Abdul Sheikh arrived in the United States at 16, alone and afraid on an early morning in December 2000.
It was a time of many firsts: His first flight on an airplane and the first time he saw snow on the ground, which he mistook for salt. His greatest challenge was learning to speak English.
But years later, Sheikh, now 25, is scheduled to graduate from the University of Richmond's School of Continuing Studies in May with a degree focused on American Studies and minors of business and political science.
For more than two years, Sheikh lived in refugee camp in Northern Kenya, displaced from his home in Somalia. He and his friends wanted school and education. They described it as "tosh" — the light.
Then, for eight to nine months, he lived in Little Mogadishu, a section of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, known for its high population of Somalis. When the friends with whom he had been staying departed the country, he was left homeless and slept inside of mosques.
It was at the mosque that Sheikh met an elderly man, who took him to a school in Nairobi that met once a week. It was the first contact he had ever had with the English language. Sheikh said the man gave him hope for the future.
Soon, with the help of the U.S. Embassy and two other Americans, he was able to move to the United States. Sheikh said he wanted to seize the beacon of opportunity that the United States was to him.
"You can go to America and make something of yourself," the refugee coordinator at the embassy had told him, Sheikh said.
With help from the Wilton family and the Virginia Home For Boys and Girls — a place Sheikh described as his first real home in this country — he came to the University of Richmond. The Wilton family contributed to the development of the E. Carlton Wilton Center on campus and continues to offer scholarships for incoming Richmond students.
"In honesty, I was not prepared for the challenge of this university," Sheikh said. "But I found teachers who looked at their students as not just a number, but somebody."
He went on to describe the development of his writing, and an English teacher who diligently worked to help see him progress in essay assignments. When Abdul couldn't afford books for classes, teachers would allow him to use their copy or photocopy the book completely for his use.
Another professor Abdul spoke of was Anne Marie Morgan, who witnessed Abdul gain his U.S. citizenship.
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She was a graduate student at Richmond, and since 1998 has taught a wide variety of courses oriented in politics and government during the evenings at the School of Continuing Studies. She has known Sheikh for about four years and was impressed by Sheikh's drive to succeed, she said.
"Abdul wanted to make something of himself," Morgan said.
Morgan hosts a Web site for students that provides them with information they can use to become part of legislative decisions and the government. Outside of teaching, she works as a reporter for the National Public Radio of Virginia.
"I think that America is supposed to be interactive," she said. "The government makes decisions without our input unless we get involved."
People who are helping others, Sheikh said, were the most important aspect of his reflection at Richmond.
"It's the campus itself, because you hear so many stories that happen here," he said. "There are some people who don't get any credit for what they do. I never had bad professors, but I have heard from other students that some professors don't care about student problems. But that is not the case.
"I have seen professors who will stop what they're doing and listen their students, and I am grateful for those who have invested their time on me."
Contact reporter Keon Monroe at firstname.lastname@example.org
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