Khadijo Abdulkadir decided she wouldn’t let language be a barrier to her success in the United States. Now she’s teaching other immigrants to communicate, adapt and find their own success in Syracuse through her translation business.
Listen to Khadijo Abdulkadir describe her journey from speaking no English to solving language barriers for other immigrants in Syracuse.
By Jordan Muller
Ten years ago, 15-year-old Khadijo Abdulkadir arrived in New York City. But as she took her first steps off the airplane and into the United States, there was one thing she and her family forgot onboard: her sister.
Abdulkadir and her family were being resettled to Syracuse, New York from a Kenyan refugee camp without any problems. Now, her first minutes in America were spent searching for her sister in a place where she couldn’t even speak the language to ask for help.
“That was my first interaction with anybody that speak different language than I was,” Abdulkadir said. “We were so vulnerable enough to not even be able to say, ‘My sister is in the plane, can you get it for her?’ ”
Abdulkadir eventually made it to Syracuse — sister in tow — where, 10 years later, she’s graduated from Syracuse University and runs a thriving interpretation business to help the city’s immigrant population learn to communicate in English.
“I did not thought in a million years that I was ever going to speak a language other than Somali,” Abdulkadir said.
Syracuse and its suburbs house a growing refugee population. Nearly 10,000 refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia settled in Onondaga County between 2007 and 2017, according to Syracuse.com.
Abdulkadir and her family are Somali refugees, but she has never been to Somalia. She was born in a refugee camp in Kenya and lived there until she moved to Syracuse as a 15-year-old.
Her experience in the New York airport left her determined to learn English. She said she picked up a Somali to English dictionary from the nearby library and read it every day. She also pored over English-language TV and movies, even though she said she didn’t understand what people were talking about.
As a high school student, Abdulkadir said she grew frustrated that she didn’t understand what was being taught in her classes. A Somali friend helped translate things like her schedule, but she primarily learned English by volunteering with first- and second-grade children who were also learning the new language.
“I went there to volunteer, but I actually went there to learn because my English was at that level,” Abdulkadir said.
During her ten years in Syracuse, Abdulkadir has gone from struggling to understand her teachers in her high school classes to graduating with a degree in international relations. Last year she founded Empower Interpretation Services of CNY, a company that provides translation and English language services for Syracuse’s immigrant communities.
Abdulkadir started her company in August 2018, and it has since grown to include more than 20 translators who work in Syracuse’s hospitals, schools and other institutions. They speak languages such as Somali, Arabic and Nepali, helping immigrants connect with social service and community programs.
“My goal is to make sure that the people, the resources, are available to the community,” Abdulkadir said. ”The goal is to contract with every single agency in Syracuse.”
The inability to speak English is often a major barrier to economic success for immigrants arriving in Syracuse as well, Abdulkadir said. Immigrants have told her they lost their job or are fearful to start their own businesses because they don’t speak English, she added.
Abdulkadir’s company doesn’t just help older immigrants. On certain weeknights, Empower’s office in Syracuse’s Northside neighborhood is filled with young girls. Sitting around a large conference table, the girls take turns reading sections of novels, helping and correcting each other while honing their English reading and speaking skills.
Upstairs at the Empower offices, the kids pick from young adult novels that are neatly organized on a table in a room overlooking the Northside. The walls of the room are covered in photos of girls participating in activities through Empower, such as photography, kayaking and volunteering. After the children participated in a conference to learn about politics, they made posters describing their platforms, which are hung on another wall.
Empower’s after-school programming, such as the book club, helps students learn to improve their English speaking and writing skills, Abdulkadir said. It also allows the kids to engage with the community and get exposure to organizations and activities their parents may not be able to provide for them.
Abdulkadir said she feels “amazing” to provide the girls with those opportunities.
“I am doing something that was not available to me and I’m able to give it to someone else that needs it the most,” she said. “I wish it was there for me at the moment.”