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San Diegan finds his heart in Somalia

UT San Diego
Saturday, November 03, 2012
by Karla Peterson

Abdulmalik Buul's new path includes teaching a class on personal growth at San Diego Mesa Community College. He is also a leader with the Somali Youth League. — Peggy Peattie

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Accident sets activist on a new path

It is a long road from the streets of City Heights to the stage of the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting in Washington, D.C. It is even longer if you swing by the deserts of Somalia on your way there. Fortunately, Abdulmalik Buul had a spiritual traveling companion who helped make the trip a much straighter shot than he could have imagined.

“It all goes back to that beautiful young lady,” the 25-year-old SDSU graduate said, pointing to a photo of a little refugee girl he met during his first trip to Somalia. “That could have been me. That’s what makes me grateful. That is what makes me want to give back.”

Buul ended up speaking to the international crowd in Washington because of his work with the Somali Youth League of San Diego, the nonprofit advocacy and aid group he cofounded in 2011. How this underachieving class clown became a global activist is a story of transformative accidents, personal fortitude, and the power of a homeland that was never as far away as it appeared.

The second-oldest of 12 children, Buul was born in Somalia and raised in the middle of the City Heights culture war. On one side, strict immigrant parents who valued education but didn’t know how to help their children pursue it. On the other side, friends and neighbors who knew way too much about guns, gangs and drugs.

And in the middle was Buul, an engaging, wisecracking kid who was smart enough to get decent grades but not savvy enough to know he had to take the SATs to get into college. A good kid who didn’t get into major trouble but knew plenty of people who did.

Despite the demographic odds and lack of college preparation, Buul graduated from Kearny High School and moved on to Mesa College, which is where his real education began. In 2006, Buul’s next-youngest brother was hit by a car, and Buul’s life veered off in a whole new direction.

“I’ve got all my homeboys doing all these nefarious activities, and it just hits me,” said Buul, who recently won a leadership award from the Somali Family Service of San Diego. “I see that everything I have in life could be taken away from me. So I decided to cut out all these bad apples and be there for my family and for my community and start a new path.”

While Buul’s brother was recovering, Buul was discovering. First came Mesa College’s Muslim Student Association, where he reveled in being an active member of the campus community. In 2008, he transferred to San Diego State and cofounded the Somali Student Council, which sponsored popular high-school expos and a mentoring program.

Three years later, Buul had graduated from SDSU with a master’s degree in education and social justice and Somalia was being ravaged by a famine. He posted a passionate call to action on his Facebook page, and a few days later, more than 80 people gathered at the East African Community and Cultural Center for the first meeting of what would become the Somali Youth League of San Diego.

That was in the summer for 2011. By the fall, the group had raised $30,000 and Buul had become a local expert on the plight of his war-torn homeland. He traveled to Somalia with the American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa to help distribute food and supplies to needy families. Less than a year later, he was back in Somalia doing research for UCSD. From there, he flew to Washington, D.C., for the Clinton Global Initiative, an experience that was amazing in more ways than Buul can begin to count.

“Keep in mind that back home, some of our families fought against each other in the civil war,” Buul said of the members of the Somali Youth League. “We are actually working in unison. We’re saying, ‘That civil war was your beef. We are a new generation, and we are transcending that.’ ”

Currently, the Somali Youth League is expanding locally and globally, working on a mentoring program for young members of the community and organizing a Nov. 30 fundraiser for Burmese refugees.

As for Buul, he is juggling his job as a program specialist at the San Diego Workforce Partnership with a teaching and counseling internship at Mesa College. He is getting married in December and plans to get his doctorate with an eye toward being a professor and/or starting a school in Somalia. Knowing Buul, that will be only the beginning.

“There is something about him that is amazing, and it is amazing to witness it,” said Michael Temple, a professor and counselor at Mesa College who has known Buul for years. “I think he will be in pretty hot demand, internationally and globally. Whatever he sets out to do, he will achieve that.”

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