“People don’t realize a lot of these kids with immigrant backgrounds come with trauma, coming from war-torn countries.”
Said Abdikarim dons an orange shirt beneath a blazer while he convinces people to consider him as one of their choices for Boston City Councilor at-large. It’s a reminder of the first orange tee he received from a refugee agency.
The 36-year-old former engineer and Harvard University instructor is hoping immigrant voters see a little of themselves in his unusual story, which started in four African refugee camps where he played as a child by lit landfills. Abdikarim has been in the US for 27 years, but remembers his first years in Boston as formative, learning the English language and attempting to find support systems within the Boston Public Schools as a young Somali immigrant.
Watching students similar to himself struggle without some of the immigrant-focused after-school programs that existed in the ’90s, he said, was part of what inspired him to run.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” Abdikarim said. “For years, working with nonprofits, after-school programs, I saw a lot wasn’t being said or done about quality education where it comes to STEM vocational education,” he said in an interview inside his Roxbury Crossing campaign headquarters. Abdikarim called the “huge skills disparity” between immigrant, minority, and white students something that creates a wealth gap and an economic disadvantage later in life.
Abdikarim is a supporter of student testing, because he thinks students need standards earlier in their educational careers so they can advance more easily if they want to apply for exam schools. He wants to see improvements start at the pre-K level, so students have strong foundations and don’t fall behind later, something he’s heard from parents of students struggling to get into exam schools, or who are enrolled but have fallen behind. He personally remembers not being able to get into an exam school, but is happy with the route he took anyway.
Part of what schools can do to improve supports for immigrant, refugee, Black, and brown students, he said, is to also recognize the trauma many of them could have faced, and to start emotional help early.
“People don’t realize a lot of these kids with immigrant backgrounds come with trauma, coming from war-torn countries,” he said. “You want to express yourself, but because you don’t know the language, it will eat you alive.”
Abdikarim’s family was one of a few sponsored by Christian Charities to come to Boston when he was eight. The memories leading up to that time are still fresh. He recalled starving at one of the camps and venturing out with his uncle to hunt food for the family. “There was none,” he said, remembering walking through the jungle and being afraid of lions and hyenas. “It was a really tough experience going through that as a kid.”
When he was in elementary school, it was a Somali after-school program teacher who encouraged Abdikarim to start using art to get his feelings out and connect his peers. One time, he drew a person getting shot; another time, an image from memory—an anaconda-like snake wrapped around his leg from the time his family journeyed by night to another refugee camp, and his father had to stab the serpent to save him.
“My teachers were very supportive and encouraged me to keep drawing,” he said. “I did receive some support, but there wasn’t a specific program that encouraged Boston public school students to express that kind of trauma through art. Abdikarim would like to see funding for art therapy in schools, as well as more private–public partnerships to shepherd struggling students into tech careers.
The City of Boston, he said, lacks a “skills agenda.”
“I worked in the corporate world,” Abdikarim said, “and there was little representation of people who looked like me.”
Abdikarim graduated from Charlestown High School and went on to Ohio State University to play basketball and get a cybersecurity degree. After working for Fidelity Investments, AT&T, and Apple in that trade, he shifted over to Harvard, where he became an engineer and taught the Somali language to students while taking graduate summer courses.
Abdikarim was volunteering as a student career advisor for grassroots organizations like the African Community Development of New England when he realized a lot of the challenges that existed when he was a youth in BPS still remain. He remembers going to one of his former middle schools before the pandemic and seeing the same teen center he went to, but with less programming and outdated desktops. Many students spend a lot of time in after-school programming, he said, similar to what he experienced while his father worked three jobs at K-Mart, a meat market, and as a cab driver to support the family. Having the best technology available to them to work on is essential, he noted, especially if they don’t have it at home.
Abdikarim said private companies could help fill deficits that underfunded nonprofits are struggling to handle.
“Most corporations care about community engagement,” the candidate said. “They’d jump on the opportunity to partner with specific schools and bring students on board.” City voters, he added, have an opportunity to elect someone with that background.
Beyond education, Abdikarim sees his two other key policy issues centered around housing and the environment, through a transportation-focused lens. Abdikarim spent much of his childhood moving from one public housing complex to another in—in Mission Hill, South Boston, and Charlestown—and thinks affordable housing has only gotten worse with time. He’s settled in the more affluent South End with his family, but recognizes that many of the neighborhoods near him, including Roxbury, have families who are stressed paying for increasingly high rents.
As more students become homeless, and families get shut out of the city, Abdikarim said, a major part of the problem is new apartments bought by overseas investors remaining empty.
“We can’t have vacant properties,” Abdikarim said, adding that developers should consider renting those units at lower rates to Bostonians, or face a potential tax.
Abdikarim said he’s in favor of increasing the percentage of affordable housing units that developers typically set aside, calling the current 13% “far too low.” He wants to see zoning reform, and compromises with developers putting affordable housing units near transit areas.
Abdikarim said he’s about commonsense compromise because of the amount of time it takes city government to get housing policy changed. “There’s a lot of red tape,” he said, pointing to how long it takes for ordinances to pass, mayors signing off on home rule petitions, state legislators, and the governor to weigh in.
“That’s time consuming. We don’t have that kind of time if families are becoming homeless. If you can go directly to the developer and say, Hey, let’s work together to find common ground where we both help these people, that’s a better solution than saying my way or the highway.”
Abdikarim also wants to increase the amount of bike lanes across the city, and promote an urban farming program in conjunction with the public schools. He wants to see a free MBTA for students, people with disabilities, essential employees, and low-income families.
If the city’s buses were more energy efficient, the candidate added, he’d want the savings to subsidize other groups getting free or reduced cost T passes.
“People shouldn’t have to choose between paying for food, their electric bill, or their monthly pass to get to work or their kids to school,” he said.
Sarah is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal.