Classroom Lesson Takes on Personal Meaning for Students

Nov. 8, 2017 ~ One of the newest members of the Prairie Trail Middle School "family" has already made a big impact on others in just three short months. Omar Mohamad, a custodian at the school, went from living in a refugee camp in Kenya to being a local celebrity when students learned his story.

Mohamad was born in Somalia and escaped with his family to the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya when he was 9 years old. The civil war within Somalia drove hundreds of thousands of people to flee for their safety since the early 1990s.

"Omar lived in the refugee camp for 15 years before a non-profit organization moved him and his family to Missouri," seventh-grade social studies teacher Julie Nemechek said. "He has an incredible story to tell and he shares a little bit with me each day."

Nemechek and her fellow social studies teachers Hannah Mead and Kim McKissick knew Mohamad's story would put a face to their classroom studies about Africa.

"Teaching about the culture and geography of sub-Saharan Africa is always my favorite unit," Nemechek said. "This year is even better because we have the opportunity to give back to a member of the PRT family. I wanted the students to know Omar's story."

Once students knew of Mohamad's experiences in Somalia and Kenya, they enthusiastically began a fundraiser to help others in the same plight. Their donation to CARE would help refugee families send their children to school, deliver emergency aid, assist adults in starting businesses, and help women build a better life for themselves and their families within the Dadaab Refugee Camp.

"The kids were shocked that someone within their four walls, who they see every day, had gone through such struggles to be where he is today," Nemechek said. "I felt like the lesson had an impact on students, and that feeling was confirmed on the very first day of the fundraiser when students donated $500."

As students worked hard to promote the fundraiser at school during the week of parent-teacher conferences, Mohamad was preparing for his U.S. citizenship ceremony on Oct. 19.

"Keeping the fundraiser a secret from Omar was a highlight of this effort," Nemechek said. "The fundraiser was a competition between the three seventh-grade teams (Yukon, Tundra and Glacier), but rather than let the competition divide them, it brought everyone together. This was important to me because togetherness is so engrained in the African culture.

"The refugees in Dadaab are more than 8,000 miles away, but they brought us together for this cause."

At the end of the fundraising week, many parents who came to conferences talked with the teachers about this special project.

"Almost all of the parents said Omar's story had made an impact on their child," Nemechek said. "Many said that their child didn't usually have much to say about school, but they would come home and talk about Omar's story and what we were learning about Africa. I loved this because it was yet another example of the refugees bringing us closer together."

Students eagerly donated loose change and some bills into three large jugs to raise money for the Dadaab refugee camp. Although the fundraiser had a competitive feeling between the three seventh-grade teams at Prairie Trail, the activity brought everyone together for a great cause. photo of students dropping money into jugs
Members of the Prairie Trail Honor Choir sang the National Anthem to start the assembly. It was followed by a short video documenting the fundraising process. In the video, students said “You inspired us to help those who still suffer in Dadaab. We decided to make change with change! We are so proud to have you in our PRT family!” photo of students singing National Anthem

Students gave Omar Mohamad a standing ovation as he came into the auditorium for a special assembly. “Omar becoming a local celebrity was a highlight of this project,” teacher Julie Nemechek said. “He commented to me after school one day that so many kids knew who he was and had begun saying hi to him. He told me that he wanted to know their names, too.”

photo of students clapping
Omar Mohamad hugged the three teachers who organized the fundraiser to benefit Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. photo of Omar hugging teachers

Principal Rick Sola and Omar Mohamad shook hands after the announcement that students had raised $2,500 for the CARE organization to help refugees in Kenya.

Photos by Marlene Colgan
photo of Omar and principal shaking hands