Syracuse Refugee Series

Egal Adan went from a Kenyan refugee camp to Clarkson University

Aline Peres Martins | Staff Photographer

Egal Adan, a graduate of Henninger High School, moved to Syracuse when he was six years old.

Dressed in dark blue khakis and a pullover sweater, Egal Adan rounded up a group of friends for a spontaneous soccer tournament. The rest of the Clarkson University club soccer team was clad in bright athletic wear, but Adan didn’t have any with him.

He was just showing his friends from Henninger High School around the Potsdam, New York, university — all of whom were immigrants or refugees, like Adan. As they strolled around campus, he showed them what the typical college experience was like in the United States, and that they could have the chance to experience it too.

As soon as the ball zoomed toward the goal, he leapt into the air, stretched his arm as high as it could go and blocked it from going in. Soccer was a sport he played at Henninger, with a team completely made up of fellow immigrants and refugees. So he continues playing at Clarkson, though on this team, he is the only refugee.

“This is how I spend most of my Sundays,” Adan said. “It’s one of my favorite things about college.”

For the average Clarkson University student, being involved on campus is not unusual — there are more than 100 clubs and professional societies, and 275 intramural sports teams. But Adan is not the average student. Not only did he graduate a year early from Henninger, making him one of the youngest students on campus, but also, out of Clarkson’s more 3,185 undergraduate students, only 1.9 percent are African-American, according to Collegedata.com. There is no data the percentage of Clarkson students who are immigrants or refugees.

Adan sometimes feels like an outsider. His parents are Somali, and he was born in a refugee camp in Kenya. They moved to Syracuse when he was 6 years old. Clarkson has been even more difficult to adjust to than Syracuse, where at least there were other refugee families.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” Adan said. “Almost everyone here is white, I guess. And I don’t feel like I’m part of it. I feel like I’m looking in.”

This feeling of exclusion has been a theme in Adan’s life. And while it has often been a negative feeling, exclusion also opened his mind to the world around him.

“That’s one of the reasons why I decided to join this task force,” Adan said of a diversity task force he’s joined at Clarkson. “Because I know I’m not alone in this. And in my opinion, if you want to build a society where everyone is inclusive, you have to start from the educational standpoint of having a diverse place.”

When Adan’s family first immigrated to Syracuse, for example, none of them spoke English. Because Adan and his older brother Ali learned English quicker than their mother, they would translate for her. They would often help her read papers and go to the grocery store. But Ali said it was really Adan who took the lead.

“After coming here, we noticed that we are the only ones who could help her,” Ali said. “But (Adan) would help out my mom a lot more than I did. He helped her a lot.”

While Adan was the one who helped their mother, he said she has helped him most in life. One of his earliest memories is of his mother taking care of the family at the refugee camp in Kenya.

Adan’s father wasn’t at the camp and did not initially emigrate with the rest of the family. Here, his mother is the sole caretaker for the family once again. She’s endured a lot as a single mother.

When they lived at the refugee camp, Adan’s younger brother died of malnutrition.

“I could smell how badly he was rotting. He was taken to the hospital, and he passed away. I remember his funeral too,” Adan said.

They were very close in age and they used to spend a lot of time together. Adan said his brother’s death still affects him today. But it affects his mother most of all.

“I’m not OK. But I don’t know how my mom is OK,” Adan said. “Maybe that’s my motivation.”

But cultural differences have made communicating with his parents difficult, which has become more obvious to him since he’s been at Clarkson.

“I see other families and they’re best friends and talk about everything,” Adan said. “I can’t go up to my mom or dad and talk about random things, you know? I talk about my grades with them and that’s like the best conversation we’ve ever had.”

Growing up, the lack of communication with his family made Adan uncomfortable in his own home. He was always outside. Once his age hit double digits, he got involved with the wrong people in the streets. He calls it his period of delinquency.

“I didn’t really have anyone to tell me, ‘Oh this is wrong,’” Adan said. “I was like ‘what I’m doing seems like it’s fun.’”

But once he started high school, he started focusing more on academics. He realized that getting involved with extracurricular activities would give him an excuse not to go home. So when school got out, he would play soccer almost every day, and instead of going home after practice, he would stay at school to do homework.

That was when he met Joyce Suslovic, a social studies teacher at Henninger High School. He calls “Mrs. S.” one of his greatest mentors. With her help, he started College Expo, a group dedicated to teaching Syracuse high school students about the college application process. He also joined Suslovic in advocating for universal bussing for all Syracuse City School District students.

Suslovic said Adan could often be found diligently working on homework in her classroom. Sometimes he would stay there until 10 p.m. She calls Adan one of her best students, and he said he was lucky to have found a mentor in her.

“People made a difference in my life,” Adan said “And it’s always been surrounded by education. I guess education did make a difference in my life.”

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