For some people, graduating high school may seem like a common accomplishment. But for many youth in the Hilltop neighborhood, that diploma can feel out of reach.

The non-profit, MY Project USA, is celebrating several teens who beat the odds and are now the first in their family to graduate high school. These teens have survived gun violence, the loss of friends and family and not having a full support system. They say their graduation day was emotional for many reasons.

“It was very tough because the stuff that’s going on in our community, like the gun violence and everything,” graduating senior Sharmarke Abdi said.

Abdi and Mukumbira Mukumbira say there were many days where they thought they may not even be alive to walk across the graduation stage. They both lost their best friend, Issa Jeylani, two years ago when he was shot and killed while they were playing soccer.

“I was not mentally there, and I really couldn’t focus in school. I was barely going to school,” Mukumbira said.

They say MY Project USA and their founder Zerqa Abid changed their life. They say Abid helped them enroll in a better school, pushed them to get better grades and excel as soccer champions.

“I will come here after school every day at three. Leave at six. I was doing my work that was helping me with my work. I never thought I was going to graduate, but the programs here gave me a lot of hope to graduate,” Abdi said.

They both say their parents do not speak English. They say they had a hard time sitting down and having a conversation with them about school. The teens say their parents did not care if they graduated or not.

“I just knew I had to make everybody around me proud because they knew those people that doubted me. Because of the neighborhood I come from, it’s easy to judge me because I look like a black kid that looks like a gangster. You don’t know until you are in my shoes,” Mukumbira said.

The boys walked across the stage at Flex High School graduation last week. Asha Osman, another MY Project USA graduate,  graduated from Franklinton Prep.

“I’ll be going to Columbus State Community College in the fall to start my social justice work,” Osman said. “Helping families that really need help and helping the community actually needs help and speaking out for the community.”

Abdi said he plans to go to school to be a medical assistant and keep playing soccer. Mukumbira said he wants to become a professional soccer coach. All three teens say they plan to come back to MY Project USA in leadership roles to help kids like them.

Abdi said watching the teens graduate was bittersweet for her because she knew Jeylani was supposed to be there too. She said she is determined to make this community safer for them.

She is working hard to secure funding to build an indoor recreation center in the Hilltop. And she plans to name it after Jeylani.



Written By:
Ann Abajian