Climbing the Ladder of Success: A Somali refugee story

Growing up in a refugee camp, Abdinassir Shale did not know what the future held for him, but he came to Canada where he climbed the ladder of educational success. Abdinassir was born in Somalia, but fled his country at a very young age due to the civil war in 1991. He and his family came to Hagadera refugee camp, situated in the north eastern province of Kenya. Abdinassir’s family, consisting of five siblings and two parents, lived in one tent. Later on, his father passed away in the camp. 

The Hagadera camp is one of three camps that make up “Dadaab refugee camp”, which was once the biggest refugee camp in the world mostly populated by Somali refugees. Dadaab means “the rocky and hard place”. Abdinassir Shale’s memory of leaving home is obscure due to his age at the time. According to a news story published in 2016 by the Guardian, “Dadaab was built in 1992 for 90,000 refugees fleeing the war in Somalia. Today it is home to an estimated half a million people, 350,000 of them registered refugees – an urban area the size of Bristol, Zurich or New Orleans.”

The family’s life was very tough in the camp. Everything was hard. The Shales sought refuge in the camp, but it was not a safe place to live in, as armed bandits attacked the Dadaab camps on a regular basis. They would loot refugees and kill them at random. The armed robbers had mercy for nobody, exacerbating the fear of Abdinassir’s family. “Life in the camp was very tough as food was scarce, shelter wasn’t permanent, and everyday life was difficult,” he says reminiscing the situation in the Hagadera camp.  

Shortly after they arrived in the camp, Abdinassir was enrolled in a nursery class. There, he learned how to hold a pen, how to write the English alphabet, and how to count numbers. He moved up as time progressed. He eventually completed his intermediate education in 2001, and moved on to Hagadera Secondary School run by CARE, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping refugees.

Abdinassir’s path to education was full of obstacles, but he persisted and overcame them. As he asserts, his mother was the real motivation. She urged him to persist and learn very well. “I was very much inspired by my mom. When we left Somalia my mom worked very hard to put us through school. I reflected on why she was working hard when she was not the one getting the education. I realized her purpose was to educate us and I made my purpose to work hard to make her happy and proud.”

Teacher addressing Hagadera Secondary School students

The secondary school lacked both qualified teachers and teaching resources. Teachers were hired from within the refugee camp, and most of them were unqualified to teach the secondary level. Daily school routine was quite arduous, too. On school days, Abdinassir would wake up early in the morning, eat whatever he could get, clutch a number of exercise books, and walk to the school, which was a kilometre and a half away from his tent. He would then sit in a classroom of forty five students, sit in a wooden chair and share a wooden desk and one subject-specific textbook with three students.

When he completed the Hagadera secondary school, Abdinassir applied for a competitive scholarship program titled “Student Refuge Program” offered by WUSC (World University Service of Canada). He tried the program for three consecutive times, and each time wrote a competitive English exam required by it. However, he was unsuccessful for the first two times, but won it eventually. Ibrahim Keynan, a relative of Abdinassir, says, “Abdinassir is a young man who worked very hard to achieve his goals.”  

Abdinassir Shale

The Student Refuge Sponsorship Program is unique to Canada and is the only one of its kind in the world that is run by students to sponsor refugee students. Abdinassir was awarded the scholarship and was extremely joyous. “It was April 16, 2009 when I first got a letter from Canada that began with, “greetings from Ottawa!” and went on to inform me that I have been offered a scholarship at a University in Edmonton,” he reminisces.

As someone who spent most of his childhood time in a refugee camp, that very letter gave him hope and assurance that his future was bright. He got the scholarship from McEwan University. That time was the turning point of his life. Soon after, the Canadian embassy in Nairobi helped him prepare to immigrate to Canada. “I got more excited and wondered what it was like to live in Canada?” he exclaims.

When his departure time got closer, Abdinassir got a letter from the university students who were preparing to welcome him to Canada. The letter accelerated his excitement. While reading on the letter, he came to a phrase that said, ““When you arrive, we will be the ones at the airport with signs that say Welcome… So you know where to find us.” When the departure time came, he packed up, boarded a plane, and left for Canada. He landed at the Edmonton International Airport on August 21, 2009 at 2 a.m. The same students who wrote to him were awaiting him at the airport. They were so happy to receive him. So was he. “I am grateful to each one of them and to me they have highly demonstrated Canada’s culture of kindness and love,” he affirms. READ HIS GRATITUE HERE.

A little later, he transferred to the University of Alberta, where he completed his undergraduate program in School of Business specializing in Management Information Systems. With his undergraduate study out of the way, he began working for a while, but returned to the same university and started a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a focus on public policy. He graduated in 2018. While doing the MBA, Abdinassir applied to the United Nations (UN) for a job, and got a data person position at the organization’s headquarter in New York. In October 2017 he moved there.

He eventually moved to Nairobi, Kenya where he currently works for UN-Habitat in the Knowledge and Innovation Unit, where he contributes to knowledge products in the subject of innovation, digital technologies and sustainable urban development. In Nairobi, Abdinassir lives with his wife and children.

Abdinassir Shale

Abdinassir’s story demonstrates dedication and resilience. It is a story of a refugee who climbed the ladder of success through hard work and higher education and lastly landed a job at the (UN), the biggest organization in the world.