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From a refugee camp in Kenya to a seat at the State of the Union

Buffalo News
Saturday February 9, 2019

Growing up in a flood-prone hut in Kenya, due west of the war in Somalia that her parents fled and 7,669 miles southeast of her eventual home in Buffalo, Habiba Mohamed didn't dream the way most kids dream.

A young teen at the time, she looked after her younger siblings while her mother worked. She waited for water and food rations just like everyone else in the Dadaab refugee camp. She never imagined joining a wider world because she didn't know it existed.

"You can't be what you can't see," Mohamed, now 24, noted this week.

newsisnideSo she could never dream of the moment she lived Tuesday night. She could never dream of meeting the House speaker. She could never dream of looking down on the floor of the House chamber and seeing her boss, who's running for president. And she could never imagine looking on as President Donald Trump – who tried to keep Somali refugees on the far side of the Atlantic – delivered his State of the Union address.

"It was surreal," she said afterwards. "The most powerful people were all there. All three branches of government were there: the checks and balances were there. And I was looking down on it all, and all I could think was: 'How did I get here?' "
The short story is that Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, invited Mohamed to be his guest.
But Habiba Mohamed's longer story reveals the full, enduring state of the union –– a country where a young outcast from another continent can still become a fully American success story in a decade.

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Arriving in Buffalo with her family at age 14, Mohamed had never gone to school and knew no English.

"I could barely write my name," she recalled.

The oldest of six children, she had to learn, and fast. She had to translate for her family, so she focused on her studies at Buffalo's School 30 and headed off to the library when she was done.

Doing so, she developed a passion for reading. And by the time she finished her high school years at the city's International Preparatory School, she ended up in advanced placement English.

She went off to D'Youville College to major in nursing, only to nearly faint one day when she started to see what nurses really see. So she switched majors to sociology, all the while pouring herself into school and community activities.

An internship with Journey's End Immigration Legal Services and a stint as an Upward Bound tutor for high school students stoked her interest in public affairs, and that led to an internship in Higgins' office in the fall of 2015.

She loved it, and the feeling was mutual.

"Nothing was trivial" in Higgins' office, she recalled. "The people who called got the help they needed. Seeing that made government accessible for me. It was amazing. One day I would be in a meeting with the CEO of a company and the next day I would be meeting with a veteran who has having an issue getting his benefits."

Meantime, Mohamed quickly became "an office favorite," Higgins said.

"Habiba has an inner light," he said. "She’s a charismatic. Her story and her spirit represent the hope and optimism that is uniquely American."

After her internship, Mohamed worked for Journey's End, but she longed to get back into government. So when Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, went looking for a regional assistant in her Buffalo office in 2017, Mohamed applied and – with a glowing recommendation from Higgins – got the job.

Now she's doing the same sort of work helping average citizens that she did in Higgins' office, only on a larger scale, across six counties. And she's still loving it.

"I believe government works for the people," she said.

That being the case, Mohamed's career in government probably won't end in Gillibrand's office. Mohamed is thinking about law school or a graduate degree in public policy – in her words, "anything that puts me at the table."

There was some irony in this accomplished young Somali refugee attending the State of the Union address of a president who barred Somalis from entering America in early 2017, arguing that newcomers from their war-torn Muslim country could pose a security risk. There was some irony, too, in this young refugee listening to a speech delivered by a president who has cut the number of refugees coming to the United States by more than two thirds.

Asked about those ironies, Mohamed responded not with anger, but with insight.

"I think there are a lot of misconceptions" about refugees, and Muslim refugees in particular, she said. "My family waited almost 17 years to get here. The process of coming here can be so broken and so long that the odds of someone being allowed in who wants to do harm are so small."

Once Mohamed's family arrived in America, it thrived. Her parents worked and saved money and bought a home. Her eldest sister graduated from college, and her eldest brother seems likely to head to the University at Buffalo. Mohamed said all her younger siblings are doing well in school, too.

In other words, they've all come a long way from that brick and clay hut in Kenya. That being the case, Higgins wanted Mohamed to be in Trump's audience Tuesday night, as a symbol and an example.

“To know Habiba is to look perseverance in the eyes," Higgins said. "She has overcome incredible obstacles, faced hardships and discrimination, and come through with a passionate spirit and impressive drive ... She is everything we should want for the future of our community and country.”

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