Mohamed Malim understands what it means to be a refugee.
In the 1990s, Malim and his family fled from Somalia because of the civil war. They eventually landed in Minnesota.
Now a senior at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Malim is helping reshape the narrative about refugees in Minnesota.
Last year, Malim founded Dream Refugee, a nonprofit that connects refugees to the broader community and shares their stories. He started the nonprofit after seeing negative portrayals of refugees in the media.
“It’s very important because there’s a lot of hate toward our refugees throughout the nation,” said Malim, who lived in a Kenyan refugee camp as a child. “… It’s my job and it’s my duty to tell my story and my other refugees’ stories.”
Mohamed Malim, a senior at the University of St. Thomas, is the founder of Dream Refugee, a nonprofit that connects refugees to he broader community and highlights their stories. Malim is a Somali refugee. (Photo by Ba Po, ThreeSixty Journalism)
The mission of the nonprofit is to connect refugees to other communities in Minnesota through the power of storytelling. Dream Refugee has a mentorship program and also highlights local refugees’ stories on its website.
Abdirahman Mohamed is one of more than a dozen refugees highlighted by the nonprofit. A Somalia native, Mohamed fled in 2006 due to the civil war and eventually came to Minneapolis. He now attends Concordia University in St. Paul and is in the U.S. Army.
Dream Refugee highlighted Dai Thao in October. A Hmong native, Thao came to Minnesota with his family in 1983. Now he is a St. Paul City Council member for Ward 1 and he ran for St. Paul mayor in the 2016 election.
Halima Aden is another example. Aden is a 20-year-old internationally-known model who has challenged traditional beauty stereotypes. She became the first model in a hijab and burkini to compete in the Miss Minnesota USA contest in 2016. Since then, she has modeled for Nike and been on the cover of Vogue magazine.
“It’s our job not to forget those kids who are still living in refugee camps but to go back and show them it’s okay to be a refugee,” Aden says in her Dream Refugee story. “They need to know you can still do amazing things. A lot of people are scared to tell that side of their story because of the stigma, but you have to talk about it. Other kids have to see that that’s not where their story ends.”
Dream Refugee’s mentorship program aims to help refugee students gain access to professional mentors, scholarships and networking opportunities so they can become more successful in their high school years and in college.
Tu Lor Eh Paw is the first mentee in the program. Paw, who is Karen, came to the United States as a Burmese refugee seven years ago and is now a senior at St. Paul Como High School. The program connected Paw with a mentor, Diana Chaman, who is helping her with the college process, she said.
Tu Lor Eh Paw, a senior at St. Paul Como Park High School, is the first mentee in the Dream Refugee mentorship program. Paw immigrated from Burma (now Myanmar). (Photo by Ba Po, ThreeSixty Journalism)
“Not only do they give me this mentor,” Paw said, “but they give me this really good friend who’s always there for me. Someone to call when I need help with anything. … She’s really helping me in getting my higher education that I need to get.”
Paw is the youngest of nine children and grew up in a small village in Burma (now called Myanmar) where her family farmed for a living, she says in her Dream Refugee story. In 2002, her mother died from a life-threatening disease. Seven years later, her father moved her and three of her siblings to a refugee camp in Burma to live with her aunt. She later came to the United States and landed in Minnesota on her 11th birthday (March 9, 2011).
Paw is determined to go to college, she said, and her top choices are Bethel University, Augsburg University and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
“My brother just went back to Burma last month and he brought back all these photos of our village and you just see these kids, and they need better opportunities,” Paw said. “They need a chance, and I’m like, I have to do something for them. I have to go to college, get a good job and go back there to see what I can do. They motivate me to do better.”
Malim says connecting refugees with non-refugees is “very key.”
“That breaks the stereotypes,” he said.
‘CHANGE THE WORLD’
Malim lived in a refugee camp in Kenya as a child. He recalls in his own Dream Refugee story that, at age 3, he realized “that when it comes to war, mercy doesn’t exist.”
When he came to Minnesota, he went to school at a Somali charter school until eighth grade and then attended Edina High School, where he graduated. He’s studying marketing and marketing management at St. Thomas and preparing to graduate in May.
In addition to Dream Refugee, Malim also has started Epimonia, an apparel company that gives a percentage of its profits to organizations that support refugees.
Dream Refugee recently received a 2018 Minnesota Campus Compact award. Many refugees don’t share their stories, Malim said, but Dream Refugee provides a platform for these stories.
“If I could change a mind [with] these stories, I accomplished my goal,” Malim said. “It motivates and inspires me to wake up every morning and go out there and change the world.”