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From Kenyan refugee camp to UB commencement, one graduate's story

Few of the University at Buffalo students receiving their diplomas at Sunday's commencement have come as far as Isnino Iftin.

Born in a refugee camp in Kenya, she moved to this country at 8, first to Baltimore and then to Buffalo's West Side.

Initially unhappy with the move to this area, she later threw herself into activities at Riverside High School and became an ambassador for the Say Yes Buffalo scholarship program.

Now 23, she is the first in her extended family to graduate from college and was accepted into a doctoral program in education at UB.

"My ultimate goal is to run a school," Iftin said Saturday on UB's North Campus.

Iftin is one of thousands of students graduating from area colleges this weekend, all looking ahead to bright futures.

UB officials say she's an example of students' potential and their ability to overcome obstacles.

Iftin's journey began in Kenya, where she was born to parents who had fled the civil war in Somalia. The camp where she first lived, in Dadaab, is one of the largest in the world run by the United Nations, with more than 200,000 residents in a recent count.

She lived there with her many brothers, her mother, her father, his other wives – polygamy was allowed in their community – and sheep, goats and chickens that were targets of the hyenas that lived outside the camp. She and other family members walked 2 miles to get water for their household needs.

Iftin said she started school there late and then only because officials fed the students.

Iftin welcomed the chance to go to the United States, a destination that spurred competing rumors of frequently kidnapped children and money scattered on the ground, she said.

Her family stayed in Baltimore from 2004 to 2011. Iftin said she liked it there, and she was happy with her school after repeating third grade. She laughed as she recalled wondering why people in this country who could speak English still had to take English class.

Her family later joined many of Baltimore's Somalis in moving away. Iftin said her father had relatives in Buffalo, so they moved here over her objections.

"I hated it," Iftin said, pointing to the winter weather and the sometimes too-tightly-knit Somali community on the city's West Side.

She also was upset when Riverside staff told her the school didn't offer Advanced Placement classes.

"I was crying myself to sleep. 'Why would someone torture me like this?' " she said.

To make the best of it, Iftin – a devout Muslim who on Saturday wore a colorful hijab over a Riverside windbreaker – signed up for soccer, bowling and just about every other girls' sport, along with the poetry club and arts and entrepreneurial programs offered through Medaille College.

At UB, she studied psychology and linguistics.

Iftin regularly spoke about the value of the Say Yes Buffalo scholarship program, interned on a project meant to help Buffalo families fill out financial-aid forms, and returned to Riverside to mentor current students.

Later this year, Iftin will begin work toward her Ph.D. in education culture, policy and society.

Nathan Daun-Barnett, a UB associate professor of educational leadership and policy and one of Iftin's mentors, said he's been impressed with her poise as a public speaker and with her quiet determination.

"Occasionally as a faculty member I'll meet students who are really driven. When they are, they have a vision. But most of them don't have a plan," he said. "Isnino has a plan."

In the long term, Iftin said, she wants to open a school focused on languages that serves people of color and female refugees.

She said she would like to offer instruction in seven languages – including Maay Maay, a Somali dialect – at a school in Kenya, perhaps, and another in her adopted hometown.

"Buffalo has stolen my heart," Iftin said.

For now, she looks forward to Sunday's commencement ceremony, which comes during the Ramadan holiday when she is fasting.

She said she'll have a large family representation there, as many as 20 people, even though she only received six tickets for the event. Iftin pressed an organizer for more passes: "I told her I have a village coming."

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