Sharing his light: Somali refugee leads through love

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Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in the Assumption College Magazine.

WORCESTER, Mass. — Shobow Saban, a Somali refugee who immigrated to the United States and settled in Lewiston, lends his personal story to a fictional work, “Out of Nowhere,” authored by Maria Padian.

The book, published last year and winner of the Maine Literary Award, tells Saban’s journey of overcoming hardships to excel in a foreign land.

His real life, though, is perhaps more compelling than the book.

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Saban is a popular Assumption College student, where he served as a resident assistant as a junior and is scheduled to graduate next year. He’s made many friends through his outgoing personality, infectious smile and zest for life and companionship.

As a young boy, Saban’s family fled his native land after his grandfather was shot and killed by a trespasser on his property during the early days of a civil war. The family fled to Kenya, where they lived in Dadaab, currently the world’s largest refugee camp. There, when Saban was 6 years old, his father became ill and died due to inadequate medical care.

His widowed mother, Bilow Farah, struggled to raise and support her six sons. As the eldest child, Saban was often asked to shoulder some of the responsibilities.

“It was a terrible life, but my mom did the best she could,” he said. “I learned so much from her. She taught me that if I put my trust in God, things will be better. It’s just a matter of time.”

He credits his mom with “teaching him to respect and love others, and no matter where you are, to always be yourself.”

In 2006, his family immigrated to the United States, settling in a dangerous Atlanta, Ga., neighborhood which was plagued by drugs, guns and violence. His mother searched for a safer place to raise her family. Her prayers were answered when a friend called from Lewiston and recommended they move north, where there was a strong sense of community, good schools and a growing Somali population.

The family moved to Maine in December 2006 and were introduced to their first New England winter — without boots or jackets.

“When we got to Maine, I got out of the car and my whole body was shivering,” Saban said. “I thought I was sick. Someone told me that it was the winter weather, and I had no idea what they meant. The people had to explain it to me.”

Because Saban learned English and basic math skills prior to arriving in the United States, he was able to smoothly transition into middle school and attend classes with students his age.

Despite the growing number of Somalis in Maine, however, there were challenges. The family’s Muslim culture holds different beliefs than those of most Americans.

“We were constantly asked, ‘Why do women have to cover their face with a veil? How come you don’t eat pork? Why don’t you touch dogs?’” Saban said.

These beliefs are explained and weaved into the narrative story of “Out of Nowhere.”

Saban seems wise beyond his years, because of his worldly experience, solid upbringing and support of those who have helped him during his acclimation to America.

“While I was growing up, my mom told me, ‘It doesn’t matter where you’re from. What matters is who you are, and where you’re going,’” he recalled. “People will love you for who you are, no matter what. You need to show people love, and they will love you back.”

Her words have proven prophetic.

In eighth grade, Saban met Jonnie McDonough, a member of the middle school soccer team who later captained the high school team. McDonough noticed that Saban often came to school wearing a soccer jersey from an international team. Their discussions led to a friendship, culminating in McDonough convincing and helping Saban join the soccer team, where he became a star.

McDonough “is very open-minded and became one of my close friends,” Saban said. “He often came to my house and got to know my culture.”

Off the field, Saban gained popularity because of his goal-scoring ability; each day after a game, his name and scores were mentioned during the high school’s morning announcements.

In his senior year at Lewiston High School, Saban was named to the All-Region Boys’ Soccer Team.

“My teachers and guidance counselor were very supportive,” he said. “When I got accepted to Assumption, I told my guidance counselor, and he was jumping around like his son had just gotten into college.”

Saban also shared his good news with the director of his high school’s technical programs. He remembers how excited the director was, and how he proudly pointed to the college degree on his office wall. It read: Robert Callahan, Assumption College, Class of 1992.

“He was like a second mother to me,” Saban said, “but I did not know he went to Assumption until I told him I got accepted.”

Saban realizes how fortunate he is, and he is appreciative of those who have helped him pursue a degree in biology. He is especially grateful to Upward Bound, a U.S. Department of Education-funded program that helps high school students enter and succeed in college.

“I wouldn’t be here today without the help of Mr. Callahan and the people at Upward Bound,” he said.

When asked why he came to a Catholic college, he said, “I didn’t want to be narrow-minded and wanted to learn about it. Knowledge can take you anywhere. Assumption’s location is great. It’s not too far from Maine, and I wanted to see and learn new things and meet new people.

“I fell in love with Assumption on my first visit,” Saban said. “I had a great first two years and made many wonderful friends, and decided to become a resident assistant during my junior year to help pay for my education, to meet more people and to help new students adapt to the college.”

Saban is also a dedicated volunteer, both in the Worcester area and in Lewiston.

He volunteers at African Community Education, which supports African refugees in Worcester by helping students learn English and assimilate to American culture. He has also participated in interfaith dialog sessions on campus to learn and help himself and others become more accepting of those with different religious beliefs.

In Lewiston, he volunteers with math tutoring and citizenship classes at a local community center.

“I want to have a job, but I find that it’s more important to volunteer,” Saban said.

“I’m giving what God has given to me,” he said. “What I am learning at Assumption, I have to give it back. Many people have helped me, and I want to do the same thing. Each day I ask myself, are the people around me comfortable? Are they safe? Educated? Do they feel good about themselves? Are they getting what I’m getting? That’s what is most important to me.”

Saban’s desire to help others was deeply ingrained in him after his father’s death.

“I’m leaning toward becoming a physician’s assistant or a similar position in the medical field,” he said. “I’d like to go to graduate school and maybe become a family practitioner.”

His other goal is closer to home.

“I want to take care of my mom,” Saban said. “There is no way that you can pay back your mom, but I want to thank her for all the things that she’s done for me.”

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