By SARAH MCCAMMON | NPR
The state of Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, tens of thousands of people, many of whom were refugees from civil war. Today, we’re talking with two of them who are making history. Abdirizak Abdi and Akram Osman are the first Somali public school principals in Minnesota. That’s according to the Sahan Journal, which reports about immigrants in the state. They both just started on the job, which means first figuring out how to do it in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Principal Abdi, Principal Osman, thanks so much for joining us.
ABDIRIZAK ABDI: Thank you very much, Sarah.
AKRAM OSMAN: Thank you.
MCCAMMON: Abdi, I want to start with you. You, as I understand it, never even attended K-12 schools in the United States. You came to Minnesota when you were 19 years old. Where did your interest in education come from?
ABDI: I did my school in Africa, specifically in Kenya. So we lived in the refugee camp just for a little bit and then moved to the capital city of Kenya, which is Nairobi – really comes from my mom. I think you only understand the value of something when you don’t have it. I still remember my mom telling me that, you know, if you want to reach the moon, you would have to get an education.
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MCCAMMON: And, Akram, you had a very different experience. You arrived in the U.S. in fourth grade, right? And in high school, you were really involved. You were student council president, captain of the soccer team. But you were still one of few Black students in a mostly white student body as well as coming from an immigrant family background. How was that for you?
OSMAN: I remember my mother just reminding me and my – I’ve got four brothers and a sister – that you might have some feelings in school, you know? You might be in spaces and places where you might not experience that sense of value and belonging. But when you come home, I’m going to remind you that education is the way. And that’s how we grew up, just seeing value in education. And, you know, part of my story also – I remember a conversation with my high school principal my senior year of high school encouraging me to check out the field of education. And in that moment, I remember just thinking why would I come back to a school place like this?
ABDI: And something that’s really interesting in terms of me and Akram is that I came here when I was 19. I did not know I was Black until I got to America. I just wanted to say that. First time sitting in college and I remember my U.S. history teacher, there was only myself and another Somali student in that class. And I remember him saying, do you know where these two guys came from? I did not know what he was saying until I actually to get into education that he was saying that I was different and the average of that class was D, but the two of us had A-plus. And so he was angry about it.
MCCAMMON: The teacher was angry that you were succeeding?
ABDI: Yeah, but he didn’t realize it. Of course, he was coming from a good place and saying these two guys are excelling in this class, but they were not even here when you guys were learning U.S. history.
MCCAMMON: It’s interesting that you say that you didn’t know you were Black until you came to America. What do you mean by that?
ABDI: I grew up in Kenya. And even though there are, you know, different cultures and other people from Europe and America and all of that, the conversation about race does not really exist. The conversation about the color of your skin as either an opportunity or as a gap or as a barrier does not completely exist. I never heard of it. Until I got here is when I actually heard about it.
MCCAMMON: Akram, did you have that experience as well? I mean, I know you were younger, but did you – does that resonate with you?
OSMAN: It does. It definitely does. You know, going to school, my teachers were white. Many of my classmates were white. And I remember a friend in early fourth grade that spoke a similar language, spoke Somali. And I remember him being just that support person for me at school. So, yes, those thoughts were in my mind that I look different, you know, I was learning the language. There weren’t many of us. And as I went through the system, an educational system, I continued to think about how the system was structured – right? – in order to address the inequities that continue to exist in schools.
MCCAMMON: The Minneapolis-St. Paul region where you both are is the largest hub in the U.S. for Somali families. But representation among educators is still quite low. What does it mean to you to be the first Somali principals in the state?
ABDI: For me, I think it’s about other kids seeing themselves in the seats of leadership. I think when kids see someone that looks like them in those seats, I think a lot of kids would really be willing to take that opportunity and take that challenge and go for it in terms of becoming leaders of the future themselves.
OSMAN: Yeah. So I would agree with everything Abdi said, you know, the privilege that I have in being in this role in order to advocate for a system or a school that’s for all, that’s going to see the person for their strengths and support them for who they are as their true, authentic selves in order for them to achieve whatever they want to achieve.
MCCAMMON: I do want to ask, though – I want to ask you both – the Minneapolis area was the epicenter of the national protest against racial injustice that broke out in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. How are you planning on talking about that with your students and your staff?
OSMAN: There’s definitely an opportunity here. Just last week, I met with our leadership team – administration team, I should say, spent about an hour talking about two words – equity and humanity – to address whatever existed in our school that might have been inequitable that might have led to the gaps that continue to exist and persist within a school and then humanity being just we are living through a pandemic and then also some racial tensions, some unrest in our nation and then just taking this time, too, for us to ground ourselves and see the human beings that we serve and allowing for space to listen to the stories and the different experiences and the different struggles.
ABDI: None of us is doing right now OK, especially for our Black students that are coming back after a pandemic and everything that has been taking place. We are at a point of history, I think, that we all recognize that the schools that we lead really need more from us. Words of sympathy are not enough.
MCCAMMON: The pandemic has come up a couple of times. You’re both taking on these roles. It’s your first year as principal in a really difficult time, a lot of uncertainty. How are you preparing to come back? I know that’s probably the question you’re getting asked all the time, but how are you getting ready to come back in the fall, given what’s going on?
ABDI: Right now, we have to prepare for three different scenarios and that’s if we’re coming back to the building, if we’re not coming back and doing distance learning and if we’re personally coming back, which means we have to do a hybrid. We have to prepare for all of those three scenarios.
OSMAN: Yep, and that’s similar to Abdi as far as the preparation goes with those three different scenarios. And we’ll receive more guidance here towards the end of the month. But honestly, you know, I choose to right now as a new leader, as a new principal, choose to focus as well to connecting with staff, like Abdi said, seeing what they’ve experienced and then kind of just formulating what our focus areas will be.
MCCAMMON: Well, congratulations to you both. I wish you both a lot of luck and success at this difficult time. Thanks for talking with me.
ABDI: Thank you, Sarah. Pleasure.
MCCAMMON: Abdirizak Abdi is the principal at Humboldt High School in St. Paul, Minn. Akram Osman is the principal at Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minn. Thanks again.
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