When Abdinur O. Muqtar was maybe 4 years old, his family walked for two days and two nights to flee the war in Somalia. They ended up in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, where he lived for 13 years in a hut with a plastic roof. There, he carried water a mile each day and helped his family ration the food, which was handed out once a month.
After his high school teacher was murdered in the camp and other teachers fled, fearing for their safety, Muqtar and five of his friends banded together to teach themselves the rest of the curriculum. Two months later, all six passed the national exam.
“His perseverance and resilience is really amazing,” said Dannette Hunter, a school counselor with the Omaha Public School’s Acceleré program, which Muqtar graduated from in December. “He’s a great student and highly motivated. Despite all he’s been through, he has this great attitude.”
After Muqtar approached her about how to pay for college, Hunter nominated Muqtar for the $10,000 Salvation Army’s D.J.’s Hero Scholarship, which recognizes teens who have overcome adversity. Muqtar was one of 10 winners honored at a luncheon Tuesday.
The awards are named for David and Peggy Sokol’s son, D.J., a teen who stayed involved in his school and community even as he battled cancer. He died in 1999 at age 18.
The luncheon was attended by more than 1,400 people and featured a question-and-answer session with John Elway, general manager of the Denver Broncos. Scott Frost also came on stage to auction off signed footballs and to pose with the scholarship winners. The luncheon raised a record $575,000. Both Elway and Frost told the winners that they are an inspiration.
Frost said they can wear their achievements with pride.
“Nothing worth having ever comes easy,” he said.
Muqtar said hearing from Elway and Frost was “cool.” But it’s the scholarship that “means everything.”
Muqtar came to Nebraska last year with the help of his father, who was already living in the U.S. He volunteers with the Somalia Community Service Inc. in Omaha and is currently working two jobs in South Sioux City to save up money. In the fall, he’ll head off to St. Cloud State University to study economics. He dreams of working with the United Nations and becoming an advocate for refugees.
In the audience on Tuesday, Haji Salad listened to Muqtar’s story. Salad lived in the same refugee camp before coming to the U.S. when he was a child. Now 21, Salad is a social work and nonprofit management student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a youth mentor with the Salvation Army.
“It’s tough where he came from,” Salad said of Muqtar. “But I can’t wait to see where he’s going. It’s kind of like seeing a reflection of myself. I’m so happy for him.”
The two said they will work to stay in touch.
“This all is very motivating to me,” Muqtar said. “It’s a dream come true.”
Other recipients of the $10,000 D.J.’s Hero Scholarship:
- Martyna Holthus of Humboldt. Martyna fell into a deep depression after her mother died during her freshman year. She’s since become a certified nursing assistant and an advocate for the health and well-being of elderly patients. She plans to attend Southeast Community College in Beatrice to become a licensed nurse.
- Haiden Kreber of Sutherland. Haiden’s mother died when Haiden was five years old, and Haiden has become responsible for caring for her younger brothers. She’s maintained a high GPA, participated in many school sports and activities and completed more than 100 hours of community service during her high school years. She plans to pursue a degree in elementary education and play volleyball at North Platte Community College.
- Garrett Long of Valentine. Since Garrett’s father and uncle died, Garrett has become even more motivated to be involved in his school and community. He volunteers and is involved in a youth leadership group. He plans to attend Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to major in agriculture.
- Dali O’Neill of Cody. Dali left an unstable home life and moved into her own apartment at 17 years old. She drives herself 80 miles round-trip to and from school and works as a waitress to support herself financially. She is involved in several extracurricular activities and volunteers with multiple groups. She plans to attend Wayne State College and aspires to become a physical therapist.
- Amanya Pavelka of Oxford. Amanya is an advocate for teen suicide prevention after struggling with depression, anxiety and eating disorders. She worked seven jobs during her high school years and still volunteered and stayed involved in many school activities. She helped raise more than $200,000 over four years for those who’ve experienced domestic violence.
- Stephanie Perez Bolanos of South Sioux City. Stephanie, who was once homeless, has taken on a rigorous academic course load, including two calculus courses at a local four-year college. She played tennis, was a member of the school dance team, tutored elementary students and volunteered at a counseling center. She plans to study actuarial science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
- Aleasha Potratz of Wolbach. Aleasha is the primary caretaker for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis, and her grandfather, who has cancer. She also volunteers in the community and is involved in numerous extracurricular activities. She plans to attend Central Community College in Hastings this fall before transferring to the University of Nebraska at Kearney to pursue a social work degree.
- Kyla Wallinger of Atkinson. Kyla has a musculoskeletal disorder but still plays volleyball, participates in drama and is on the speech team. She volunteers at a local nursing home and hopes to one day help young children with chronic disease. She will attend Nebraska Wesleyan University in the fall.
- Hope Weber of Lincoln. Hope wasn’t expected to live past 10 days old. After numerous heart surgeries, a liver transplant and a spinal fusion, Hope is an ambassador and featured speaker for Make-A-Wish Nebraska. She also works part-time for the Lincoln Children’s Museum. She plans to attend Nebraska Wesleyan University and hopes to become a journalist or biographer.