EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of short videos and written pieces examining the impact of COVID-19 on immigrants and refugees in Minnesota. The project is produced in partnership with the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.
Mohammed Hajji Ahmed fell off the payroll at New Century School in St. Paul when the K–8 charter shifted to virtual learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mohammed was a behavioral intervention specialist at the school and spent his time providing one-on-one assistance to kids with behavior challenges. But after the pandemic sent the students away from their brick-and-mortar classrooms, Mohammed said, his services were no longer needed.
“That’s not really something that’s possible to do virtually,” he said of his now-previous job. “So a lot of staff were let go to cut down costs—and I happened to be part of that.”
Despite the difficulties that come with unemployment, Mohammed didn’t let his new situation get to him. Instead, he embraced the moment, using “the down time” as an opportunity to rekindle his true passion: art.
Mohammed was born in Somalia and grew up in South Africa, where he became fond of films, poetry, and visual storytelling. When he moved to the United States, in 2015, he had to put his passion on the back burner to make ends meet.
But over the past several months, thanks—in part—to the pandemic, Mohammed used his alone time to rediscover himself, hone his craft, and produce some creative works. That includes Bahdoon, the Journey, a documentary tracking his own creative trajectory.
Sahan Journal recently caught up with Mohammed and asked him about his journey tobecome an artist, how the pandemic impacted his creative work, and what it’s been like for him to be Black, Somali, and Muslim immigrant artist in Minnesota.
People know you as the actor from A Crack in the Sky, the widely successful play—based on the life story of author Ahmed Ismail Yusuf—that premiered in 2018 at the History Theatre in St. Paul. But you’re also an author and poet, among other things.
Yes, I wear many hats. I’m a writer. I’m a poet. I’m a director. I’m an actor.
I’ll ask about your acting and writing and directing projects. But let’s begin with your journey to becoming the artist you’ve become.
It all started when I was a young boy in South Africa. The first teacher that introduced me to the ABCs made me fall in love with thinking, creating, and just being open-minded.
Growing up, no one around me did anything beyond high school, except for a few individuals whose families had the means to send them to college. Some couldn’t even make it through high school. They had to drop out before they could complete high school because they had to start working for their families.
For me, after high school, college wasn’t an option. So I started taking creative work seriously. I started writing poetry in 2008. I also liked films and acting. In 2011, I had my first audition for an action movie. They were looking for a Somali actor. But in the end, I didn’t get the part because the job required traveling. I didn’t have a South African passport.
At an early age, I realized that film is the greatest tool that the voiceless can have. Like, I can actually put every little thing that I’m thinking about in the movie. That’s power!
It seems like you found the spark of becoming an actor or an artist as a young man in South Africa. But you hadn’t really produced the things you aspired to create. Then you moved to Minnesota.
Yes, I came here in 2015. I left behind my mom, my siblings, people that I grew up with, the community that I grew up in. There are expectations, and there are also social standards that were set for everybody.
So when I came to the U.S., I went to school, like everyone else.
But I still kept dreaming and talking about my dream of becoming an artist with people around me. But each time I spoke of this dream, people started to respond. They said I was wasting my time with acting and storytelling. “You will never reach this,” they told me. “You will never reach that.”
Instead, they suggested that I find myself a “real” job. Others suggested that I become a truck driver. That’s where the money is, they said. That’s where happiness lies.
So for a long time, I never really portrayed myself as an artist. I just kept it to myself. I didn’t have the opportunities, and I wasn’t ready to expose myself to unnecessary toxicity.
In 2018, just three years after your arrival, you had a big role in A Crack in the Sky. How did you end up getting the part?
Someone sent me a text message with a link. I opened the link and read the description for the acting role, and right away, I signed up for the audition.
The audition was scheduled on Monday, but I had to work overnight on Sunday. I used to work at Walmart at the time. So I came home on Monday morning, but I wasn’t able to wake up in time. I missed the audition.
I thought that was it—I missed my audition. Then they texted me, saying I could come the next day for the audition. I showed up, and I got the part.
When we last spoke, in 2019, you were working at New Century School. Then the pandemic struck and you lost your job. What have you been up to since then, creatively?
Yes, I and others were let go due to COVID. Losing that job, for me, was a sign from Allah telling me, “Hey, use this down time to create!”
Quite frankly, that’s exactly what happened. Since I left the school, I’ve been able to do various creative projects, including Bahdoon, the Journey, a documentary film about my creative work.
The documentary also discusses how I discovered myself. I mean, I used to be an artist in denial for the longest time about my role and what I should be doing. It recreates, basically, my journey: my first show, the people I worked with, my mentors. It highlights what I’ve been up to and how I’ve discovered these things.
In addition to that documentary film, I went to Seattle to finalize the planning process of the Ilmaha Aan u Qorno project.
I understand that “Ilmaha Aan u Qorno” means “Let’s write for the kids.” But what is the project about?
It’s a project which I’m very passionate about. I’m documenting 10 short children’s stories, in both Somali and English. We will then illustrate them and make them available in books and in animated videos for children, free of charge.
The illustration part is a very important part in the project. We need to put faces to the words we write.
Who’s funding these upcoming projects?
We’re in the process of setting up a GoFundMe campaign. We’re also asking people to donate and help us produce these creative works.
It seems like the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise for you.
In a way, yes!
But the pandemic has also impacted me negatively. I mean, we have no access to theaters. We’re not able to do shows. I’m not able to see the people I create for or the people that I create with.
I had plans to go to the U.K. last year for the Somali Festival Week. But that didn’t happen due to COVID. So, it has been quite tough, personally.
I want to bring up one question about race and ethnicity. I know that you lost some relatives and friends to the ongoing xenophobic violence in South Africa: Black South Africans killing African immigrants. In the U.S., there’s been a different kind of violence. People are still talking about the killing of George Floyd. I wonder what goes through your mind as you think about these things.
Thinking about race is my everyday life. Growing up in South Africa, I had a hard time understanding why Black people were killing other Black people, especially Somali immigrants. So for me, I was never seen as a Black man. Living in an African country, I was made to feel an outsider.
Coming to America was extremely different. I wasn’t concerned about a mob attacking me and stoning me to death on the streets. However, the police officer could be looking for the slightest excuse to shoot me dead.
That said, for some of us—immigrants and refugees—this is the first time we have seen a peaceful place. I’m not going to deny that America made it possible for me to accomplish my dream more than any other place I can think of right now.
But at the same time, there’s also racism and oppression and anti-blackness that people who look like me face every day. We experience all of these almost everywhere we go.
So, as a Muslim actor, I accept that America will never accept me.
That’s a good segue to my final question. What challenges do you face as a Muslim, Somali, Black immigrant who happens to be an artist in Minnesota?
To be very honest with you, it’s very complicated. As we speak right now, I’m working on a mural titled “Hooyo’s Sacrifice.” As I write this, I will need a wall for this as well as a committee and a board to approve it.
I know they will never approve it because they might not like what I’m highlighting. In this project, I’m not just talking about how immigrants escape their countries for a better life here. I’m also highlighting the complicated struggle they face here.
Most of the artists who came before me had to give up their trauma without even making peace with it. So they have to write stories that fit with their stereotype. For example, they have to write about an oppressed woman wearing a hijab. Or they have to portray Muslim men as potential terrorists.
I can never do that. For me, I will be Muslim, Black, and Somali. I will keep every identity of mine intact—and I still want to make it in America as an artist. I don’t know what the odds might look like.