil wars and moved to Dadaab, a site in Kenya that hosts refugees and asylum seekers across three camps. The camp offered hope for a better life; not only would it provide safety and food, but also an education.

“For me, education was the only way to get out of the camp. From a young age, [I remember] sitting outside and eating food at night, and we would see red blinking in the sky, which of course was an airplane. We would say, ‘That will be your ride home, your ride out of the refugee camp.’”

One of the most promising ways for refugees at Dadaab to leave the camp was by way of an educational scholarship, most notably one sponsored by the Canadian government. Every year, 20 refugee students from Dadaab would be selected to leave the camp and pursue an education in Canada, chosen by academic performance and class rank. 

“That is the dream of every refugee kid – to go to Canada and become a Canadian citizen. The level of education is not good [at the camp] because we don’t have enough teachers or resources, and there are so many kids. But everyone there is smart, and you want to get out of that camp. And because of that you are forced to extremes.”

Asylum seekers are not allowed out of the camps, relying on Kenyan teachers to supply them with school materials that students cannot obtain themselves. 

“We would form a group of students and contribute money, and then give it to the Kenyan teachers to get books for us. Then, you’d have an encyclopedia that contains all 6 subjects. Sometimes you’d have to finish it in two days because there might be 20-30 other kids waiting for the same book, and you might not get proper sleep. You weren’t going to school at that time to learn – you would do anything to make sure you’d get a good grade. When you are in school, you are 100% in. If I was not studying, I would be doing house chores like fetching water or collecting firewood. You know how kids play soccer, or have phones here? There is nothing like that back home.”

The Kenyan education system has 8 years of primary school followed by an international exam that dictates whether students move on to secondary school. After 4 years of secondary school, students that maintain average grades of a B+ or above are considered for a scholarship to Canada, although not all who meet this standard are selected by universities. 

Similar to the Canadian program, Blue Rose Compass (BRC) is a non-profit that aims to afford gifted young refugees an opportunity for a university education. BRC representatives work with teachers to select qualified student candidates based on standardized testing, psychological, emotional, and physical testing.

“At the end of my highschool, BRC representatives reached out to the UN and high school headmasters to sponsor students from Dadaab. I was always lucky to be a top student. The headmaster at the time came to me and told me about this organization that I’d never heard of, and that they were looking for students to sponsor. In my head, I’m thinking ‘I’m going to Canada, I’m not going to spend time on this.’ Dadaab has 3 camps within it, and each camp has 2 high schools. So there were a lot of applicants. But, I decided to apply, and after a lot of skype interviews at the UN compound and help from UN and BRC representatives, I was lucky to get a 6 year scholarship to come to an international boarding school in New Mexico.”

Leaving the camp

In order to leave the Dadaab and enter the United States, refugees need to obtain travel documents and complete a visa application facilitated by the US Embassy located in Nairobi, Kenya. 

“When I got the scholarship in 2014, they could not give me documents allowing me out of the refugee camp. BRC could have easily left me out, but they didn’t. They stood by me and pressured the UN to get me the papers I needed. Ms. Solis, the founder and CEO of BRC, was in continuous contact with me and my family, re-assuring us that everything would be okay and to never give up. She reached out to the IB school and worked with them to reserve my spot for the following school year. My family is forever grateful for BRC and what they did for me. BRC had a ripple effect on my family, my relatives, and anyone who knew me. All of a sudden, everyone was hopeful that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that anything is possible, thanks to BRC. 

Anyway, it took a year, and when I finally got the papers, they said, “We will fly you with a helicopter to Nairobi to do your visa interview, and fly you back while you wait for your visa, and you can say goodbye to your family.” So they flew me there, I did the interview, and they said I could not go back. So, I never said goodbye to my family when I left.”

A new life in the United States

“I thought I would become a U.S. citizen right when I got there, but that was not the case. When you become a citizen, you can work, and then you can help your family. I thought I would work right away. But, college was the only way I could stay in the U.S. Toward the end of my two years, my grandma died, and I thought, ‘The whole reason for me to go to school is to help my family – what if [that happened] to my mom or dad?’ [I was] missing home and worrying about my family, and all of a sudden you feel that you are stuck in a high school when you are supposed to work and help your family. Everyone thinks money grows on trees when you come to the U.S. – that you come to the US and all your problems magically disappear. You can imagine my disappointment when I found out that was not the case.” 

There was culture shock – I’ve never had a phone with a camera, I’ve never had a computer, I never played any games, I know nothing about what I like and what I don’t like, and it wasn’t easy. The good thing was that it was not just Americans, there were kids from all over the world, so everyone in some ways is new to the place. At the camp, you work for everything even if it’s getting water. Nothing is given to you. Then here, you have everything you can imagine. It almost feels like you’re living in a virtual reality world.”

After his two years in New Mexico, Mohamed chose to continue studying at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, hearing of the large Somali community in the Twin Cities. 

Joining Loppet Run 365 with Abdi Bile

Mohamed runs for LR365 during the summer, and credits coach Abdi Bile for his introduction to the sport. Abdi is Somalia’s most decorated athlete in history, with national records in nine athletic disciplines. He is a world champion in the 1500 meter run as well as an Olympian, and has since developed his career as a highly decorated coach. Abdi joined the Loppet Foundation in 2020, starting the Loppet Run 365 programs.

“I read somewhere that [Abdi] moved to Minneapolis, and through a chain of phone calls, I got the phone number of coach Bile. I called and told him everything, and the man just came to my house the next day! I couldn’t believe it. I told my friends, and they could not believe it either. Back home, the fastest cars are named after him. He’s a legend. My parents talk about it. He’s part of a Somali story that a lot of us younger generations don’t know about – kind of like the good ol’ days in Somalia. Well, I grew up in a camp. I have no idea what that would mean! He started training me and from then on he became a father figure and mentor. I hadn’t seen my family for 5 years, and I wasn’t doing well – even in terms of academics. It was quite hard. I didn’t know a lot of people, but after meeting him he introduced me to some Somali guys who are my age and also interested in running, and every time I complain about my life, he’ll put me in my place,” laughed Mohamed.

“Since then everything has changed. My GPA started going up and I became good at running – I was excited for my ‘new thing.”

Mohamed trains and competes with the Macalester College Track and Cross Country team during the school year and studies Computer Science. He will graduate this December.

“Macalaster is a great school with so many resources. They have good facilities, wonderful professors, and amazing track and field coaches. I knew the odds of completing college were stacked against me. Admittedly, it was a rough journey. But with the help of Macalaster and BRC, I persevered, taught myself how to be in a foreign educational environment, all while still worrying about my family that I haven’t seen for almost 5 years now. I’ll be graduating this December and I’m already on the hunt for a full time job, which can be difficult for international students like me. For now, I am looking for a job that could use my computer science skills. I enjoy problem solving and writing code, which is why I became a computer science major. With my degree, I am hoping to eventually usher in the next innovation with the specific aim to serve marginalized communities.”

Coach Abdi is working with the Macalester Athletic Director to open their track to LR365 training groups during the summer months, a direct result of the strong relationship Mohammed has built with his track coach and Athletic Director.  

“It was clear from our discussions with Macalester that the administration is very proud of the accomplishments of this brave young man.” writes Piotr Bednarski, Loppet Sport Director.

“Mohamed is a great young man who has been through a lot of struggles at such a young age. His accomplishments both in athletics as well as academics are unparalleled. We are all proud of him and wish him well in all future endeavors.” 

-Abdi Bile

You can learn more about Loppet Run 365 programming, donate, or get involved here.