“The Many Lives of Nini” is the second in our three-part series. Read part one, "The United Nations of Louisville," and part three, "Teaching the World."


Abdikadir Mohammed, known as “Nini,” is a junior at St. Catharine College, a small Dominican Catholic school near Springfield, Ky.  He is a psychology major with scholarships in soccer and track. After graduation, Nini plans to get a master’s degree in social work from the University of Louisville. His ultimate goal is to work for the United Nations.

When he is not attending classes, playing sports or plotting his future, Nini is working on his memoirs. This may sound presumptuous for a 21-year-old, but Nini’s goals are small compared to what he has already accomplished. He was born in war-torn Somalia. When he was 8 months old, his family moved to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, home to thousands of refugees from Sudan, Uganda and other African hot spots. Life at Kakuma was tough. Malnutrition and communicable disease were rampant. Nini remembers many days when his family had only enough food for one meal.

In 2006, Kentucky Refugee Ministries brought Nini and his family to Louisville. His still-untitled memoir tells about his journey from 15-year-old non-English speaking freshman to ambitious college student.  “I started from nowhere,” he says. “My daddy never thought I was going to graduate. My mom don’t know anything about school and all of that. She didn’t really know what was going on. My dad knew about school, but when I was in Africa I never studied much because it was horrible there for me. When I came here is when I focused more. That’s when I got all my strength.”

In addition to the usual communication hurdles, Nini grew up speaking Maay Maay, an Afro-Asiatic language that has no writing system. “I would love for us to have a written language but we don’t have one,” Nini says. “I’ve never seen written Maay Maay. The only language they write is Somalian. They say Maay Maay can go along with Somalian language, but I did not know how to write it.

“Going to school was very difficult. I was dressing up crazy, my writing wasn’t good, my English wasn’t good. Nothing was good, except I could say, ‘Hey.’”

Nini was a freshman at Shawnee High School when a teacher had trouble pronouncing his full given name. When the teacher asked if there was something shorter to call him, he suggested “Nini,” which was the name of his soccer team in Kenya. It is a Swahili word that means “what.” The nickname remains with him to this day. If you were to visit St. Catharine and ask for Abdikadir Mohammed, no one would know who you were talking about.