During the first six years of her life, Qadan Mohamed grew up in a rural area outside the city of Burao, in the northwestern Togdheer region of Somaliland. She hails from a nomadic family and is the first among her twelve siblings, parents and grandparents to have attended school.
“There is a sense of guilt being around them, not because I am any better or smarter, but simply because I am thinking I had the opportunity to go to school and have a different future. This is not something they have control over. My youngest sister is 9 and what upsets me the most is the thought that I am here, and she is there [Somaliland]. I don’t think my parents would ever listen to me if I asked for her to go to school as I did.”
Qadan weaves poetry when she describes her homeland, The Republic of Somaliland, successor to the former British Somaliland protectorate and war-torn nation until peace ensued after a 1991 truce. When she inquires about the war, her uncle politely changes the topic. Qadan admits she has never traveled outside her nation’s borders, of course, until coming to the U.S.
She moved to Burao to live with her aunt and three cousins when she was 6 because she was born without a left arm. “It’s the way they live, the physical labor, and well, I was born with no left arm and I think they figured that I was the one to live with my aunt instead of the other kids.”
Qadan did not visit her native village again until she was in the fifth grade and acknowledges that the connection she felt between her biological family was somewhat fissured. “The need of me wanting to talk to them was something I never communicated with my aunt, or really brought up. I did not want to make her think that I was ungrateful, or that I did not consider her as family.”
The first time Qadan’s mother visited her in Burao, the young girl did not recognize her. She never had any family photographs, no internet or cell phone communication, no ties with which to connect the dots. A void persisted; the notion of missing out on the traditional definition of a family. Whether it was being around other children and their parents, or learning at madrasa, the throbbing never left her mind.
“When people ask, ‘What is your family like?’ that’s the hardest question for me. Yes, I have biological parents and siblings, but I lived with my aunt from the time I was 6, went to boarding school in high school seven hours from where I grew up and now live in the United States.”
Nevertheless, she is never lonely. Her education is what drives her to succeed. “My personal story and experiences inspire me to keep being positive and not take anything for granted,” she smiles. “My uncle grew up like my immediate family. He ran away from home when he was in his late teens and is a self-taught civil engineer.” He is her biggest inspiration because he empathizes with her struggle of “being the first.” He understands the struggle, the hunger for knowledge, because he paved the way for his own future. Qadan explains that all thirty of his offspring go to school, and because of his special interest in her, she too was treated as one of his own.
Qadan attended one of the top high schools in the country, the Abaaraso School of Science and Technology. There she learned to speak English fluently, as the majority of her professors were from Western nations. After school she participated in an afterschool tutoring program, helping village children with mathematics, English and writing among other subjects. “If I can give back in any way I can, that is enough. When I was a senior one of the students from the surrounding village was accepted to my high school. This was my greatest joy because the high school is so hard to get into; I felt like I made a difference.”
“School is hard for children in the rural areas. There is no degree of accountability. No system to check if the teachers are showing up. It is especially a bit challenging for girls. They attend school until eighth grade, perhaps go to high school or most likely stay home or get married.”
Qadan explains that the Abaaraso School Headmaster Emeritus and Founder, American Jonathan Starr, was especially influential in her post-high school decision making. “I know him very well. He goes to America to look at universities and see what his students might be interested in. I received a MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program for East African students that provides financial aid. My family does not make enough money to send me to such an expensive college.”
When it came time to discuss the potentiality of college, Qadan received some pushback from her family. “Even though my uncle supported me all the way through, he was concerned with the idea of going to a country no one has ever been. Some of my family said, ‘Oh, you might turn to Christianity, you might not be a Muslim anymore. But I didn’t care, I was going.”
Qadan is currently a sophomore Honors student majoring in psychology with a business minor. She is involved with Campus Ministry, Marist Tour Guides and Marist Ambassadors. She expresses her greatest joy is knowing she can study psychology and tackle the issue of mental illness. She explains that where she grew up, people brand the mentally ill as “crazy,” rather than people who can be assisted. Qadan plans on dedicating her life to community outreach work, primarily with disabled children, “I don’t think I can make that great of a difference if I am just in the classroom because when the kid goes back out to society that doesn’t encourage them to think or express what they learned, the learning process is reversed.”
Qadan is thrilled to be at Marist, although she laughs, “In the beginning I was surprised. I was one of maybe two people to wear the scarf,” she points to the light burgundy cloth around her head. “Hijab means ‘to cover,’ so I would not call this a ‘hijab.’ But people are curious and I am more than happy to explain.”
“Five years ago, if you asked me if I can achieve everything I do today I don’t think I would have the answer. I think from a young age I realized that you can reach your fullest potential once you realize you can define your own paths and choose your own way. I believe we are not separate from our surroundings, but being able to retain our individuality is an essential part of our self-esteem.”