by Erick R. Schmidt // Spring 2010
Mohamed Nur
As Director of Operations of Della Lamb, Mohamed Nur oversees the Della Lamb Elementary Charter School and says, “It’s my passion to help urban kids get an education.” –Photo by Michael McClure

Mohamed Nur can’t help but wonder what might have been. It’s not unreasonable to think that a man like Nur, whose life has turned out so differently than the one he originally planned, might have some qualms about the way his future unfolded. But as with most things in his life, Nur has moved on from the past and made the best of an unlikely experience. “Any problem you have can be an advantage or a disadvantage,” Nur says. “I didn’t want to use my situation as an excuse or opportunity to fail.”

Nur (M.P.A. ’99) serves as director of operations at Della Lamb, a social service agency that focuses on low-income Kansas Citians. It’s a position he takes pride in, and one that comes naturally to the father of six. Still, it’s a far cry from the life he once imagined when he arrived in the United States from his native Somalia in 1990. Nur came to Kansas City to study in the Command and General Staff Officer Course at Fort Leavenworth. The prestigious program prepares future leaders of foreign nations for their roles in military. It’s a two-year program, at the end of which Nur expected to return to Somalia as a high-ranking official with an opportunity to perhaps reach the highest positions in his country’s military.

But when conflict broke out back home just before his graduation from the program, Nur’s plans suddenly changed. It was 1992, and he realized he would not be able to safely return to Somalia. To this day, he hasn’t been back. “God had a different idea, and I had nowhere to turn, really,” he says. With no plan for the future and no contacts in the United States, Nur stayed on the military base for a short time, then applied for political asylum. Given only one real option, Nur elected to stay in the United States and become a naturalized citizen in Kansas City—the only place he had ever known outside of Somalia. He said he was happy to be out of the conflict, but unhappy being apart from his family.

“One day I was high-ranking, the next I was literally homeless,” Nur says. “The hardest part was not knowing if my family was safe.” Luckily, his immediate family was safe—or at least as safe as one can be in a war-torn nation. His wife, Asha Adam Dirir, escaped to Kenya, and Nur petitioned to allow her into the United States. It wasn’t until 1994 that his petition was accepted and she was able to join him. In the meantime, Nur was forced to keep up with the war by only reading newspapers and on the Internet at local libraries. Next, he did the only thing he knew that could reflect his previous life in Somalia—he pursued an education.

The next step

Before coming to the United States, Nur possessed a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, but it was impossible to find a job because the degree was not recognized by U.S. employers. Nur enrolled at National American University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in applied management of human relations. From there, he enrolled at UMKC’s Bloch School of Business and Public Administration to pursue his master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in human resources.

Taking the leap to pursue higher education in the United States was intimidating, he recalls. With the help of several professors and counselors at UMKC, Nur was able to focus on his studies. He tells the story of a professor taking him aside and instructing him to calm himself and gather his thoughts. “That really helped. After he told me (to calm myself), it came easier,” Nur says. “I knew it was something I could do, but I needed to focus.”

When Nur graduated from UMKC in 1999, he got a call from a representative of Della Lamb who was interested in his international experience. He began managing the international center at Della Lamb shortly thereafter, helping explain the resources available to Somali refugees. It was an important role because he remembered the difficulty in getting started in a city and a country where he didn’t know anyone. “I feel good about helping them find services, (teaching them) how to pay bills,” Nur says.

From there, he became the director of human relations, and now serves as director of operations overseeing all departments of Della Lamb, including adult education and the Della Lamb Elementary Charter School. “It’s my passion to help urban kids get an education,” Nur says, “so they can be productive citizens in the future, contributing in their neighborhoods and in their city.” He is seen as a Somali elder and is involved even outside of Della Lamb in problem solving for young kids, especially encouraging education. He recently finished his Ph.D. in education from TUI University, an accredited international online university.

Judy Akers, executive vice president at Della Lamb, has worked with Nur since 1999. She says it is an invaluable resource having the first-hand experience of Nur to lend an assisting hand. “From our clients’ perpectives at Della Lamb, Mohamed has served on both sides of the fence,” she says. “He knows what it feels like to be on the other side of the desk, having to ask for help, and his heart goes out to people in need.”

Akers says Nur’s ability and willingness to treat everyone fairly gives him an air of dependability. Furthermore, she says, everyone at Della Lamb knows that his demeanor transfers over to Nur’s home life. “Della Lamb is fortunate to have him on our staff. His wife is an angel,” Akers says. “They are raising their family with the same values and morals that all of the rest of us in middle America want for our families.”

Outside of Della Lamb, Nur works with organizations that aim to donate books and show young people a better way to live, including the Somali Development Fund, a local non-profit organization, and the Somali Diaspora Support Initiative. He also works closely with the United Nations and the State Department, providing insight to the experience of refugees.

A new home

After becoming a naturalized citizen in 1994, Nur thought he might eventually return home to his family and to help reconstruct his nation. “I don’t know if the buildings I remember are still standing. It feels like half of your history is gone,” he says. “It goes with you, but you don’t have those places to go back to. It gets harder to imagine.” Nur doubts he’ll ever return to Somalia to live. He’s content to offer advice to other refugees in any way he can. This willingness helped lead him to his current role at Della Lamb.

“What we do, the intellectuals who leave, is to educate young people against Islamic fundamentalists, encourage human rights, teach them to go to schools. The elders encourage them to bring themselves together to talk about things,” Nur says. “If you’re not educated, you don’t have the tools to filter information.” His own children and the other refugees he helps ask him why there is fighting in Somalia. “I tell them I have no idea. I don’t understand the killing. It’s been going on since 1991 and nobody understands why they’re killing each other,” Nur says.

Had Nur returned to Somalia following his training at Fort Leavenworth, he probably would have been involved in the war. He says he believes he would have reached the rank of general, especially having graduated from the prestigious training school at Fort Leavenworth. “I would have been at war, killing Somalis for no reason,” he says.

In Somalia, he would have been forced to choose sides. Neutrality would not have been an option, especially given his military history. Instead, his life in the United States has allowed a very different life, a life of helping others. In the beginning, he says, the change in culture was a difficult adjustment, but in the past 20 years, it has become a normal way of life. His children were all born in Kansas City, so he tries to inject a sense of Somalia into them by discussing their lives as opposed to what it would have been like in their father’s country. He tries to give them an idea of the best parts of Somalia and the United States. “I’m blessed to be here,” he says. “I always had a vision to be successful, and I’m happy with my life here.”

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