Before Ismail Mohamad could become possibly the first Somali-born attorney licensed to practice in Ohio, he first had to convince his family that he was pursuing the right profession.
They knew he was tough, having escaped the violence of civil war in Somalia with his mother and seven older siblings when he was 5. They fled to Ethiopia, and later to Kenya, keeping up his education while facing challenges as refugees in an unstable region.
They knew he was smart, earning mostly A’s at Northland High School after arriving with his family in Columbus in early 2005 at age 12. Pushed by his mother, who stressed education to all of her children, he took college classes while at Northland and helped mediate disputes at the school.
But becoming a lawyer?
“There is a stigma with Somali parents, where almost all of them want their children to be doctors for some reason,” said Hodan Mohamad, one of Ismail’s five older sisters. “Mom wanted him to be a doctor.”
That was a problem, however. “I don’t like blood,” Ismail said.
Ismail’s decision to enter Ohio State University for a career in law, rather than medicine, troubled his family. But that anxiety faded away on Nov. 13, when Ismail raised his right hand and was sworn into the Ohio Bar.
“There is a big push for immigrant families who want to be doctors and engineers,” Ismail, 25, said. But he knew coming out of high school those were not areas he wanted to pursue.
“Civil rights is a big issue of mine, making sure people’s rights are being protected, especially the immigrant community, the black community and really any under-represented communities.”
Ismail believes he is the first Somali-born lawyer licensed in Ohio, but confirming that is difficult. Neither the state nor local bar associations track such information. If he’s not No. 1, he’s definitely among the first.
Omar Hassan, director of the Somali Community Association of Ohio, said the Somali community is proud of Ismail, but he doesn’t think he’s the first in Ohio.
There have been others, Hassan said, specifically mentioning Hodan Siad, a Somali-American from Columbus who graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Law in 2008.
Contacted by The Dispatch, Siad said she moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue government work and was never licensed in Ohio. She is licensed in Maryland and Washington.
The ability to affect lives drove Ismail to law, and, he said, also has him exploring politics. He is running for the Ohio House in the 25th District, challenging Rep. Bernadine Kennedy Kent, D-Columbus.
If elected, Ismail would become the nation’s second Somali-American state lawmaker, following 34-year-old Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis, who took office in January.
Ismail’s road to the Ohio Bar was not an easy one.
Violence first pushed his family out of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, and then, as civil war spread, his mother decided the country was no longer safe. The family fled to neighboring Ethiopia in late 1997, where they lived about four years before going to Kenya.
“In Ethiopia, the police were better but the nation was not welcoming,” Hodan Mohamad said. “In Kenya, the nation was welcoming, but the police; when you go out you have to show proof of your age or you will be caught and have to pay money.”
Ismail’s father, Cali Casayr, came to the United States in 1997 through a visa lottery, but the rest of the family couldn’t afford to join him right away. Casayr spent years working in Columbus, sending money to help support the family.
“My parents never had a lot of money, but they always knew the value of education and made sure their kids were going to school. Mom did a lot of different work for us to get the best education she could,” Ismail said.
Only those who could pay for one got an education in Kenya, Ismail said, and that helped him transition to school in Columbus.
“That’s something taken for granted in the U.S., but coming from a background where people literally have to do whatever it takes to get an education, you value that much more,” he said.
Ismail settled into school and knew he had to work hard. His mother, Shamis Mohamad, said she gave her kids a seven-year window after arriving in the United States to integrate, educate and find career paths.
“I’m happy now. I feel like everyone has become successful,” she said.
Ismail said there were some struggles in school, including fights among African ethnic groups. “That’s when I became active in the different nonprofits I worked with, both in high school and in college. The need for integrating the Somali community to the broader community was a big push that I championed.”
That included trips to the principal’s office, where he would help interpret and “try to mediate conflicts between different ethnicities or for Somalis who didn’t know what was going on.”
As Ismail moved on to Ohio State, the family tried to talk him out of a legal career, Hodan Mohamad said, speaking at Our Helpers, a non-profit agency she started in 2012 to help immigrants, particularly Somalis, integrate and find assistance.
“But he insisted on doing it. He said, ‘This is what I want to do and I’m going to make it happen.’”
At one point, Hodan said, the family had a meeting, concerned that Ismail wasn’t reading enough or struggling enough. They questioned whether he was actually going to school.
“He was like, “Mom, just wait; I’m going to invite you to my graduation,’” Hodan said.
“The day we were going to his graduation ceremony was really a big deal and really a surprise for all of the family.”
Now, mom says she is very happy, noting there are a lot of doctors, but a big need for Somali lawyers. Plus, she said, her son can serve as an example to others in the community.
Being among the first Somali-American attorneys in Ohio means a lot, Ismail said. Even when he was still in law school, he said, he was already getting calls asking for help.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “I don’t know who is giving out my cell number, but a lot of people have been calling me around the city. I’m currently not charging them anything. There is a big need and people are not able to pay. They are taken advantage of with legal fees that are extremely high.”
Ismail hopes to start his own practice, though for now he’s more focused on his run for the Ohio House.
“I see the issues people are dealing with, and I know I can be a voice for others in various communities,” he said.