Former Refugee Finds New Opportunities Through U.Va. Education Benefits

Part of an occasional series highlighting University of Virginia employees who have taken advantage of the adult education benefit.

July 28, 2011 — Imagine answering the phone in a new country where you don't know the language and not being able to understand the tutor on the other end of the line offering to teach you. This is the world Abdalla Mohamed faced in 2001 when, at age 21, he fled to the U.S. from Sudan.

Mohamed, a landscaping employee in the University of Virginia's Facilities Management Department, had refused to join Sudan's militia and was imprisoned for 17 days.
His father sent him to Cairo, but the young man didn't feel safe there, either. "I was afraid the government would send me back," Mohamed said.

He applied to the U.N. for refugee status, which was finally granted. He then came to Charlottesville at the recommendation of his American neighbor, a professor at the American University of Cairo.

It's proven to be a good place for Mohamed, who became a U.S. citizen in 2008.

The International Rescue Center, a nonprofit that helps refugees start new lives in America, provided Mohamed with housing, found him an English tutor and helped him find a job at U.Va., initially with housing services.

Mohamed launched himself into learning English, working two part-time jobs to be around people and meeting with his volunteer tutor, Terry Grant, three nights a week. Later, he added U.Va. English as a Second Language classes twice a week to his already busy schedule. Mohamed was able to quickly move up through ESL classes into General Educational Development classes with the help of Grant, and he transferred to Facilities Management.

Mohamed's supervisor, Jim Murphy, said Mohamed had been with landscaping for five years when he was promoted to groundsworker senior in 2009. Mohamed now drives a state vehicle, supervising work like mulching, weeding, watering and litter control for an area near the U.Va. Medical Center and at the U.Va. Dialysis Center at Zion Crossroads.

Mohamed's positive attitude despite his ordeals has made an impression on his boss and coworkers. "He’s just a very gregarious and intelligent person and always smiling" Murphy said. His optimism also appears in his writing.

His essay about bringing his wife to America, "The Reason That I Am Smiling," was published earlier this year in the Charlottesville Adult Learning Center's 15th annual "Voices of Adult Learners" booklet..The essay describes the arduous process that took two years, trips to Sudan and Cairo, endless paperwork and a trans-Atlantic wedding via Skype.

"I didn't know the immigration process would be that long, but I don't blame them because there are a lot of crazy things going on in this world," Mohamed said. "It took time and huge expense with the State Department, but finally she is here."

During the course of marrying and bringing his wife to America, Mohamed had to interrupt his GED classes twice, but hopes to finish this fall. He then plans to use the $2,000 in education credit provided to University employees to take classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College and eventually apply to either the chemical or electrical engineering program at U.Va. "I want to see how far I can go in my education," he said.

Since 2002, the University has contracted with Charlottesville's Adult Learning Center to deliver GED classes on Grounds, as well as classes in English as a second language for non-native speakers. The center provides the instructors and the materials, and U.Va. pays for it.

— By Kate Colwell

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications