To say Suheib Mohamed has come a long way is putting it mildly. And in many ways his journey is just beginning.
Mohamed is a distance runner at Savannah State University who has experienced more in his 20 years than many people will in a lifetime.
The Tigers’ track and field roster says Mohamed is from Clarkston, Georgia, which is true. But Clarkston is just the landing spot for a young man born in Kenya to parents from Somalia.
With today’s restrictions on immigration there is a good chance Mohamed, who is a United States citizen along with the rest of his family, would not be in the country.
His parents left Somalia for Kenya due to the dangers of living in that country during a brutal civil war. Two years after Mohamed’s birth, his father came to America and settled in Clarkston, which is considered to be the most diverse town in Georgia.
“I met him (father) for the first time when he came back for a visit in 2009,” Mohamed said in a recent interview on the SSU campus, before the announcement Thursday night, March 12, that the university was canceling spring sports in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “I was 2 when he left and I didn’t know him at all. I had no memory of him.”
At age 11, Mohamed came to the United States in pursuit of a better education and job opportunities which would enable him to make money to help his family.
Current census data shows that 44% of Clarkston’s residents are foreign born. Approximately 50 countries are represented in the town of 7,600 and they speak 40 languages.
The attraction of the DeKalb County city — often referred to as the Ellis Island of the South — is its affordable housing and access to public transit, which makes it an excellent location for incoming families who are placed there by refugee resettlement programs.
“Walking down the hall at school was like being at the United Nations,” Mohamed said. “I speak five languages. The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was learning English.”
Mohamed now speaks English extremely well and is on track to get his degree in electrical engineering next year.
Prior to the interview, Mohamed admitted he was nervous about being interviewed.
“I’m a shy person,” he said. “I don’t understand why anyone would want to interview me.”
Veteran Savannah State coach Ted Whitaker said Mohamed was content to remain in his shell when he first arrived on campus. The past year, Whitaker said, has seen him more willing to step forward and be more outspoken, albeit in a soft-spoken manner.
“He’s taken on a leadership role,” Whitaker said. “He’s changed so much from last year to this year.
“I talk to his high school coach (Wesley Etienne) often to keep him apprised of Mohamed’s progress,” Whitaker said. “He told me when Mohamed came home at Christmas he was surprised. He said he did not remember him being so aggressive.
“He had two great mentors here who helped him a lot. Abbas Abbkar and Atakilti Sahlu were also from Clarkston. They both graduated in December, but they took him under their wings and helped him in his growth and development as a person and athlete.”
Lost in translation
Mohamed got into running, a sport he knew nothing about, literally by accident.
“I was a soccer player and in the ninth grade I was asked about running cross country,” Mohamed said. “I said, ‘I just got here. Why would I want to run across the country?’ I fell in love with the sport.”
He loved it so much he ran cross country for four years, playing soccer only his senior year.
Mohamed more than made his mark at Clarkston. As a freshman he helped the Angolas finish second in the GHSA Class 5A state meet. They won it the next three years, and in his senior season he helped Clarkston to a state runner-up in soccer.
His best finish in the state cross country meet was his junior year when he finished eighth.
At Savannah State, the junior runs the 5,000 meters, and Whitaker said he’s only beginning to tap into his potential.
“His personal best in the 5,000 indoors is 15:34,” Whitaker said at the time of the interview. “He’s on track to break 15 minutes, and I’ve never had an athlete do that.
“He’s so far ahead of where he was a year ago,” the coach said. “He has grown not physically but in maturity. He’s figuring out what he wants and how to do it.
“When he came here he was a typical freshman in that he didn’t want to get out bed, he didn’t want to do his evening runs. Now it’s like a religion with him. At the end of the season he is going to be one of the top four in the conference.”
(The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference announced Thursday night that because of the outbreak of COVID-19, all spring athletics and championships are canceled for the remained of the 2019-20 academic year.)
Mohamed said Savannah State was a perfect fit for him, and the big plus in deciding to run for the Tigers was the presence of Abbkar and Sahlu.
“I had family here,” Mohamed said. “If I had gone to a bigger school, I would not have known anyone. I would not have had the support I had here.”
The highlight of his career, Mohamed said, was when he helped the Tigers finish second in the MEAC cross country meet two years ago.
It was Savannah State’s last year in the conference before joining the SIAC. Mohamed was an all-MEAC pick along with Abbkar.
Last fall the Tigers finished third in the SIAC meet and Mohammed earned all-conference honors along with Abbkar and Sahlu.