FOR SOMALI-BORN HASSAN DAHIR, HELPING REFUGEES FEEL WELCOMED IN THEIR NEW COMMUNITIES IS DEEPLY PERSONAL WORK

When Hassan Dahir was barely a toddler, the central government of his country — Somalia — was overtaken by force and fell. During his boyhood years, Hassan’s country was dangerously divided between warring factions and violent armed groups.

When he reached his teenage years, Hassan’s mother made a difficult and fateful decision that would change his life forever.

“Al-Shabaab, which was the most dangerous religious group in Somalia, started to take teenagers by force in order to use them to fight their opposition,” Hassan says. “Therefore, before they could come to take me by force, my mother decided to send me outside of Somalia — anywhere I can get peace, security, and a better life.”

Since then, the road that Hassan has traveled has taken him to live in Ethiopia, Russia, Ukraine, and — since 2014 — Anchorage, Alaska. There, Hassan has become one of the first members of a new leadership initiative — Welcoming Communities Corps — which was born out of Public Allies’ 2015 strategic plan and started thanks to a partnership between Public Allies, Welcoming America, and AmeriCorps VISTA. His Welcoming Communities Corps placement is with the City of Anchorage.

The first cohort of Welcoming Communities Corps leaders includes a diverse array of U.S. immigrants and citizens working in places like San Jose, Detroit, and Anchorage. All are working to cultivate educational and employment opportunities for new immigrant and refugee populations.

For Hassan, this is deeply personal work. “I know what refugees face, because I am one of them, and I can feel what they are feeling and understand their plight,” says Hassan, who speaks Somali, Amharic, and English, as well as some Russian and Arabic. “I’ve decided to help refugees and believe my unique perspective can be helpful.”

What many aren’t aware of is that Anchorage has one of the most diverse refugee populations in the country, and includes people from Somalia, Sudan, Bhutan, Congo, Iraq, Burma, Ethiopia, Eritria, Russia, and Ukraine.

Hassan, who also worked for four years with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as an interpreter, is working on bringing a Civic Engagement Academy program to Anchorage to engage diverse members of the community in civic and public life.

“Anything that connects our diverse communities and brings us together,” Hassan says, “will benefit everyone.”