UW-River Falls is ‘another world’ for a Muslim female student from Somalia

Posted December 12, 2017

Nayrus Ibrahim is the first woman in her family to move out of the house without getting married. Her sisters dropped out of high school to wed. Her first memories are of the civil war in Somalia. “I didn’t know another world existed beyond where I lived,” she said. “People were getting killed — that didn’t bother me. The gun (shots) everyday non-stop — that didn’t bother me, because that’s like everyday life. You would see people wounded and being dragged across the street to get them help. That was the kind of life.” Ibrahim was born in Kenya, moved to Somalia and then back to Kenya at the age 6 before immigrating to Eden Prairie, Minnesota, when she was 11. When she began school, she couldn’t speak English and was at a preschool level. Despite this, Ibrahim graduated high school with the rest of her class at age 18. Now she is a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, studying marketing communications.

“It’s a really great campus. I just wish it was more diverse than it is right now,” Ibrahim said. Having lived in larger cities her whole life, she envisioned UWRF to be more diverse. She was disappointed there weren’t as many non-white students as she expected. She has been able to make connections with other students like her, however, through programs that support minority students, such as the Pathways and Aspire programs. “I knew the Muslim community was going to be pretty low here, but I thought there would be more black people here, more Mexican, more of darker races,” she said. “That’s just something that I came to realize — there’s not much darker skinned people here. Don’t get me wrong, I get along with everyone, but in my mind, I thought there would be more darker skinned people here.”

When Ibrahim made the decision to go to college, her family wasn’t totally behind her at first. “My culture, they’re not supportive of anything,” she said. “That’s just a fact. If you want to do something, you have to be the adult one and convince them and stand for your own opinion and say, ‘I will do this no matter what.’ If you fail, you prove them right. If you didn’t fail, you prove them wrong. That’s just how it is. I’m not the type of person that proves people wrong — I just do what I want. Whether my family likes it or not, that’s their problem.”

To earn money, Nayrus works in the University Center at Erbert and Gerbert’s, making sub sandwiches. She has experience doing office work, and she applied for many jobs on campus but settled for the food service job. She came to UWRF with a vision of one day becoming a CEO. “(There was a) part of me that wanted to make something out of myself,” she said. “I wanted to get money that I earned. I wanted to live in a house that I owned. I wanted to own a car that I owned, and I also didn’t want government help. Most of my ethnicity is into government help, because we came from a country in a war, and we’re still trying to adjust from it.”

Ibrahim, right, works out regularly in the Falcon Center. Sometimes she attends group classes such as boot camp or runs on the treadmill by herself. “It’s kind of my personal goal. I gained weight over my high school years,” she said. “It’s my way of trying to get back to how I used to feel and getting my self-esteem back.”

In between work, classes and other activities, Ibrahim makes time to pray five times a day. “Sometimes I miss prayer, but I ask God for forgiveness,” she said. Before she can begin, she performs wudu:

Wudu is the act of cleaning oneself before prayer. Ibrahim uses the sink in her dorm bathroom to wash her hands three times each, her mouth, nose, ears, hairline, legs and feet.

She puts on a hijab and a skirt before beginning prayer. She wears a hijab most of the time when she is on campus. “We as Muslims required to do it, but based on culture some people don’t do it. It actually confuses some people,” she said. “I was forced to wear it since I was 7 years old, but as I got older it was my choice.”

With the remodeling of Rodli Hall beginning in the spring, there will soon be a prayer room for students to use on campus, but for now, Ibrahim has a designated area in her dorm room that she uses to pray with a rug called a salli. She and her roommate decided to find different roommates after this semester because it became uncomfortable between the two of them. “It’s not a big deal, we’re just too different,” Ibrahim said. “There’s some religious tensions going on. I’ve moved around a lot in my life, and I’m used to different people — she’s not.”

Despite her desire for more diversity at UWRF, Ibrahim feels accepted here. “Everybody’s been so welcoming, so nice,” she said. “I haven’t noticed anybody judging me for my religion. Even if they did, I’m the last person to notice because I always look for the best in people.” She wants to become a leader and help to make the campus more diverse. She recently became the secretary of the Feminist Club and plans to run for president of the Black Student Union next year, then run for a position in Student Government Association in the spring.

Ibrahim has made a few Muslim friends in her dorm and has met other friends through the Pathways and Aspire programs, such as Stella Folly, right, also a freshman. “We don’t talk religion,” she said. “We’re just cool. We see each other. We study sometimes together because we have similar classes.”

The Pathways Program supports first-year students who are non-native English speakers. Pathways is designed to be a two-semester program where elective courses such as General Psychology are taken alongside a correlating English as a Second Language course. Director of Pathways Diane Jacobson, left, leads the ESL course that corresponds with Ibrahim’s General Psychology course. Jacobson covers the same material and vocabulary as the professor teaching the psychology course.

Above, Ibrahim laughs with others during an Aspire event in the University Center. The Aspire Program is designated for students of color, low income and first generation college students. Incoming students are mentored by upperclassmen to help them get through their first year on campus. Ibrahim hasn’t met her mentor, but she still feels like the program has helped her. “They do have fun events,” she said. “They have really nice events, and they have great involvement. So I really don’t feel like I needed a mentor to begin with.”

Ibrahim spent the past summer learning Arabic in order to memorize the Quran before she graduates. After she graduates, she plans to attend graduate school. “After that, wherever God takes me,” she said. “I just want to better myself as a human in my education and my religion and just make myself happy.”


Permission to republish this story is granted provided credit is given to the author and to Falcon News Service.