Common Read Produces An Uncommon Story

Osman Hassan in the Gordon Student Center.

Osman Hassan wasn’t old enough to remember the most harrowing experience of his life but he’s heard his mother tell the story so many times he knows it well. Osman was three years old and living in a house in Somalia. He had just become a big brother. It was bedtime but his newborn sister was crying and keeping everyone awake. As Osman’s mom was calming her down, one of their neighbors rushed into the house and told them they needed to leave immediately. Trouble was on the way.

Osman with his mother.

Moments later they heard gunshots and people screaming. Osman’s mother grabbed him and his sister and headed to the nearby woods. Osman’s father went in a different direction with the rest of the children. As they looked back they saw homes burning and people being murdered.

Eventually they were chased into the woods. Osman and his mother crawled on the ground so they wouldn’t be seen. His mother breast fed his baby sister to prevent her from crying. Occasionally she would stop to pray, asking Allah to help them survive. After several days they reached the Kenyan border. They were exhausted. Their clothes were in tatters and they were covered in dirt and mud. They were placed in a refugee camp. A couple of weeks later they were reunited with their father and one brother. Amidst their joy of being together again they learned three children had not survived.

One year later Osman, his baby sister and his parents moved to the United States. His older brother chose to stay in Kenya. Osman would grow up in Syracuse, graduate from Nottingham High School in 2016 and come to OCC.

New American Citizen Osman Hassan with Supreme Court Justice Deborah Karalunas.

He recently shared his remarkable story in English class. Students were required to read the book ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed as part of this year’s common read, then write about their own transformative journey. “I wanted to share my story with everyone and let them know what I had been through.”

Today Osman is a full-time student majoring in Human Services. His dream is to become a counselor and work with refugees. “I want to help people. I know what refugees have gone through and I can help them.”

Osman celebrated another milestone last month when he became a United States citizen. Now he’s focused on helping his mother learn the English language and become naturalized. “She’s the best mom I could ever have. I survived because of her. She had to run through the crisis. She held me in her hands and carried my sister on her back. What she went through brings me to tears. I feel like I should do more for her but it will never be enough. I want to repay her by working hard and doing good in school. One day I’d like to take her to Kenya to visit my older brother there.”

Below is the story Osman wrote in his English class. Ironically his story of survival shares many similarities with the book which has been selected for the 2017-18 common read, “God Grew Tired Of Us” (pictured at right) by OCC alumnus John Dau.



Osman’s Story

For me a transformative journey is something that totally changed my life forever. My name is Osman Hassan and I am from Somalia. My family and I lived in a small village away from the city in Mogadishu. I was 3 years old and I had 4 siblings, 2 older sisters and 2 older brothers, I was the youngest in the family. My brothers and sisters would always play with me and teach me how to farm, sometimes they would teach me what they learned from school and that made happy that I got to learn from them. We were poor farmers living our lives trying to survive by growing our own crops in our back yard. It was hot tropical weather; it was always sunny and hot outside. Water was hard to find around our neighborhood because we never had water pikes out in our village. Water was only found in the city.

My dad would walk 20 miles every week into the city and sell vegetables, buy us food, water, extra seeds to plants, sometimes clothing. Buying clothes would be like once a year when he had enough money. I only had 2 outfits that I would wear my entire year until my dad bought me a new one. My 2 brothers would always play with me when our dad went out. My sisters would always help our mom cook and clean all day into night until mom fell asleep. I never went to school because my family didn’t have enough money, so I always stayed home helping my parents with the chores in the house whenever my siblings went to school.

I only had two friends that I barely got to see. My family and I are Muslims. We practiced our religion and had faith that one day we would live a better life. Our house was made from bricks and logs from trees. On the roof are Long leaves, bags, and straws. Whenever a storm would come to our village, my family would cuddle together hoping and praying that we would live through it if the house shook and feel apart. When the storm went away, we would go out and fix our house trying to improve the roof by tying it with ropes, and getting more bags to cover the roof top from the rain. We always gathered buckets, jars, cups, and pots, set them outside whenever rain would fall from the sky to get water.

