Saint Catharine College Clock Tower photo

The Many Lives of Nini

The following story originally appeared in the April 2013 edition of The Highlander Neighborhood Monthly ( It is published here with permission from the publication.

Written by Michael L. Jones

Photography by Brian Bohannon /

“The Many Lives of Nini” is the second in The Highlander Neighborhood Monthly's three-part series “The United Nations of Louisville.”

Abdikadir Mohammed, known as “Nini,” is a junior at St. Catharine College, a small Dominican Catholic school near Springfield, Ky. He is a psychology major with scholarships in soccer and track. After graduation, Nini plans to get a master’s degree in social work from the University of Louisville. His ultimate goal is to work for the United Nations.

When he is not attending classes, playing sports or plotting his future, Nini is working on his memoirs. This may sound presumptuous for a 21-year-old, but Nini’s goals are small compared to what he has already accomplished. He was born in war-torn Somalia. When he was 8 months old, his family moved to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, home to thousands of refugees from Sudan, Uganda and other African hot spots. Life at Kakuma was tough. Malnutrition and communicable disease were rampant. Nini remembers many days when his family had only enough food for one meal.

In 2006, Kentucky Refugee Ministries brought Nini and his family to Louisville. His still-untitled memoir tells about his journey from 15-year-old non-English speaking freshman to ambitious college student. “I started from nowhere,” he says. “My daddy never thought I was going to graduate. My mom don’t know anything about school and all of that. She didn’t really know what was going on. My dad knew about school, but when I was in Africa I never studied much because it was horrible there for me. When I came here is when I focused more. That’s when I got all my strength.”

In addition to the usual communication hurdles, Nini grew up speaking Maay Maay, an Afro-Asiatic language that has no writing system. “I would love for us to have a written language but we don’t have one,” Nini says. “I’ve never seen written Maay Maay. The only language they write is Somalian. They say Maay Maay can go along with Somalian language, but I did not know how to write it.

“Going to school was very difficult. I was dressing up crazy, my writing wasn’t good, my English wasn’t good. Nothing was good, except I could say, ‘Hey.’”

Nini was a freshman at Shawnee High School when a teacher had trouble pronouncing his full given name. When the teacher asked if there was something shorter to call him, he suggested “Nini,” which was the name of his soccer team in Kenya. It is a Swahili word that means “what.” The nickname remains with him to this day. If you were to visit St. Catharine and ask for Abdikadir Mohammed, no one would know who you were talking about.

Nini’s family was originally settled in the Americana Apartments in the Beechmont neighborhood, but the rent proved too expensive. Nini’s father relocated them to a housing project in the crime-ridden Park Hill neighborhood. They are Muslim, and in Africa Nini’s father had two wives. The United States does not recognize polygamous families, so the family entered the country as separate households. But Nini makes a point of explaining that he considers all of his father’s children his brothers and sisters.

Nini is his father’s oldest child. The urge to help his father deal with family business was the main motivator for Nini to succeed in school. “When I came to the United States, the one thing that made me mad, the thing that got me to really study, was when I see my dad,” he remembers. “They would send him mail paper and he’d go to someone else to read it for him. It got me really angry about that. I say to myself, ‘You the oldest at your house, you can’t read paper. That’s embarrassing to your family.’ I start focusing. ‘Till I can read paper for my dad I’m not going to give up.”

Nini moved to Waggener High School for his sophomore year. By then, thanks to after-school tutoring and ESL (English as a Second Language) classes at the Americana Community Center, he had a rudimentary understanding of written and spoken English. For a short time, a tutor came to Nini’s house, but the workbooks, with their giant pictures of puppies and other child-related imagery, embarrassed him. Eventually, he asked only to be tutored at school.

“Any Bantu kid or other ESL student would feel the same way if they had tutoring at their house,” he relates. “They would feel embarrassed that their family or friend might come home and see this little thing you are studying. They don’t feel comfortable. That’s why it was hard for me to have tutoring at home.”

In one of his classes at St. Catharine, Nini is working on ideas for better ways of teaching English to ESL students. One of his ideas is not letting students who speak the same language sit next to each other. Nini says he learned more when he was in classrooms where he was forced to work with refugee students from other parts of Africa or elsewhere in the world. In those situations, the children are forced to communicate with each other in English because it is the only common language.

