Update since we originally published this story in 2018: Nimo Ahmed graduates in 2019 with a degree in communications.
Home is an abstract concept with as many interpretations as there are people. Home can be a particular place, a physical structure or something more elusive like a feeling, possibly even a particular smell or some other kind of sensory experience. For Nimo Ahmed, home is family. The UW Tacoma student lives in Federal Way with her parents and most of her ten siblings. Ahmed’s immediate family either live under one roof or nearby, but that wasn’t always the case.
Ahmed spent the early part of her life in flux. The family moved from Abu Dhabi to Somalia before fleeing war in that country. They settled in Kenya. Next came the United States but that took time. Ahmed’s father left for the U.S. in 2001 to begin the long process of bringing his wife and children over to join him. “I spoke to him on the phone every day,” said Ahmed. “He was always telling us that we’d see each other soon. I think he did that to give us hope.”
Ahmed reunited with her father in 2004. The family started a new life for themselves in Seattle. “We had family wherever we went but we didn’t really know anyone here and that was hard — especially for my mother,” she said. For this reason, Ahmed, her parents and siblings made their way to Ohio. Ahmed’s mother has a sister who lives near Dayton.
Life in the Midwest was good at first. In Ahmed’s words she “found people” who looked like her. The situation soon deteriorated. Gang activity in their neighborhood produced a sense of unease and threatened to destabilize the family. “I remember my mom saying that her kids were going down the wrong path, that their hopes and dreams were at risk,” said Ahmed.
Three years into their Ohio sojourn, Ahmed’s mother packed up the family and returned to the Pacific Northwest. Those first few months back in Washington were difficult. The family lived in different homeless shelters before things started to stabilize. They found a home in Federal Way and haven’t moved since.
Ahmed attended Federal Way High School but says she never felt like she belonged. This partially explains her career trajectory. “I want to help people, specifically Somali youth who are struggling to find their voice in this society,” she said.
The decision to attend UW Tacoma has everything to do with location — just not in the way you might expect. Ahmed wanted to stay close to her family. Her 89-year-old father suffers from dementia and needs regular care. “When it comes to his condition he’s stagnant,” she said. “He’s not getting better and he’s not getting worse and that’s enough for me. As long as he’s able to talk to me, as long as he’s able to laugh and hug me and sometimes remember me, I’m fine with that.”
Ahmed works two jobs — one with Student Engagement here on campus, the other in Seattle for a company that provides security services to businesses. The money she earns pays for school and helps support her family. Ahmed is working toward a degree in social work. She is also active on campus as part of both the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and the Somali Student Association (SSA).
Last spring Ahmed came up with an idea to help provide meals to Tacoma’s homeless population. She pitched “Lunch on Me” to members of the MSA and SSA. Together, they raised more than a thousand dollars through a GoFundMe page. The money is used to buy supplies: bread, peanut butter, jelly, fruit and bottled water. The groups periodically hand out bag lunches to the homeless community. “In conversations, I’ve had multiple homeless people tell me they feel invisible,” said Ahmed. “The Lunch on Me project was created to show homeless individuals that we do see them, do care about them.”
Ahmed is the first person in her family to attend a four-year university. This self-described perfectionist feels pressure to succeed, and not just for herself. “I know my siblings are looking to me,” she said. “I want to be a good role model but I also want to help them through their journey should God guide them toward higher education.”
A sense of purpose guides Ahmed. She is grateful to her parents, especially her mother, who Ahmed affectionately refers to as “my girl.” When times get hard, when she’s exhausted from work and bogged down with assignments Ahmed thinks of her parent’s sacrifice. “I keep going,” she said. “I know I’m fighting for something and for someone. I’m fighting for my family."
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org