Abdikadir Bashir knows what it’s like to begin a new life, far from home.

Bashir’s family fled violence in his home country of Somalia when he was seven years old. He spent 18 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before his family was able to come to the United States through the refugee resettlement program. Almost immediately after he arrived, he got to work giving back to his new community.

Bashir worked for a nonprofit helping other immigrants find employment, finished his bachelor’s degree and then went on to get an MBA. He started a childcare business and created a nonprofit called CAIRO - Center for African Immigrants and Refugees of Oregon. Through this work he uncovered an alarming trend - Somali kids were really struggling in school.

“I was approached by a group of Somali professionals, a community organization, and they said, ‘Bashir, we need you here. Our students are failing in public schools.’ After a couple meetings, I said OK, let’s see what we can do.”

After conducting research and surveys within the Portland Somali community, they found what Bashir already sensed from experience - cultural differences in the approach to formal education that put immigrant kids at a disadvantage.

“We tend to keep kids home so they can get to know their families, the basics of the culture and their traditions, and then send them to school,” Bashir said. “But here it means they’re already behind.”

His team also found that parent engagement was low - traditional public school outreach was not connecting with Somali families. Community leaders formed an education task force to work with Portland Public Schools to find better solutions, and Bashir served as the liaison.

As Bashir was digging into this work, Oregon was rolling out its new Preschool Promise program, designed to create early learning opportunities for children who might not otherwise have access to them. United Way’s Early Learning Hubs were tasked with assigning dozens of free preschool slots and found a perfect partner in Bashir.

“We know children learn best from trusted adults,” said Molly Day, Director of Early Learning Multnomah. “Bashir's Preschool Promise work is exactly the approach that United Way wants to support because he creates a learning environment where Somali children feel at home and are able to thrive.”

Bashir was met with more than his fair share of obstacles when he worked to launch his Preschool Promise classroom. Navigating the labyrinth of zoning regulations and mandatory licensing is tough to begin with, and even more so if you’re not a member of the dominant culture. United Way believed in Bashir’s work and advocated at the state level in support of his efforts to create the CAIRO Academy Preschool Promise classroom.

“It’s so much harder to launch a program within a system that was not designed around the unique needs of your community,” said Molly Day. “Throughout that process, I learned how resilient Bashir is.”

The first year of Preschool Promise just came to a close and the results have been profound.

“It gets me emotional,” Bashir said. “I have parents telling me that their preschool child is ahead of their Kindergarten child in public school. I see the kids every day. I see the progress they are making. It’s exponential.”

Bashir and United Way’s Early Learning Hubs worked together to let lawmakers in Salem know how successful Preschool Promise has been. The 2017 legislative session just ended and Preschool Promise emerged without any program cuts - a prospect that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago.

“I found the true definition of partnership in United Way,” Bashir said. “They have been guides and mentors for me. We are a team. They’re not just a funding agency. We were like one, fighting for the same thing with the same goal. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”