Every Saturday, the father would gather his seven kids — including his oldest son, Mohamed-Shukri Hassan — and herd them toward the store that had landlines for international calls.
Dozens of people would wait patiently outside the store in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, where calls came in from Tokyo, London and the United States.
When the call came in from Atlanta, Hassan had to wait some more. His mother had about 45 minutes to talk to her husband and all seven of those kids. So Hassan got only a few minutes with his mother.
He and his siblings asked the same question each week: When are we coming to America? And Mom would give them the same answer: I don’t know, but I’ve sent for you.
That went on for five years before Hassan, then 15, and four of his siblings flew from Nairobi to Brussels to New York to Atlanta.
A smile jumped onto his face when he remembered the trip in an interview this week.
“First time on a plane, first time seeing a burger, you just finally feel like it’s real — I’m going to America,” he said.
Hassan ended up in Nashville, a couple of years later, worked his way through college and started helping the new Americans coming here behind him.
Hassan, one of the city’s top advocates for immigrants, sits on several boards that aid new Americans in Nashville. Plus, he has started a consulting business to help new Americans acclimate.
“I’m always exploring opportunities where I can help somebody,” he said.
That’s because Hassan got lots of help himself in the long trip that started in his native Somalia.
Civil war forced the family out of the country when Hassan was just 3, and they ended up in neighboring Kenya with thousands of other refugees.
The Hassans wandered from village to village, sharing tents with other refugees, rarely knowing where they might get their next meal. They eventually ended up in Nairobi, living off the generosity of Somalis who got there first.
The family registered for an immigration lottery, and that’s how their mother made it to the U.S., ending up in a Somali community just outside Atlanta and working at a Marshall’s clothing store. She would send back $100 a month, which her family used for food, clothes and rent.
Five years later, Hassan found himself on those plane flights to Atlanta, where more than 50 immigrants from Africa, including his weeping mother, greeted him and his siblings at the airport.
They learned English at school and other places.
“I remember getting up every day and watching ‘Saved by the Bell,’ ” Hassan said, smiling.
Hassan said he studied hard and spent extra time learning English: “I wanted to express myself and also be valuable.”
Some uncles attracted the family to Nashville after hearing of job openings with the Dell computer company.
Hassan ended up working at the West End Avenue Pizza Hut and a security company. Part of Hassan’s turf at his security job included the offices of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
That’s where Hassan fell in love with the idea of helping other new Americans, and he went to Tennessee State University to get a degree in political science. His entire college tuition was paid for with a few grants and two part-time jobs.
Since graduating, Hassan has started a consulting company to help other new Americans, and he has purchased a coffee shop where fellow Africans gather. Hassan spends many hours outside work helping those who have recently immigrated to Nashville.
“My favorite part of coming to America — leaving a place where there were no options in life, coming to a place that is increasingly challenging and rewarding at the same time,” he said.
“Here, despite challenges, you are the driver of your destiny.”