During his sophomore and junior years in high school, Nini worked hard on his studies but had no idea where it was leading. But in the summer before his senior year, another Somali student told him about college. Nini asked: What is that? What do they do there? His friend told him that you study what you want and then get a job.

Nini did know about one college, the University of Kentucky, but up until then he thought it was just a basketball team. “My plan was UK, because UK was always showing up in my head,” he confesses. “People were always talking about UK, so I say I’m going to go to school there. I never thought about (University of Louisville) at all. It was UK, UK.”

But Nini had a big problem. His ACT (American College Testing) score was not high enough for admission to UK. Mostly, it was the English part that was hampering him. The first time he took the test, he scored a 12. In all, he took it four times and his highest score was a 16. Frustrated, he considered giving up on college because he had to pay every time he took the ACT. But then another refugee student told him about St. Catharine, which allows international students to submit the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) as a compliment to other tests. Nini scored well enough to be accepted to the school. In September 2012, he was the school’s Student of the Month.

“It is just a small school,” Nini says. “The people are different from Louisville. They don’t interact with you the way people interact with you in Louisville. Everybody knows everybody. You can’t hide.”

When he is back in Louisville during the summer, Nini helps refugee students with their English. He has also formed a Bantu soccer team with other Somalian refugees. They play against another Bantu team as well as a local team made up of Mexican immigrants. Nini always tells the people he meets about St. Catharine.

“They see me wearing a St. Catharine shirt and they ask, ‘What is that?’” Nini explains. “I tell them about the school. I think when they see you going to school, they get the impression ‘If that guy can do that, I can do that.’ I want them to think that way about college. That is also why I write my story. Hopefully, it will inspire other refugees to do what I do.”

Contact the writer at


The Challenges I Had In High School Excerpts from the writings of Abdikadir Mohammed, also known as “Nini”

After coming to Louisville, I waited almost a month to go to school. I couldn’t wait. I was really in a hurry to start school because I wanted to learn and speak English. While waiting, I was in ESL classes at Kentucky refugee ministries. They prepared me for school by teaching me a few things that I could use at school. For example: How to say my name. The first school I went to was Shawnee High School. The first day I attended school I was really scared because everybody was taller and bigger than me and I didn’t know anybody there. I wondered why I was in school with these big people who look liked my dad and had the same body weight as my dad. I thought they sent me to the wrong school.
When I got back from school, I told my dad that everybody in school was bigger than me. He told me the only important thing was for me to go to school and learn and not to worry who is in school with you. However, my dad never believed me I would learn anything at school. He thought I was going to be dumb and start to hangout with some students who skip school. I couldn’t read and write when I was a freshman in high school. Every time my dad tells me to read a paper for him I couldn’t read it. He had to call somebody else to read it for him. I was so frustrated when that happened and didn’t know what to do, but to step up for my family. After that I didn’t do anything else, not even soccer, for my first year in high school. Every day I came home from school and did my homework and read books. However, I went to ACC (Americana Community Center) to get help with reading and writing skills. I didn’t know anything about ACC. My friend Magan and his brother Noor were the people who introduced me to ACC. They went there before I came to America. And I started going there every day when I was freshman in high school. I was one of the best ESL (English as a Second Language) students they had at Americana Community Center. Some of the people there enjoyed helping me and I always behaved well. In two months I was better in my writing and reading skills. I was the number one student that had improved in two months that year. The ESL classes I had at school really helped me.
Shawnee High had students from many different countries but we didn’t speak the same languages, therefore, it was difficult for us to talk to each other and work together. However, we had to speak English to work together. I had teachers who really helped me during my first year of school. That year of school was wonderful. I loved the subjects we had. The teachers were organized and taught us many things. I liked my teachers and I will never forget them. The teachers respected me for who I was and I respected them. I also respected my classmates. 
At the end of the school year, I thought I was going to stay in the same school but they told me I had to attend another school because that was just to prepare me for a higher level. A week later they told me I would go to Waggener High School. I didn’t really know where Waggener was, but I was happy to go there.

Founded in the Dominican tradition in 1931 and sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Peace, St. Catharine College, a Catholic, Dominican college inspired by its founders, welcomes all to the challenging pursuit of truth, preparing them to become critical thinkers, ethical leaders and engaged citizens.