The Education of Abdi Ali

by Vicki Glembocki
photographs by Andrew Spear

After surviving a political exodus and spending 11 years in an Ethiopian refugee camp, Abdi Ali is far from broken. Why this first-year student is intent on giving back to a world that has taken so much from him.

Abdi Ali is late, which is something Abdi Ali doesn’t like to be.

He tried not to be late. He texted his friends an hour ago, reminding them they’d been invited to dinner that night at their adviser’s home, confirming they’d meet in front of Higley Hall at 4:30–precisely 4:30–so they could all walk together down the hill into Granville. Ali had to plan ahead. He couldn’t possibly go directly from class to Higley. There had to be enough time for him to stop, first, at his dorm room in Beta House, to change out of the shirt and argyle sweater vest he’d worn all day. He slid into a crisp dress shirt, then a black suit coat. He brushed his teeth.

“You have to respect the people who are inviting you,” he says. “She knows we’re college kids. She doesn’t mind. But I have to honor her.”

For Abdi Ali, honoring his hostess–Lyn Robertson ’70, associate professor of education and women studies– means dressing appropriately. And fresh breath. And arriving at her doorstep on time, which is why he’s walking fast, up the sidewalk beside Olin, around Herrick toward the front steps of Higley where his friends are meeting. He doesn’t call them his “friends.” He calls them his “posse,” because that’s what they are: all 10 of them on full, four-year rides thanks to The Posse Foundation, which finds high-school students with huge potential who might not get to college, and gets them there with scholarships from schools like Denison. Ali and his posse came to Granville from Boston barely two months ago. Robertson is their Posse adviser, meeting with the group every week to help them adjust to life far from home, far from the city, far from the subway system that could have transported them from campus to her house in two seconds flat.

When Ali gets to Higley, only two members of his posse are there. He looks at his watch. He looks at it again. He pulls out his cell and calls a few of them to make sure they’re on their way. As it turns out, Ali isn’t late at all. He’s only late on Abdi Time, which means he’s late to arriving early. Being early ensures that no one will be disrespected– not his posse, not his teacher. And being respectful is the name of Abdi Ali’s game, an impressive moral code for anyone, especially a first-year student.

But Ali isn’t just any first-year student.

In 1991, when he was 2 years old, the civil war exploded in Mogadishu, Somalia, where his family lived. His mother and seven siblings ran for their lives. For years, they were homeless. Then they settled in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where Ali suffered from malaria. Finally, three years ago, his family emigrated to Boston. Once there, Ali could have ended up on an entirely different path. Most people would have expected as much– a kid who had seen devastating atrocities, who had lived through such poverty, should have come out the other side certain that the world owed him something, because, in a way, the world did.

But not Abdi Ali. He worries, instead, about what he owes the world. He worries about whether he’s volunteering enough, helping enough, doing enough public service. He worries about whether he’s being respectful enough-–not just to his family and friends and teachers. To everyone. Even the security guard at the airport who detained him because his name was “on the FBI list.” Even the student on campus who asked one of his posse, an African American, if he was at Denison “to play basketball.”

“I believe, in general, human beings are wonderful as long as you treat them well,” he says, sounding more like a prophet than than a biology major with a penchant for horror flicks and Pumas.

Even so, it was a lesson Ali had to learn.

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