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From refugee to student senate president: Meet Habiba Sagal Ciise

From refugee to student senate president: Meet Habiba Sagal Ciise

Habiba Sagal Ciise was just three months old when her family fled Somalia at the height of the country’s civil war. She went on to spend much of the next seven years living in a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya before ultimately leaving Africa for Minnesota. Today, Habiba is making the most of her opportunity here and using her voice to bring about change in the community. 

Habiba, a junior, studies social work at Winona State University-Rochester and has her eyes set on one day working in public policy. “Teachers and advisors here are really involved and give you the personal attention you need,” she says of her experience so far.

Already, she has assumed a leadership position on campus, serving as the student senate president. Her role, as she describes it, is to be the bridge between the student body and university leadership. For instance, Habiba says, “If [students] have questions or they want to plan an activity, I help them navigate the process.” 

For Habiba, the philosophy of helping others is nothing new. After spending her elementary and middle school years in Minneapolis, Habiba’s family made the decision that it was in the best interests of her brothers to move to Portland, Maine. Habiba was only a sophomore in high school at the time, and recalls it being difficult to make new friends in a new city. “It’s not about you. It’s about what’s best for your family,” she says.

She wound up attending Southern Maine Community College, where she studied behavioral health sciences, a topic she kept a keen interest in. But after her mother was diagnosed with esophagus cancer, she was once again on the move. First Boston, then to Kenya, over to India, and then eventually back to Minnesota as her mother’s condition worsened. 

Habiba’s mother passed away a few years back, and left no regrets on how she lived her life. “I’ve been blessed,” she told her family. But for Habiba, the pain was more than she could bare. “I shared everything with my mom, she recalls, “and none of us knew how to grieve.”

As she did throughout her life, though, Habiba eventually built up the courage to get back on her feet and honor her mother’s legacy in the best way she knew how. She got a job with REM River Bluffs, where she still works today, assisting adults with intellectual and behavioral disabilities. It’s that work, along with her education, that keeps Habiba not only busy, but inspired that she can make an impact in the world.

As a Somali woman, she said, “people underestimate our intelligence; that we are not smart enough to do something or bring about change.”

“I am here to prove them wrong.”

This article is part of a collection of stories being published in partnership with Winona State University-Rochester.

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