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Out of the Darkness, Into the Light

Sitting under the shade of a tree in the remote African refugee camp of Kakuma, a young Mohamed Farah Ali studied his school books until the sun went down. When it grew dark, he stopped. Electricity is as scarce in the camp as the trees are.

In order to keep reading after nightfall, Ali taught himself how to make a solar-powered light. It only bought him two more hours of work, but it helped.

Ali’s passion for learning never really stopped from there. It's a path he would follow across the world.

On May 6, he joined a record 11,700 students receiving diplomas during The Ohio State University’s Spring 2018 Commencement at Ohio Stadium.

(Watch a video interview with Ali)

As a war refugee, Ali’s journey to a diploma in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) took him out of the darkness, out of poverty, across several thousand miles of ocean and into a world of technology he never knew, but was determined to understand.

This summer, Ali began the next chapter of his life as a professional power systems engineer. With his hard-fought education in place, his goal is simple: To return to Africa one day and help deliver electricity.

“My goal is to light up Africa one day,” he said. “I never dreamed of becoming an engineer. I always thought I would remain as a refugee kid. I came from a humble family.”

Years earlier, when civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, he said, his mother and father took their children and fled to Kenya to seek refuge from the war.

“I don’t remember much about the journey because I was only two years old then,” Ali said.

The family ended up in a refugee camp called Marafo, and remained there for years until it was closed. The refugees were then given the choice to return to war-torn Somalia or move into a new camp, Kakuma, in Kenya.

“My dad was tired of the life in camp because of the harsh conditions and the struggles, and he was ready to go back home to Somalia,” Ali said.

His mother, however, was not ready to send her family back into a war zone.

“She never wanted us to experience any harm, so we chose the new camp,” he said. “My mom had hope that one day her kids would have a better education.”

It was in Kakuma where Ali’s education began under a tree, sitting on a stone, learning his ABCs.

The refugee camp life was not easy. Stories of unrest, crime, violence and desolation were part of the Kakuma landscape. At night, law enforcement officials were known to turn a blind eye.

“Life there is different from here,” Ali said. “Sometimes even getting a meal three times a day is very difficult. The necessary stuff is very hard to find.”

After 15 years, however, the United States began assigning refugee status for this situation. The family knew it was time to leave.

“We were among the lucky ones to get the chance to come to the states, where all dreams of success are possible,” he said.

Knowing he was skilled in mathematics and prone to understanding technology, Ali chose to pursue electrical engineering.

While some of his peers struggled with homework assignments, Ali had an even further uphill climb. He didn’t grow up using computers. He didn’t grow up with electricity. He didn’t speak English. He never owned a calculator. His past did not include a reference to the American culture he found himself adapting to.

Undergraduate advisors said Ali struggled with assignments and took classes to learn how to speak fluent English; even learning how to use a computer for the first time presented setbacks.

It didn’t help ECE remains among the more challenging majors to undertake at Ohio State.

The voices warning Ali that he should pick an easier major began to grow.

“English doesn’t determine how intelligent you are. It’s just a language,” he said. “So, I continued.”

Ali already spoke three languages. He escaped a war. He made it to America with his family. He was self-taught and determined to succeed.

“Sometimes you have to be real strong to overcome the obstacles and not listen to the naysayers,” he said.

By graduation, Ali pulled through and was among the thousands wearing caps and gowns that day.

Now an alumni and mentor, Ali wants incoming international and refugee students to look around and find the resources and community available to help them at Ohio State.

As a refugee, Ali remains hopeful for the future of Africa.

“My advice to my young refugee brothers and sisters is simple: Education is the key to success. Education makes you stand out from the rest,” he said.

After five years of working his way through Ohio State ECE, with success achieved, Ali said his goal now is simple.

“I need a vacation,” he laughed. ■

Article by Ryan Horns, ECE/IMR Communications Specialist