Early last April, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed and spent my morning complaining. There was still too much snow. The photocopier jammed again. I had a too-long to-do-list, and the news headlines made me cringe. The miserable day seemed endless.
Then, precisely at one o’clock, my perspective changed. That’s when psychology major Mohamed “Mo” Jafar ’18 arrived in my office to discuss class selections for his senior year, the dreaded GRE exam and graduate schools. It was a typical adviser-advisee conversation, until I heard Mo say, “… and when my sister was born in the refugee camp ...”
Refugee. The word lodged in my mind as he talked. Refugee. The misbehaving photocopier and temperamental weather didn’t matter anymore. I knew Mo was a Somalian American from Vermont. I knew he was the eldest of 11 children whose no-nonsense parents expected them all to attend college. But how could I have known Mo for three years in and out of the classroom and not known that he was born and grew up in a Kenyan refugee camp?
The U.N. Human Rights Council established the Dadaab camps in Kenya in 1992 to house Somalian refugees escaping a relentless civil war just 50 miles to the east. These refugee camps are still the second largest in the world, housing more than 240,000 Somalians this year. In 1996, though, Mo’s parents were mere adolescents escaping the war. Their first two children died in the camps. Mo, their third, was the first to survive. Three more of Mo’s siblings were born in the camps; he eventually became the eldest of 11 surviving children. At long last, when Mo was seven years old, the Jafars won a visa lottery program, relocated to Vermont and became American citizens.
Mo’s casual mention of his early years stayed with me, especially with the topic of refugees in the news, and I wanted to know more. When asked what it was like to grow up in the camps, he had two answers. The first was quick, honest and sobering: “It was life,” he said. “I did not know anything different.” The camp was its own world — it’s where he lived, where he played, where he went to school and where he cared for his siblings. Life may have been harsh, with never quite enough clean water, food or shelter from the heat, but it was all he knew.
His second answer was more nuanced.
“My family and two others were relocated to Vermont. Except for the other refugees, everyone was white. Vermont was a shock,” he said. “We lived with a host family for one month until my father got a full-time job at Gardener’s Supply. There was snow, a lot of snow. There was food that did not taste like my mother’s. I learned English quickly.” These days, Mo’s mother works in the home, and while his father continues to work at Gardener’s Supply, he also owns a cab company.
Mo quickly became American as well, and he learned to balance that new identity with the old. He ate African meals at home and bland American meals at school. He joined the soccer team, went out for burgers with friends and worked toward the goal of attending college. As life in the refugee camp fell further into the past, he did his best to help his traditional African parents understand their children. Some mainstays of an American childhood, for example, they never quite embraced.
“When I was a child, I wanted to sleep over at my friends’ places, and I wanted them to sleep over at mine,” Mo said. “My parents could not understand this.”
So how does a refugee from Kenya end up at Colby-Sawyer College? Soccer, first, and then love. When the Colby-Sawyer coach was recruiting Mo’s good friend and invited him to visit, Mo tagged along. As soon as he saw the campus, Mo knew he wanted to attend this beautiful, close-knit college on a hill.
Long before I learned of Mo’s beginnings in a refugee camp on the other side of the world, I realized he was an extraordinary young man, one who’s been a pleasure to teach and advise. From his perspective, he believes his personality and diverse background have contributed to the college community.
“I am accepting of life and it has made me who I am,” he said. “I believe my ability to connect with just about anyone I come into contact with has helped me interact with some amazing people, people who have proved crucial in helping me succeed in my goals and vice versa.”
As American politicians debate the status of refugees from certain countries, I realize they haven’t met Mohamed Jafar — yet. This spring, though, he is an intern researching federal policies at the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington, D.C. Mo will attend congressional hearings, draft and edit memos, and learn about the psychology of politics. I hope he works with politicians who don’t yet appreciate the contributions of refugees and immigrants to this country. When they meet Mo, however, they’ll be reminded of this great nation’s richness. Mo isn’t sure how he wants to apply his psychology degree after college, but one thing is clear: The Jafars and Mo may have won the lottery, but so did we.
Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Education Lynn J. Garrioch joined the faculty in 2001. She holds an honors B.A. in psychology from Wilfrid Laurier University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in applied social psychology from the University of Victoria. She has a special interest in social psychology, personality psychology and the psychology of women.