Thursday January 7, 2016
By Rose Korabek
It started when Rochester Math and Science Academy teacher Deq Ahmed asked his eighth grade class a simple question: "Are you an American?"
"Their responses were, 'No, I'm a Somalian,'" he said. "I found this amazing, since all but three were born in the United States.
"I told them, 'You can make changes here. Don't cut yourself short,'" he said. "'You are an American. Find your dream and go live it! The color of your skin, religion or gender shouldn't matter here."
From that classroom question came the idea for 30 eighth graders to travel to Washington, D.C., from April 4-8.
"The class will visit the White House, congressional offices, go to the steps where Martin Luther King Jr. did his 'I Have a Dream' speech — places where history comes to life and they can see where and how laws are made, and hopefully meet the president," Ahmed said. "I want to create better citizens who can become taxpayers and take care of their parents. America is a melting pot with many opportunities. If I lived in Somalia, I would never have had this chance."
Through the trip, Ahmed wants to instill a sense of citizenship.
"I want to open their eyes," he said. "Most have never been out of Rochester or on an airplane. These students are from low-income families, but I want to give them this chance. The whole idea is it's good to learn in the classroom, but it's good to learn outside of the classroom, too. We need that balance.
"There is a lot of negativity now in the news," Ahmed said. "Daily I ask my students how events like San Bernadino are affecting them. I teach them how to respond and to calm down. My own family had a bad experience leaving Apache Mall a month ago. A car full of high school students called my wife and child 'rug heads' and yelled to 'go back to Saudi Arabia.' My wife is not even from there. She was scared for her safety and our child.
"I want my students to understand they can help make Rochester a safer place by having open communication and dialogue with those who are different," Ahmed said. "If we as adults come together, the kids will see and will follow. I tell them if they don't know what Christians believe, ask one instead of just believing what they see on TV. I go to all different kinds of places and meet people with all religions. It makes us better."
Ahmed was born in Somalia, where war broke out when he was six days into kindergarten.
"My dad was an engineer and my mom was a stay-at-home mom," he said. "We were higher class at the time. We had it all — private security, three cars, a maid, a tutor. But when the war broke out, we had to run away. I can still see the face of my father when we had to flee. We went to our neighbor country and became Kenyan refugees."
In 1994, a family member working at the U.S. Embassy sponsored Ahmed's family to come to America. They moved to Portland, Ore. His father was unable to get work in his field, and his mom couldn't find a job. In 1995, the family moved to Minnesota, where family members told them there were more opportunities.
Ahmed came to this country only knowing two words of English: "yes" and "mustache." He learned the language watching TV shows such as "The Simpsons" and "Star Trek." He graduated from Hopkins High School and then from North Dakota State University with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry.
Now, he helps students find their own dreams.
"They are the next generation," Ahmed said. "This trip is important. When they get back, they have to write a report. We are working with WorldStrides (a company that organizes student travel packages for schools). Each student must write a letter before and after the trip to earn one high school credit."
One big hurdle remaining for the trip: the funding for it. It costs about $1,900 per student, or about $50,000 total, and so far the group has raised about $30,000. Donations are received at a website, www.gofundme.com/u672gsnw.
"People can sponsor a specific student or help the group," Ahmed said. "Some kids are discouraged and say this trip can't happen."
Rochester Science and Math Academy is a charter school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. To learn more, visit www.rmsacademy.org.