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.
“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.
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.
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.”
She staked out her own destiny instead of bending to what everyone else wanted for 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 | firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
It is an age-old teen dilemma with a plot from another time.
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.
What do you want to be when you grow up, a stranger asks her.