I am extremely honored and humbled to have been selected as a White House Champion of Change, especially as an innovator in the Somali Diaspora community. It is a passion of mine and a privilege to work with the Somali-American community in central Ohio as well as the community at large while working toward cooperation and understanding as we attempt to make a home for ourselves here in the United States.
As a first-generation Somali American in a small central Ohio suburb, I have grown up between cultures. Understanding and appreciating my Somali heritage while also taking part in my distinctly American upbringing, I have been able to take the best of both those cultures and create one distinctly my own. My background as well as my community’s increasing diversity has contributed to my passion for cross-cultural and inter-faith work and dialogue.
When discussing diversity work, the main hindrance to any real change is this idea that finding common ground amongst one another and implementing positive change in our communities together is somehow unrealistic. The work we do in this field is often referred to as idealistic or unattainable, words that do much to stand in the way of productive transformation. On the contrary, it is only through this type of work that we can begin to better our communities and ourselves. Appreciation, awareness, and understanding are not dispensable qualities in a positively functioning community; they are integral to its success. It is because of a thorough understanding of this principle that I seek out opportunities to serve through diversity work in my community, impacting its success today as well as in the years to come.
My story of service in diversity work began in the fall of 2007 when I entered high school. Initially I was excited and surprised by the diversity of the student body. I was energized by the many different nationalities, languages and faiths that surrounded me, I saw school as a place where through our differences we could grow each other and ourselves. It was not long, however, before I realized that the differences I noticed were causing more tension than insight. Students of differing racial and religious groups were dividing themselves along those lines, finding comfort in those who spoke the same language or prayed in the same manner. I was disheartened at first, seeing only separation when I could see that there was so much room for cooperation.
The Somali student population at the school was of specific concern to me because of my own background. Having grown up in central Ohio, I have always had several communities to thrive in, feel at home in and be supported by. The influx of Somali students at my school faced a unique set of challenges, attempting to acclimate to a new and sometimes-hostile environment whilst holding onto their already solidified Somali identities. This was a major problem not only for the new students but also disruptive to the school environment. I became galvanized to become a part of the solution. I became active within the Diversity Groups at my high school during my freshman year, taking part in cross-cultural dialogue and interfaith activities. We began paving the way to a united and more welcoming student body for all. The Diversity Groups worked to spread the tools of understanding and cooperation through the school by organizing events that centered on celebrating our unique cultures while also actively making others feel welcome and comfortable enough to celebrate theirs. Our main objective was to see unity and understanding in a school with growing immigrant numbers and with that, increased diversity. It was through my work with the diversity groups that I truly saw what could happen when inspiration and hard work meet, effective and long lasting change.
This idea that our similarities, and perhaps more profoundly, our differences can act as catalysts to bring us together allowed me to start the next step in my journey toward service through diversity work. I became a participant in Face to Face | Faith-to-Faith in the summer of 2010. Face-to-Face | Faith to Faith is a interfaith and multicultural leadership program that brings together young leaders from around the world. Its goal is simple; prepare the leaders of today with the tools to engage productively in a multi-faith global society tomorrow. Although its goal is simple, its implementation was profound. Through my interactions with other participants I saw what true cooperation looked like. Although we were of different faiths, races, nationalities and mother languages, we understood each other. Returning home from the program I was catalyzed to see similar awareness and cultural proficiency in my own community.
In an increasingly globalizing world we must not be content with mediocrity and indifference, I believe that we have to raise the level of civil discourse in all communities until we gain the insight and excellence that comes only from understanding. Currently I have started work on an initiative called Interfaith Service Youth Corps, we are a group of socially conscious, service minded youth from various faith backgrounds coming together for the sole mission of serving the community around us. We are currently working on our Spring Environmental Awareness week as well as starting plans for an Iftar-Shabbat dinner during this coming Ramadan. Our mission is to improve our communities and ourselves by giving of our time and energy. I believe that the world will not know peace until its people begin to believe in it, I believe in it fervently.
Ilhan Dahir is a student at The Ohio State University, an interfaith leader, a writer and an active member of the Somali-American community of Central Ohio. She is also the founder and president of Interfaith Service Youth Corps.