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‘A star’ refugee starts business to speak for other Syracuse refugees, in 20 languages

Syracuse, N.Y. – It is 13 degrees out. Khadijo Abdulkadir wears a T-shirt, her bare arms moving as she talks to the crowd. Her breath hangs in frozen puffs.

We will offer services to refugees that we did not have when we came here, she tells them. It will be by refugees, for refugees.

Abdulkadir stands next to Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh. He holds the ribbon as she slices through it with the scissors. This is the grand opening of her new business. The name is printed on her T-shirt: Empower Interpretation Services of CNY.

Abdulkadir has 20 interpreters, including two of her sisters, who speak 20 languages among them. She speaks three languages: Somali, Swahili and English.

“Every time I see her, she’s doing something different to benefit her community,” Walsh says to the crowd on the sidewalk. Abdulkadir’s fellow translators and family snap photos with their phones. They wear the shirts, too, but over long sleeves. “The work she is doing – it’s our vision in action,” Walsh says.

Albdulkadir came to the U.S. almost 10 years ago with less than a second-grade education, knowing no English. Her mother works as a janitor to support the family. At age 25, she speaks three languages, including English. She’s a few months from graduating from Syracuse University. Her business is being hailed as part of the solution to Syracuse’s entrenched poverty.

Abdulkadir won a competitive grant of $175,000 from Onondaga County’s $50 million in anti-poverty money. Her business was one of the few start-ups the money will fund; most went to existing efforts.

The translation service will attack poverty on two fronts: the employees are former refugees, many of them women. That’s a group that has faced difficulty getting good-paying jobs, despite their qualifications. Many of Abdulkadir’s friends, who are college graduates, work in warehouses, she says.

And the main audience for the translators is other refugees who aren’t yet proficient in English. The training the translators are getting, combined with the cultural knowledge they already have, will make it easier to help refugees and non-English speakers get the right services in schools and at medical and social service appointments. And this will increase their chances of finding the success that Abdulkadir, who became a U.S. citizen in 2015, has achieved.

The paying customers will be schools, social service agencies, hospitals and government offices that hire translators to help non-English speakers through their appointments.

Abdulkadir’s office, a converted house, is on the North Side in the middle of the neighborhood where most of the refugees who come to Syracuse settle. The city has welcomed more than 10,000 refugees over the past decade. The neighborhood is also one of the city’s poorest.

“She’s a star,” says Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon. “The fact that more refugees are getting employed and then they are working with members of their community … It’s smart and also critical.”

Abdulkadir will get the funding over five years, but she’s certain she’ll be self-sufficient before then.

This stuff, it is not hard, Abdulkadir says in an interview. Even when she talks about struggle, she smiles broadly, authentically.

Running a business doing what she’s already been doing for years – speaking for people in her community — seems easy compared with her journey to this point.

Abdulkadir squeezed a lifetime of education into a few years. She became tri-lingual. She learned to bridge two cultures. And, perhaps most important all, she learned to stand up for herself.

She staked out her own destiny instead of bending to what everyone else wanted for her.

Now, she is working to take other refugees, and women, with her.

Khadijo Abdulkadir came to Syracuse 10 years ago speaking no English, with less than a second grade education. Now she is starting her own translation business and will graduate from Syracuse University in a few months. Katrina Tulloch/Syracuse.com  Katrina Tulloch | ktulloch@syracuse.com

Abdulkadir came to the U.S. in July 2009. She and her family were refugees from Somalia. She was born in the refugee camp in Kenya. She has nine sisters, including a twin, and one brother. There were two others, small children who died on the long, treacherous trek her family made to the refugee camp.

Abdulkadir lived in the camp until she was 15, when her family came to the U.S. Like most girls in the refugee camp and in Somalia, her education was the bare minimum. She knew nothing of the world around her.

Even the trip to Nairobi, on her way to America, was full of everyday things she’d never heard of: “Taking the elevator was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to die in this thing,” Abdulkadir says, sitting at the conference table in her new office, checking her phone for a moment as she talks.

When they got off the plane in New York, Abdulkadir and her family briefly left one of her sisters behind.

