In August 2020, I stopped by Lisbon Street to see a friend and fellow community organizer. He mentioned that he’d loaned a spare room to a man named Abdikhadar Shire, who was then trying to get his health and social services nonprofit off the ground. Since I also work in public health, I poked my head in to introduce myself. Sitting behind his desk was Abdikhadar, a handsome young man with a kind smile. I was amused to see that in lieu of diplomas, he’d printed out his bio and hung it on the wall. It was quite impressive for a then-30-year-old. This, I thought, is a person who means business.

Abdikhadar Shire Submitted photo

Abdikhadar explained that he’d intended his nonprofit, AK Health and Social Services, to train and place unemployed Lewistonians. But with the pandemic, he was shifting some of his focus to public health disparities.

I invited him to join the COVID-19 taskforce I helped start, and we got right to work. We organized Zoom seminars in multiple languages to ensure that limited English speakers had the information they needed to stay safe. We also started a grocery campaign for residents in need; Abdikhadar took on fundraising, while I coordinated volunteers to do the shopping and deliveries. Eventually, Abdikhadar secured a grant for AK Health and Social Services to offer free mobile coronavirus testing. So far, they’ve traveled to four counties.

“To me, it doesn’t matter if you are a migrant or not,” he told me. “Our mission is to help anyone who needs it.”

Abdikhadar traveled a long road to Lewiston. When he was only a few months old, his family fled Somalia’s ongoing Civil War. The fighting was moving closer to their rural village, so they left everything behind and started off toward neighboring Kenya. After trekking hundreds of miles through barren terrain, they landed in a refugee camp. The camp was so overcrowded that Abdikhadar’s family didn’t have housing until he was 3. The grass hut they finally moved into provided shelter, but without a door, they still felt vulnerable. “There was nothing to rob, apart from the little food we were rationed,” he told me. Still, the lack of security was unnerving.

Abdikhadar got older and began attending the camp’s government-funded school. “It was free, but very low quality,” he told me. Textbooks and other materials were hard to come by, so most of his lessons were verbal. “In biology class, we didn’t dissect a frog,” he said. “We saw pictures and imagined it.”


After eighth grade, students had to qualify to continue their education. Those who didn’t were assigned jobs — including professions that typically require a college degree. “They became the new teachers and healthcare workers in our camp,” Abdikhadar said. “That’s how ridiculous that system was.”

Abdikhadar began to daydream about leaving. “You stand in line for food,” he said of living in the camp. “You can’t travel or leave the bordered area. It was an open prison, basically.” He hoped his family would be resettled in the U.S., but understood it was unlikely. (For context, there are 25.9 million refugees worldwide, and just 11,411 refugees were admitted to the U.S. in 2021.) His mother, a school teacher herself, told him education was his way out. And she was right. Later, he learned if his grades were good enough, he could qualify for a Canadian program that sponsored refugee students to study at their universities. He was accepted on his 18th birthday.

In 2012, Abdikhadar moved to Ottawa. The transition was difficult. He felt utterly alone, tormented by the freezing temperatures and overwhelmed by the skyscrapers. Although he spoke English, understanding the Canadian accent was a challenge. But the hardships he’d already endured “prepared me for anything,” he said. He worked to make friends, becoming roommates with two other international students and getting a job as an overnight security guard at a local hospital. In 2018, he earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and social sciences.

In 2018, Abdikhadar married a woman he knew from his refugee camp. They’d stayed in touch, and reconnected when she was resettled in Lewiston. He decided to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in public administration from the University of Maine, and relocated to Lewiston in 2019. He and his wife settled in a small house on Knox Street. She found a job working for a medical device company, while Abdikhadar finished his second degree in 2020.

AK Health and Social Services actually originated as a University of Maine class project. The assignment was to help a nonprofit apply for a grant. “That actually taught me what a nonprofit is, and how they work,” Abdikhadar told me. “All of a sudden I saw a chance to pay it forward, to honor the people who helped send me to Canada to study, even though they didn’t know me.”

And pay it forward he has. In addition to his work on the COVID-19 Task Force, he partnered with Bates College to identify and address socio-economic disparities here in Maine. This work helped to launch a free after-school education and development program for low-income Mainers and a program to provide vaccine and healthcare information in multiple languages. His nonprofit continues to help new arrivals secure employment so that all Maine’s residents can be self-sufficient and secure; they’ve won $800,000 in grants and Abdikhadar now has 11 employees working for him. He also recently founded Fresh Start Maine, a mental healthcare agency that aims to make treatment more accessible.

“We are trying to help the most people with the limited resources we have,” Abdikhadar says of what motivates him. “It’s all about bringing people together.” And I couldn’t agree more.

Héritier Nosso is a health promotion coordinator and community organizer in Lewiston.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story