Ibrahim Noor did not know what his future held, but things certainly looked bleak at the moment. The dust of the dry grassland was kicking up again, and with few permanent structures in which to find refuge, Noor closed his eyes to block not only the elements, but also the harsh reality of where things stood in his life.
He was around 13 (there’s no birth record to verify his exact age) and his family had fled the violence that plagued their homeland of Somalia in the early 1990s, finding their way to a refugee camp in Kenya. And that’s where he would remain for the next 15 years — unable to work, unable to leave and unable to find a place he could call home.
A quarter century later and halfway around the world, Jennifer Ballard-Kang stared out at the students before her in a Washington, D.C. classroom. She had earned her master’s in English as a Second Language, but she was finding it difficult to understand how to get her students to learn. Most of them were refugees and immigrants seeking a better life, and Ballard-Kang began to feel like she was letting them down.
Something wasn’t clicking. The tried-and-true teaching techniques she had learned were failing. Her students were intelligent, but they weren’t focused. Ballard-Kang suspected there was more to the story than just what was happening inside her class.
Two people, separated by geography, circumstance and perspective, who found themselves drawn to the University of Louisville to make their world — and the lives of the people around them — better.
But they took drastically different routes.
From Kenya to Kentucky
In 2008, Noor finally was selected by the United Nations for relocation as a refugee to Richmond, Virginia. He arrived in the United States with his brothers and immediately was taken to a factory to begin work. They quickly discovered that there was little to no refugee community in Richmond, let alone a population of Somalis. Life was hard. Everything was different, and there was no outlet for the things Noor missed and treasured about his home and culture.
He eventually moved to Seattle, hoping to mesh with the Somali community there. Still, something was missing. Noor had heard about the refugee relocation efforts in Louisville, so in 2012, he left Seattle and resettled in the Derby City. He found the community he was seeking, but it wasn’t a perfect mesh.
“The Somalis in Louisville are from different parts of the country, so we don’t have the same customs and culture, and we even speak a little differently,” said Noor. “I found that I could help interpret for the different groups.”
Soon, Noor became a de facto leader in the Somali community.
“I wanted to do more. I knew that getting an education would help me do that.”
In 2013, Noor enrolled in the School of Public Health and Information Sciences at the University of Louisville. He was working nights at UPS and raising a family at the same time. The goal to finish his degree seemed insurmountable, but if there was one thing Noor was good at — it was overcoming the odds.
UofL proved to be a good fit for Noor. “When I was studying, I could take evening classes before I had to go to work. That schedule worked for me and my family, and the library was open 24/7,” he said, flashing a smile from ear to ear. “That was the best part.”
While he was still a student, Noor was connected with Ruth Carrico, PhD, a UofL professor who runs the Global Health Initiative within the School of Medicine.
“We were having a hard time understanding the needs of the Somali population here in Louisville. What we were seeing was a disproportionate representation of single mothers trying to raise families that sometimes included five or six children — on their own — in a country where they don’t know the customs or speak the language. Ibrahim (Noor) has been an immense help in our efforts,” said Carrico.
Noor was so much help, in fact, that Carrico brought him on as a full-time employee slightly before his graduation in 2015. Today, he serves as an outreach ambassador for the program, working particularly with the burgeoning Somali population in Louisville.
“Working [with the Global Health Initiative] is a dream come true,” Noor said, “I feel like I’m contributing now so my children — and the children of all refugees — can have a better future in our new home.”
Coming Home to Build a Better Home
Ballard-Kang, on the other hand, wanted to return home — to the city where she had grown up. She had earned degrees from Northwestern University and American University, but Louisville was calling her name.
“Louisville is where my roots are. It’s where my support system is,” she said.
Although Ballard-Kang held a master’s degree in ESL, she wanted to better understand the needs of refugee populations, so she enrolled in the Kent School of Social Work, where she earned a master’s degree in 2015. She’s currently a doctoral student.
As part of her master’s studies, Ballard-Kang undertook a practicum at the Survivors of Torture Recovery Center, an outreach program run by the Kent School. There, she took on the cases of refugees and immigrants that had been victims of torture and/or who may have witnessed torture of family, friends or others in their country of origin prior to arriving in the United States.
“I remember my very first case. I was working with a woman who had endured tremendous physical and mental abuse in her home country. She was extremely introverted and barely spoke. I connected her with some English classes, but there was more to the story,” recounted Ballard-Kang.
The woman’s success became a personal goal of Ballard-Kang’s. “What I saw in her was what I was looking for when I decided to study social work. She had the potential and the intelligence. All she needed was an advocate.”
And what an advocate Ballard-Kang proved to be. Eventually, that refugee enrolled at UofL. Ballard-Kang became a professional and personal mentor, serving as a liaison between the university and its newest refugee student.
“I was able to help professors and administrators understand the perspective of this student. The university was helping, but there were opportunities to do better.”
One such opportunity was bringing awareness to the difficulties refugees — particularly those affected by torture — face when seeking out resources. In this case, the refugee student needed access to learning techniques and accommodations for her physical and mental disabilities. And in order to create a learning environment that was conducive to the student’s success, Ballard-Kang worked closely with several university assistance departments, administrators and instructors to develop methods and adjustments that were new for everyone.
“Once we were able to get all the stakeholders on board, the student thrived. Her professors commented on how intelligent she was. I responded, ‘I knew she was! We just weren’t teaching her in a manner in which she could learn.’”
Now, that student is on track to graduate from UofL in the summer of 2016.
“It’s my biggest success story to date. It’s the reason why I do what I do,” said Ballard-Kang.
A University with Compassion
Stories like Noor’s and Ballard-Kang’s abound at UofL. The city of Louisville is home to two resettlement affiliates, Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities, and has welcomed more than 6,500 refugees since 2011 — many of whom are children.
“These children are the UofL students of tomorrow,” said Carrico. “We can only be a strong university if we are serving the needs of our community. That means everyone in the community.”
That means non-refugee students as well.
“UofL offered me the unique opportunity where I’ve been able to have real and better case work, one-on-one face time and advantages for exploring the therapeutic side of my research,” said Ballard-Kang. “We live in a compassionate city. The more we can study diverse populations, the better university we can become.”
For more stories from the Summer 2016 issue, visit louisville.edu/uoflmagazine.