“The plane attendant was following us, yelling, ‘Hello,’” she recalls. He was trying to get them to turn around and come back for her, but the only word the family knew in English was “Hello.” And they couldn’t understand why he was yelling the greeting.

“Then we realized she was missing,” Abdulkadir says.

Once in Syracuse, Abdulkadir enrolled in high school because of her age. But she had an overwhelming game of catch-up to play: her education was second-grade, at best. She knew no English.

This is hard to imagine now, listening to her now. She speaks rapid-fire English, dropping idioms and an occasional well-placed swear word for emphasis.

Before her English was good, or even very legible, Abdulkadir wrote, “I want to go to college,” in her journal.

“To come to school at that age, it was very hard,” says Alfredo Gomez. He was Abdulkadir’s teacher at Nottingham. He taught her English and caught her up on math. He also taught her sisters, including her twin.

He pushed Abdulkadir and then she pushed herself, harder. She stayed after school, often into the evening, to catch up on English and math.

Her parents worried about her, so Gomez spoke with them, often. He went to their house to explain that Abdulkadir wasn’t getting into trouble; she was working hard to succeed.

“I was very motivated. It was, straight up, school, home, school, home,” she says, describing her days in high school.

But her family had different plans for her that nearly derailed her education. When she was 17, a junior in high school, Abdulkadir’s parents wanted her to get married. In Somali culture, this is not unusual. A 30-year-old Somali man, who lived in Boston, offered a hefty dowry to marry Abdulkadir. (This is also not unusual in Somali culture, Abdulkadir says).

She knew her family wanted what they thought was best for her, and that they worked hard to bring her and her sisters to America, where they would be safe. She aches for the children her parents lost on that journey and she never takes their sacrifice for granted, she says.

It takes time for two cultures to figure out how to mesh.

As much as she respected her parents, Abdulkadir also knew that a high school education, and a college education, could open doors she never imagined.

She wanted no part of getting married. But she also wanted no part of disappointing her parents. In the background of all this were the Regents exams she needed to pass, just two years after arriving in the U.S. with barely any education.

At first, Abdulkadir said she’d marry the man if he waited until she finished high school. She’d never met him; her father and the elders in her community had.

“You’re trying to respect your parents while, at the same time, having a voice,” Abdulkadir says.

It is an age-old teen dilemma with a plot from another time.

Eventually, the arrangement fell apart. The man was looking for a traditional Somali wife to care for his mother. Abdulkadir was not that woman.

Later, she helped form a group for women and girls who are refugees to help them through the same cultural struggle. It is called NAWE, New American Women’ Empowerment. The fledgling nonprofit, which has discussion groups, homework help, English tutoring and other services for young women, is also run in her North Side office.

There are photos of the girls on the walls. They look like her, most wearing a hijab, a traditional Muslim headscarf. Her goal is clear: She will be the help she needed at their age.

Jan-Juba Arway, who helps with the nonprofit girls’ group and works as the public relations person for the translation business, is one of those women. A Sudanese refugee, she was pushed into an arranged marriage at 16. Her husband was abusive, she says, so she left with her four children. The marriage happened in Egypt, the divorce in Arizona.

Now, she is pursuing her master’s degree at Syracuse University. She has a job that provides for her four children. She is unapologetic. Girls and women should get to make their own choices. That, Arway says, is how she’s raising her daughters and her sons

As she struggled to avoid an arranged marriage, Abdulkadir failed the math exam at first. But she retook it and passed. She graduated from Nottingham. And, in a few months, she’ll graduate from Syracuse University with a degree in international relations. She’d like to go to Harvard Law School.

As she says this, nothing feels impossible.

Later, her office is full of her family. Their pride is clear. Two of her sisters are also certified translators on her staff.

Abdulkadir’s 12-year-old sister is there, too, helping watch the smaller kids and putting out the food.

What do you want to be when you grow up, a stranger asks her.

“A photographer,” she says, smiling as she looks the stranger straight in the eye, “and a lawyer.”

Marnie Eisenstadt is an enterprise reporter who writes about people, life and culture in Central New York. Have an idea or question? Contact her anytime: email | twitter | Facebook | 315-470-2246

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