Nashville refugee helps others stand on own
Abdishakur "Abdi" Mohamed says he wants refugee immigrants in Nashville to stand on their own two feet — an analogy for hard work and self-sufficiency that's especially fitting when he says it.
Mohamed, forced out of war-torn Somalia in 2002, has known a journey to America made more difficult by polio, which paralyzed his right leg when he was 6 months old.
Yet he has found success in Nashville. And he does more than just wish the same for newly arriving refugees.
For seven years, Mohamed's work has been to help refugees find jobs as they begin their new lives — he's now the top supervisor of employment services for Catholic Charities. And he was recently named to the Metro Human Relations Commission. As the first African refugee on that diverse board, he'll bring a new level of expertise to the city's refugee community.
Abdi Mohamed visited Somalia at its border with Kenya in 2012. (Photo: Submitted )
"I received a lot of assistance, and I want to pay it back," said Mohamed, 38.
In his first year in Nashville, Mohamed learned to look for work the hard way.
"You cannot imagine the number of jobs I applied for," he said.
Because he uses crutches, he could not take a job that involved lifting or standing for a long time. Seeking office work, he found another hurdle: Employers wanted more experience than what he had as a longtime English interpreter.
He didn't know it then, but that year of searching gave Mohamed another type of valuable expertise. Catholic Charities chose him, a natural fit, for its employment program.
"The day I was hired here and I got my job description, I knew where to start," he said. "I didn't even need training."
Starting all over
Abdishakur “Abdi” Mohamed helps other refugees, like Abdi Babrak, through Catholic Charities.(Photo: Steven S. Harman / Tennessean)
The refugees who come to Mohamed are often starting from scratch after years living in camps.
He knows the feeling. Mohamed left Somalia for Egypt in 2002 and came to Nashville in 2004.
Initially, while searching for work, he got help from Catholic Charities and accepted disability payments. But he said he was determined not to live on government services.
The day he got a job, he called to cancel the disability checks.
"Twenty dollars that you make is better than $20 that somebody gives you," he said.
He brings that mentality to those he helps.
"After a few months, you'll see (refugees) paying their rent, driving a car, and at the grocery store doing their shopping," he said. "It makes me feel proud to see them stand on their own legs, to make good for themselves."
The work isn't easy — and it became much harder during the recession. But during that rough patch, Mohamed said, employment caseworkers found new and better ways to find work, including by spreading their search for employers.
While he advocates for refugees, job placement demands that he learn each person's skills and work history to find good matches. That requires a willingness to listen and to learn about people arriving from dozens of countries — many with uncertainties about life in America.
And he must keep up with trusted employers, including hotel chains and the likes of Tyson, Dell and Wal-Mart.
Abdishakur "Abdi" Mohamed talks to Khadra Warfa, a Somali refugee employed at a Catholic Charities distribution center Monday, June 9, 2014 in Nashville, Tenn.(Photo: Steven S. Harman / Tennessean)
Hundreds of refugees have found work through FreshPoint Tomato, a produce distributor where Mohamed works often with Cassandra Holdsclaw, human resources manager.
"It's not just identifying people that would be a good fit for our company, but also helping with the onboarding process, making sure that we go through orientation with them, that they understand our policies and procedures, and that they understand their benefits information," she said. "You can tell that he's very patient and also thorough in his explanations."
A valuable resource
In return for his help, Mohamed gets to know people from around the world, coming into contact each day with Nashville's growing diversity.
"The few hours you are with them, they will tell you everything," he said.
All of that wisdom makes Mohamed valuable to a city that now has a foreign-born population of 12 percent, said Tom Negri, interim director of the Metro Human Rights Commission.
"What Abdi brings to the commission is knowledge of the new arrival community," he said. "(The commission) is reflective of what our community is. When we look at the city we should be able to touch every section."
Mohamed will sit as a commissioner for the first time this summer, taking up diversity and discrimination issues in Nashville. His selection to the commission is a point of pride for friends and family.
Married with a daughter and a baby boy on the way, Mohamed said he will speak on behalf of his communities — the Somalis and the refugees — but not only in their interests.
"Whether you're from America or Africa, that doesn't matter," he said. "We are in one basket."
Reach Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 and on Twitter @tgonzalez.
Nashville refugee community
New refugee arrivals in 2013
Somalia, Bosnia, Sudan
leading refugee arrivals from 1996 to 2008
Bhutan, Burma, Iraq and Somalia
leading refugee arrivals since 2012
Source: Tennessee Office for Refugees