As months went by, my mom became pregnant and gave birth to my little sister. We had one doctor in our village, he wasn’t as good as the doctors in the city but that’s all we had. He helped us deliver my baby sister. We thanked him and tried to give him what we had left, but he refused and said we need the money, food, and water for ourselves. He also told us to pay him whenever we were ready. We thanked him and paid him back later. We all loved our little baby sister and we were always close to her, cuddling against her cheeks, that made us happy.

One night, we all fell asleep, but I couldn’t sleep because the baby was crying, so I went over and woke my mom up to calm down the baby. A few minutes later we heard noise coming from outside. Someone came rushing into our house right through the rags with a torch of fire in his hand. My mom and dad were scared until they saw it was one of our neighbors saying we needed to leave because there were bad people coming through our village killing people. Not moments later, we heard gunshots, my parents and I rushed outside and saw people screaming, yelling, and running into the woods trying to get away from the criminals.

My dad told us to run into the forest and hide in the woods until we found somewhere safe. My mom said what about our children who are still inside? My dad said I’ll take care of them, you run with the baby and son; we will be right behind you. We had to split apart and put our trust in Allah (God).  My mom wrapped the baby on her back with a blanket and held me by my hand and started running into the forest. We were really frightened and shivering with fear of death. When we looked back from a far distance, we saw the criminals shooting people, chopping people heads off, killing them with machetes, and burning down their homes. It was like a nightmare that we could get up from. We didn’t know who they were, they just appeared out of nowhere and started killing people without a warning. On top of that we didn’t wanted to stand in front of them and ask who they were because they were just killing anyone in sight. People ran past us and other was still behind us so we waited for a bit, but we never saw the rest of our family.

Then the criminals started going after the people that fled away into the forest, hunting them down one by one. We heard screams in the tall grass. My mom held me and pulled me on the ground crawling through the mud, wooden needles, and sharp cutting grass. Whenever she heard someone speaking near her, she would stop, tell me to keep my mouth shut and breastfeed my baby sister preventing her from crying or being heard by the criminals. I was really scared, tears flowing out of my eyes without making any sounds. This continued and went on for days. We ran and hid to the point of being hungry and tired. Then we would stop and eat leaves, grass, tree plants and tree branch just to stay alive. We had no other choice, it’s either death or survival through our tragedy; we were all alone, no one was around us to help us because everyone was separated and that others a better chance to survive. My mom would be afraid to stand up and look around because she didn’t want to be spotted. She was always on her knees, hands, belly, and elbows crawling her way out. Sometimes she would sit still and breastfeed my baby sister, then raise her hands up to her face and pray to Allah (God) asking her to guide her through the situation.

As days went by, my mom, my baby sister and I finally reached the Kenya borders. We were held up by officers who guard the gates to the entrance of Kenya. They looked at us covered with dirt and mud, a bad coming smell coming from us that attracted flies all over our heads, and no shoes. We were barefoot with dirty clothe that had so many holes. My baby sister was crying from hunger on the back of my mom. My mom was standing there, covered with mud, ripped pants from knees to ankles, shirt filed with holes, dried red eyes filled with dust. I didn’t even feel like a human being at that moment.

We were accepted and let into Kenya after being investigated for couple of minutes. Since we were let in, we were not allowed to go back out, so we ask if any other people from our village were let in the refugee camp. They replied saying that some people fled and ended up in the refugee camps and if we had any family members missing we should see if we could find them in the camp. If not, we would have to wait until more people come through. My mom and I with the baby on her back went around the camp searching for our siblings and father, but we couldn’t find them so we sadly waited feeling depressed.

We were put in refugee camps and guarded night and day. We had shelter, food and water to drink. Every day, people who ran away from the crisis would come in to the refugee camps in Kenya and we would look to see if they were our family members. This went on for days. After a couple of weeks, we finally got to see our dad and only one of my big brothers in front of the gate. My mom and I rushed towards them and held them tightly. We cried happy that they were still alive. Without my dad having to tell us what happened, my mom already knew that the rest of the kids did not survive. We stayed in the refugee camp for how many years and then we were chosen and given the chance to come to the United State. My mom and dad accepted, but my brother chose to stay and help one of our neighbors who lost their only child. My mom, dad, baby sister and I came into the United States, but my big brother stayed. He is still alive and happily married with 2 beautiful children.

