Amran’s Journey: From Somalia to Oakridge

Amran's Journey: From Somalia to Oakridge Neighborhood

Amran Farah’s journey from arriving in the United States 12 years ago to earning a scholarship at a prestigious university exemplifies the power of Oakridge Neighborhood in helping families gain stability while preparing for the next steps in life.

Amran was just seven years old when she fled war-torn Somalia with her parents and seven siblings. “I remember a lot about Somalia, things kids shouldn’t see,” she says.

When Amran’s family first arrived in Iowa, it was snowing and they didn’t have coats. People in Iowa didn’t look like her family. Grocery stores were an entirely new concept to the family, who’d been used to shopping in open-air markets. And only Amran’s dad knew English. “Then I started elementary it was really hard to fit in,” she says. “But I was able to learn the language pretty quickly.”

Today Amran is an incredibly accomplished young woman, who carries herself with a confidence that reflects a worldliness that surpasses her age. She has been tapped more than once to speak about her experiences with Oakridge to large groups, including community influentials and donors to the organization, and does so with ease. At the same time, she’s also very much a typical all American girl with the requisite mannerisms.

Life Changing Impact

Amran says the people at Oakridge Neighborhood, where the family settled upon arriving in the United States, were especially welcoming. For over 50 years, Oakridge Neighborhood has provided a secure, safe and affordable place for some of the city’s most vulnerable to live, plus support services to help adults and families move to sustained self-sufficiency. “What you need they will provide,” Amran says.

“I joined the youth program at Oakridge when I was 13 and it was a blessing,” Amran says. “They encouraged me to join in. They helped me believe in myself and be more confident.”

Amran has also been a part of the Youth Summer Employment Program (YSEP), a 10-week paid worksite learning and career exploration program for low-income students ages 14-21. As part of the program, Amran was selected to be a student teacher at Oakridge’s Project OASIS summer and after school program serving children in grades K-5. The experience convinced Amran that she would like to become a special education or grade school teacher. “I really love working with kids,” she says. “I’m very interested in the mind and how kids think. Seeing their growth just amazes me.”

A Natural Leader

To watch Amran leading a classroom of students, one can see that being an educator would suit her. She confidentially controls the hub of activity in a spirited room of nearly 20 students – all who clearly look up to her – leading them seamlessly through hands-on learning exercises and projects.

Amran excelled at academics at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, and earned a scholarship to Drake University, where she felt she could get the best education and still live at home. She started her freshman year in Fall 2019.

“Oakridge is a huge part of my life. Not only have they helped me with my career choice, but they have also helped my parents with whatever they needed. They help you with many aspects of your life such as emotional, financial, social and so much more,” she says. “Anyone who has been a part of Oakridge knows the impact they make on the lives of others. I can say this because I know the impact Oakridge has made on me.

“As I move toward my purpose of becoming a teacher, I’ve learned not to compromise who I am,” she says. “When things aren’t going right, I go to individuals in the youth department who tell me to dig deeper and never forget…I am destined for greatness.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Hear more from Amran here.

Oakridge Neighborhood positively impacts the lives of hundreds of students and immigrant families every year. To make a difference in the life of a student like Amran, donate here or please contact Kristin Littlejohn at klittlejohn@oakridgeneighborhood.org or 515 | 244-7701. 

Saint Matthew Vance: Oakridge Born and Bred

Saint Matthew Vance: Oakridge Born and Bred

Saint Matthew Vance exudes pride that he grew up at Oakridge Neighborhood, living in the community most of his life from birth until he was 35 years old.

“When you say you are from Oakridge it sounds like bragging, but it’s a sense of pride,” he says. “It’s pride that this is where we’re from. It’s a sense of family. Not everyone can claim that.”

When you meet Matt Vance, you get a sense that here’s a guy that has some stories to tell.

He’s a large presence in a room — with a tall frame and strong athletic build — yet soft spoken with manners that frequently incorporate phrases like “yes, ma’am.”

He readily shares his Oakridge story, then takes his leave. But a few minutes later, he returns. He has something he wants to show.

It’s a tattoo. This isn’t just any tattoo though. It is a huge tattoo running across the broad length of Matt’s shoulders and partway down his back. It says OAKRIDGE. The word is set on a red brick wall, and the lettering is ornate, forest green. The I, represented by a person in a black religious gown, like a nun with a halo of rays circling her head.

This is a tattoo that speaks pride. A deep-felt appreciation. It’s something to behold.

Oakridge Born and Bred

“My mom had me when she was 14,” Matt shares. “I stayed at Oakridge with my grandmother. Grandma’s home was always home to me. A majority of my family lived at Oakridge. Both grandmas, aunts, uncles. Some people grow up on a street. I grew up in a housing project.”

As Matt grew up and began to have his own children, tapping in to his family network at Oakridge for support mattered. He’d move out of Oakridge, but then back in. “It seemed like I could never get away from there. It was always home,” he says.  “I got my own apartment and was employed by Oakridge. It was great for my kids. There was someone to take care of them, someone to play with. Four of my kids graduated from Oakridge’s daycare. It was family.”

“Growing up, I took advantage of all of it,” Matt says. “It was a beautiful thing because when I was there we had our own sports leagues. Football, softball…we played among each other. We all really bonded. When I got in organized sports in junior high and high school it was just natural. Time playing outside and at Play City really paid off. The participation in sports physically fit me for the man that I became.”

“The community was a beautiful thing,” he remembers. “So many things to bring us together. We’d go to quarter movies on Fridays, Y Camp in the summer. We all lived together and it united us. Unity was strong growing up…one stood for all and all stood for one.”

Crack Era Invades Community

Matt’s idyllic childhood was cut short when the crack era hit Oakridge in the late 1980s.

“Around ninth grade everything was still childlike” in Matt’s life, he remembers. “But then, things started turning. The crack era brought something to the neighborhood we weren’t ready for. Crack took over. I lived in the middle of Oakridge and I saw so much drug traffic. It was like a McDonald’s drive-thru.”

“A teacher drove me home from school one day,” he shares. “I asked her to drop me off before we pulled in to Oakridge. She said no, but the second we pulled in people were running up to her car window offering drugs, saying ‘You lookin’? You lookin’?” It overran our community, and came with a lot of violence.”

Matt and other kids in Oakridge ultimately got involved in gangs and the drug trade. “We had always had access to money,” Matt says. “Not big money, but we were accustomed to working. I’d been working since I was six years old. But now, we’re making hundreds of dollars in short periods of time. You give all that access to kids to hustle and make all that money right in their own home…think what our parents had to go through.”

“The police would come through in a van, jump on you, try to run you down,” he remembers. “It was a free for all.”

And there were gang altercations. Still, Matt says, “I could never go against someone who I grew up with. Nothing could tear us apart.”

“They sent me to prison on my 31st birthday,” Matt says. He was there for one year. “Prison was a humbling experience… time away, me just growing up. When I came home I felt better about life.”