Nini’s family was originally settled in the Americana Apartments in the Beechmont neighborhood, but the rent proved too expensive. Nini’s father relocated them to a housing project in the crime-ridden Park Hill neighborhood. They are Muslim, and in Africa Nini’s father had two wives. The United States does not recognize polygamous families, so the family entered the country as separate households. But Nini makes a point of explaining that he considers all of his father’s children his brothers and sisters.
Nini is his father’s oldest child. The urge to help his father deal with family business was the main motivator for Nini to succeed in school. “When I came to the United States, the one thing that made me mad, the thing that got me to really study, was when I see my dad,” he remembers. “They would send him mail paper and he’d go to someone else to read it for him. It got me really angry about that. I say to myself, ‘You the oldest at your house, you can’t read paper. That’s embarrassing to your family.’ I start focusing. ‘Till I can read paper for my dad I’m not going to give up.”
Nini moved to Waggener High School for his sophomore year. By then, thanks to after-school tutoring and ESL (English as a Second Language) classes at the Americana Community Center, he had a rudimentary understanding of written and spoken English. For a short time, a tutor came to Nini’s house, but the workbooks, with their giant pictures of puppies and other child-related imagery, embarrassed him. Eventually, he asked only to be tutored at school.
“Any Bantu kid or other ESL student would feel the same way if they had tutoring at their house,” he relates. “They would feel embarrassed that their family or friend might come home and see this little thing you are studying. They don’t feel comfortable. That’s why it was hard for me to have tutoring at home.”
In one of his classes at St. Catharine, Nini is working on ideas for better ways of teaching English to ESL students. One of his ideas is not letting students who speak the same language sit next to each other. Nini says he learned more when he was in classrooms where he was forced to work with refugee students from other parts of Africa or elsewhere in the world. In those situations, the children are forced to communicate with each other in English because it is the only common language.
During his sophomore and junior years in high school, Nini worked hard on his studies but had no idea where it was leading. But in the summer before his senior year, another Somali student told him about college. Nini asked: What is that? What do they do there? His friend told him that you study what you want and then get a job.
Nini did know about one college, the University of Kentucky, but up until then he thought it was just a basketball team. “My plan was UK, because UK was always showing up in my head,” he confesses. “People were always talking about UK, so I say I’m going to go to school there. I never thought about (University of Louisville) at all. It was UK, UK.”
But Nini had a big problem. His ACT (American College Testing) score was not high enough for admission to UK. Mostly, it was the English part that was hampering him. The first time he took the test, he scored a 12. In all, he took it four times and his highest score was a 16. Frustrated, he considered giving up on college because he had to pay every time he took the ACT. But then another refugee student told him about St. Catharine, which allows international students to submit the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) as a compliment to other tests. Nini scored well enough to be accepted to the school. In September 2012, he was the school’s Student of the Month.
“It is just a small school,” Nini says. “The people are different from Louisville. They don’t interact with you the way people interact with you in Louisville. Everybody knows everybody. You can’t hide.”
When he is back in Louisville during the summer, Nini helps refugee students with their English. He has also formed a Bantu soccer team with other Somalian refugees. They play against another Bantu team as well as a local team made up of Mexican immigrants. Nini always tells the people he meets about St. Catharine.
“They see me wearing a St. Catharine shirt and they ask, ‘What is that?’” Nini explains. “I tell them about the school. I think when they see you going to school, they get the impression ‘If that guy can do that, I can do that.’ I want them to think that way about college. That is also why I write my story. Hopefully, it will inspire other refugees to do what I do.”
SEE NINI'S WRITING EXCERPTS, NEXT PAGE ...