I relate my life experience to the book called “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. I went through difficulties growing up as a 3-year-old, not knowing anything and having to lose almost all my siblings, traveling to a new country to be safe, seeking education and trying to further my knowledge to help people who are going through life situation. Many people out there in the world are being targeted and have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. This opened my eyes and mind and I have a deep understanding of how I view the world. I think to myself that there must be a way for me to make a difference and restore peace throughout the world, this is what I want after college. Try to help poor people and make the world a better place for people to live in peace.

What’s Your Journey?

Sail Alhelal is a native of Iraq. His goal is to become a pharmacist.
Sail Alhelal stands in front of his portrait in the Gordon Student Center. He came to the United States from Iraq and wants to become a pharmacist.

Sail Alhelal is living his transformational journey on the Onondaga Community College campus. Alhelal is a native of Iraq. As a student in middle school, Alhelal and his classmates were encouraged to dislike America. “We were taught to hate this country. I questioned why we were doing this. Eventually I told my father my dream was to come to the United States.”

When he was 17, Alhelal moved to Turkey and applied to come to the United States. His dream came true and today he’s a student at OCC majoring in Mathematics & Science with the goal of becoming a pharmacist. “People here are just like people in Iraq. None of us can change what happened in the past. America is giving me an education right now. I want to say to my country one day, ‘Look what America has given me.’”

Alhelal’s photo is one of more than two dozen on-display in the Gordon Student Center as part of OCC’s campus-wide Common Read. The subject of the Common Read is “Wild” by New York Times bestselling author Cheryl Strayed. Her memoir reveals a candid account of her transformational journey while hiking 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey which pressed her unraveling body and spirit towards a poetic truth of self-discovery.

The photo exhibit is titled “What’s Your Journey?” Each student was photographed while holding up a sign stating their goal for the year. The large, black and white photos were taken by Meredith Cantor-Feller who is Coordinator of the College’s Photography Program and Interim Dean of Visual, Performing & Applied Arts. “We know everyone has their own experiences and their own journey. They are all here for their own reasons and have their goals. Their goals didn’t have to be academic,” Cantor-Feller said.

The exhibit will be on-display in Gordon until January 6. We encourage you to stop by, look at the photos and consider what your journey is!

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“Wild” About Reading

Cheryl Strayed's "Wild" is the subject of a common read at OCC. Strayed will speak on campus September 28.
Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” is the subject of a common read at OCC. Strayed will speak on campus September 28.

New York Times Bestselling Author Cheryl Strayed spoke at the SRC Arena & Events Center Wednesday, September 28. She discussed her memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” which tells the story of her transformational journey. Following her lecture Strayed signed copies of “Wild.”

Strayed speaks at the SRC Arena.
Strayed speaks at the SRC Arena.

Strayed was in her 20s when her mother died at a young age after a brief illness, her family scattered and her marriage crumbled. She made the most impulsive decision of her life when, with no experience or training, she hiked more than 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail which spans from the bottom of California to the top of Washington state. “It was during my journey I came to terms with my life and became in touch with my rage about my mother’s death,” Strayed said. “I needed to get to the other side of my grief. The trail enabled me to do that.” In 2014 “Wild” was turned into a movie starring Academy Award winning actress Reese Witherspoon.

Strayed’s “Wild” is being read by students campus-wide as part of a year-long common read. “It’s literary. She has a reading list she refers to throughout the book. I love that. Someone who is carrying a heavy backpack still made sure to carry literature. She was sending resupply boxes ahead of her and they always included books. I felt that would sit well in a literature class,” said Reading Professor Pam Mullan who helped organize the Common Read. “This theme identifies almost all of our students. Most students come to OCC as one person and transform into another person,” added Reading Professor Sophia Marku who is also one of the event organizers.

Numerous campus activities are being conducted in conjunction with the Common Read including:

Strayed’s lecture is part of the College’s outstanding lineup of Arts Across Campus events. You can view the entire list here.