When his uncle came over to say his father would be calling the next day, Omer Ali ’12 hadn’t seen
his dad in more than two years. In truth, the 10-year-old Sudanese boy wasn’t even sure his father was alive.
Omer is one of eight children and two cousins who for many years lived with him like brothers. He was born in Sudan, right on the border of what is now two separate nations—Sudan and South Sudan. For many years, Omer’s father was a high official in the government, until that government fell out of power. He was one of the first leaders kicked of out the country.
The Ali children were used to not seeing their dad for months at a time, but they always heard from him after a while. Now, it had been two years, and they were convinced the new government had finally caught up with him.
When Omer’s family finally talked with their father the next day, on the only phone in the neighborhood, his news was surprising—and hard to take. He wanted them to sell the house and move to Egypt, where he had been living secretly for the past two years. His connections with the United Nations could get the family out of Africa.
But Omer didn’t want to leave his extended family behind. Although life was difficult in Sudan—long walks to school, beatings by the teachers, scarce food, no electricity or running water, the constant threat of violence in the streets, war in Darfur—Omer didn’t know anything else. He loved his friends, his aunts and uncles and cousins. He loved his country.
Energy and Enterprise
After two-and-a-half years in Egypt, the United Nations helped the Ali family get refugee status. Omer was 13 by the time the family finally arrived in Des Moines, and he began at Roosevelt High School knowing hardly any English. But he was an enterprising young man. For part of the school day, he took English Language Learning (ELL) classes at Central Campus High School in Des Moines, a regional academy that provides unique learning opportunities for students who need extra help or want to be challenged. Within two years, he was back at Central Campus for advanced computer classes.
Omer had a natural talent for computers, even though he hadn’t grown up with them in Sudan. He started fixing friends’ computers—and then friends’ of friends. He would bike to the neighborhood grocery store to pick up the PCs—where the manager let people drop them off—and then bring them home to fix on the weekends.
The transition to America was tough for the whole family. All of them were students; even his parents attended college classes after work. Compared to the extended family and tribe back in Sudan, the isolation of their new culture was raw and agonizing, even in a crowded home. “At the time, I just had to accept the fact that this is not my home anymore and I had to get used to it,” says Omer.
Lone Man on Campus
After high school, Omer was determined to make history and become the first in his family to attend college. But Omer is honest about his first semester at Central—it was the most difficult situation he has encountered in America. He didn’t know anyone, and he wouldn’t talk to other students. He sat alone in Central Market staring at all the smiling and laughing faces. He was terrified people would find out he could barely speak English, or that he was from another country. He would go back to his room after class and break down in tears.
But Omer wasn’t ready to give up. His parents had sacrificed so he could have a good education. Many people had told him he wouldn’t succeed in college. “When things got difficult or I was falling apart,” he says, “I had to think that I don’t want to prove them right. I don’t want to waste all of this time just not to finish college. Every time I fall short, I have to push myself. I can’t let up.”
At the end of the first semester came a breakthrough. An English professor told him outright, “You’re afraid that you don’t speak English, and this is a problem for you. You need to come out of your shell or this is never going to change.”
Omer thought it was harsh at the time, but he now knows the professor was right. “That’s when I truly started to open up,” he recalls. “Sometimes I say things differently, and my friends laugh at me, but I just keep going. I finished the first year, and the second year was a lot easier.”
By graduation, Omer says he was a “popular guy.” In fact, he thinks he knew about 85 percent of the students on campus. He joined the soccer team, was a member of Student Support Services and traveled with Campus Ministries. He got to know all his professors really well, and after that first semester, was not shy about asking for advice.
Reading and writing were still a struggle; he basically translated everything in his head before he did the work and then translated it back. But his English skills improved. When his other friends were out having fun on the weekends, he camped out in Vermeer or Weller with his books piled around him.
Omer has transferred that hardworking lifestyle to his post-graduation life. During the week, he works in information technology at Principal Financial Group in Des Moines. But evenings and weekends, he manages a phone, wireless and computer repair center near Drake University. The business, called O Geeks, is an outgrowth of the work he did for friends in high school and college. The requests kept pouring in, and he realized he could build a business around it.
Omer lives with his family, as is customary in Sudan. There, even after marriage, children stay in the home with parents. Buddies, who see him doing well financially, ask why he doesn’t move into his own place. “The family is still the family,” he says. The isolation from the home culture is particularly wearing on his parents. He can see it on their faces. That’s another reason he doesn’t want to move out.
For years, Omer and his family have had plans to return to Sudan, at least to visit. Back in college, he talked about Sudan nearly nonstop to his professors and friends. But since the country split in 2011 and the violence continues, Omer has changed his mind. Now he’s not so sure if Sudan is really his home anymore. Maybe it’s Iowa.
The soccer-playing, computer-fixing businessman has come a long way since his lonely lunches at Central. Recently, one of his managers at Principal complimented him on his confidence and social skills, which Omer believes he gained at Central.
“Central really did give me a good sense of who I am and what I needed to do with my life,” he says. “Without Central, I’m not sure I would be the same person.”