GW Serves is a monthly series featuring students who are living out the university’s mission to build up public service leaders and active citizens to create a better world for all.
By Nick Erickson
When Rayaan Ahmed’s mother sought refuge from her native Somalia in 1999, hundreds of thousands of her fellow countrymen and women had died of disease, starvation and other consequences of the still ongoing Somali Civil War. But before that, her point of refuge within her embattled country was an after-school program that served as a sanctuary for students and their families.
Amid the painful reality of the hardships already had and all that were to come, this program in Mogadishu taught students valuable life lessons of and important skills while incorporating a system of mutual aid to not only survive, but to thrive and grow as a community during wartime.
Ahmed, a current George Washington University senior majoring in political science and American Studies, heard the wartime stories growing up in Minneapolis from both her mom and dad—who came to the United States in 1992—but always remembered her mother’s affection for the after-school program that taught her how to perform CPR, grow and maintain a garden and interact with peers, among other life skills.
“My mother always said it was a place where a gardener would teach a plumber and a plumber would teach a doctor, and I always had that in the back of my mind," Ahmed said.
Raised in what she calls a blue-collar household in Minnesota where her father carried around a book of American idioms to better learn English, Ahmed always wanted to give back to that community in some capacity. And when inspiration struck during her junior year at GW, she reached into that place in the back of her mind and brainstormed ways to help kids who, like her mother did three decades earlier, needed their own place to grow a thrive.
Thanks to help from the Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service-Learning and exploring social innovation opportunities through GWupstart, part of the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, Ahmed led a bridge building effort between her hometown of Minneapolis and her mothers in Mogadishu.
Through her project, Prosperity Together: We Keep Us Safe, Ahmed has worked to bring mutual aid to students of both cities as they are learning to address social issues while discussing civic engagement and community leadership, in addition to important life skills. This program encourages the youth to pursue their dreams in ways that honor their personal, family and caregiving responsibilities, as well as bring prosperity to their communities.
“Building that connection was more than just about giving students the support they needed to help their own communities,” Ahmed said. “It was giving them the knowledge and the comfort that they weren’t alone in this world.”
Ahmed's project, under Associate Professor of American Studies Dara Orenstein’s faculty leadership, connected the Southside Child Development Center in Minnesota and the Al-Aqsa after school program in Mogadishu. Last academic year, she worked with students to deepen their understanding of community service. She is pleased that efforts have continued organically this school year, as students in Somalia have taken on civic projects for themselves, while the Southside Child Development Center built a year-round youth center and is building her program into its curriculum.
Ahmed believes this program is vital because it shows people at a very young age that they are more connected than they know, and kids from thousands of miles away may be asking similar questions despite vastly different backgrounds.
“It just builds a global connection that is secured with this curiosity,” she said. “The more connected we are, the more answers we get to find and the more social issues that we get to elevate.”
Engaging in public service is nothing new to Ahmed. When she 17, she and her wide eyes walked into then-Minnesota state legislator Ilhan Omar’s office asking to help in any way. A campaign manager handed her leaflets and told her to distribute them around the Minneapolis neighborhood. She did—to four people. Feeling mortified she didn’t do an adequate job, Ahmed came back to the office and offered her apologies. But instead of meeting her with disappointment, the staff in Omar’s office appreciated Ahmed’s enthusiasm for progressive change so much that they brought her on as an intern.
Omar, of course, would go on to become the first Somali American elected to Congress when she won a House seat in the 2018 and has already served almost a full term. But she is not the only Somali American woman in town making a difference.
“I want to be able to live in a world in which I'm also fighting for people and for progressive change,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed has brought the fight to GW and will use her education and experiences at the university as leverage to continue her advocacy work building bridges between communities.
Throughout October, the Nashman Center is hosting workshops on social innovation, preparing students to propose their own projects as Ahmed did.