The Charter Blog

I Was Born in a Refugee Camp in Kenya and Now I’ll Be the First in My Family to Attend College

This month, beginning with National Charter Schools Week, we will feature stories from charter school graduates from across the country. Check back every day to see a new student feature in our 30 Days of Grad series.

In 1992, my family escaped the civil war in Somalia and we were randomly selected to live in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. I was born in that camp in 1998. By 2004, we applied for sponsorship to live in the United States and were matched to a humanitarian agency, World Relief, at its local Nashville office. An application was approved for my mom, my three brothers and myself. World Relief helped my mom and two of my brothers get jobs. My mother was a housekeeper and my brothers worked at warehouses.

I started school in America in kindergarten. Because I didn’t know English, I went to a school designed for children to learn English and was proficient by age 7. During fifth-grade, I attended a private school for low-income kids called East Academy and, unfortunately, the school didn’t have enough money to continue supporting my tuition, so I had to leave and transfer to my zoned school. My neighborhood school was too big and some of the kids at school called me slurs and made fun of me because I was from Somalia and wore hijab. I knew I wouldn’t be able to last a week.

My mom knew I needed something different, too. She found out about KIPP Academy Nashville because the son of a family friend went there. So, two weeks after school started, I became a sixth grader at KIPP. The change was obvious from the beginning. KIPP was very structured, I learned to become organized and to care about academics. My teachers were friendly and open. There was never a moment they didn’t seem to enjoy their jobs.

But the bigger differences came later. They’re the ones I appreciate the most now. My eighth-grade teacher sat down with me to talk about college and it shaped how I saw myself going into high school. I didn’t think about college before and at that moment, I realized college was something that other people expected of me. I had a future. I had to think about what I wanted for myself.

I know with freedom comes responsibility and that’s what KIPP has taught me. Every year throughout high school—even though I later ended up attending a private school after enrolling at KIPP—KIPP has made sure that I stay on track with my college goals. I was assigned a KIPP college counselor, and she has continued to stay in touch with me. In ninth grade, we discussed how high school was going; in 10th-grade we looked at what colleges I was interested in; junior year we focused on test prep; and this year, my senior year, she edited my college application essays and arranged campus visits.

It’s worth noting that she lives in Boston. Last year, she came to Nashville three times to see me. With KIPP, if a student is willing, they’re always there to help you and my college counselor is proof.

I applied early decision to Duke, which KIPP has a partnership with. If I get in, I want to be involved in Duke Engaged, a program that lets students do community service projects abroad. I’d love to return to Kenya and I still have family in Somalia. Volunteering is important to me and I love to teach.

Every Monday, I help kids at a tutoring program at a church across the street from school, on Tuesday afternoons, I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) to middle-school students, and on Thursdays, I tutor fourth-graders at Big Brothers, Big Sisters. I love the relationships I’ve built with all the kids and seeing how excited they are for our time together every week. I may not spend that much time with them but I know during the time that we do have, they’re happy. I hope to study sociology or psychology because I’m interested in human behavior and development.

It’s humbling to know I will be the first in my family to attend a four-year college. I come from a single-parent household and my mom has given her entire life so we could do what we love. To make her proud is my number one priority. After my mom, I want to show my nieces and nephews that anything is possible—a girl who came from a refugee camp in Kenya can go to a top American college.

Being able to trust adults and letting them into your life is what KIPP has instilled in me. KIPP helped me to realize my potential—potential I don’t think I would have known at another school. It’s important for kids to have the opportunity to bring out the potential that they didn’t know they had. If it weren’t for KIPP, and for that day when my eighth-grade teacher sat down with me to talk about college, I wouldn’t have seen all that I was able to do—and will do.

An earlier version of this post appeared on Education Post.

[Click to Tweet]: Hawo Ibrahim’s family escaped civil war in Somalia, and now her sights are set on college @KIPP #30DaysofGrad

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Posted in 30 Days of Grad, Charter Schools Week