One morning early in his freshman year at Cornell University, Ahmed Ahmed got a writing assignment back, flipped it over and stared at the letter in shock: A C+.

He went to his biology class, where the professor displayed a large graph showing the distribution of the grades for the exam, for which, like the writing assignment, Ahmed had studied really hard. The average was 85, with a very small deviation.

He got his exam, turned it over: 69.

He walked quickly to a lake near campus, wiping away tears. Even with his always-laughing, perennially optimistic personality, Ahmed couldn’t help but realize that despite everything he had done to earn a spot at Cornell, and how much a degree from the Ivy League school could transform his own life and his family’s, hard work might not be enough.

It happens every year to freshmen, not just at Cornell but all top universities, said the school’s former president Hunter R. Rawlings III; the students were all stars in high school, and both the competition from classmates and the expectations from professors are so much more intense that there’s often a midterm punch in the gut.

But few have as much at stake as Ahmed.

He didn’t talk about his past, until sweeping rhetoric from the campaign, and President Trump’s executive orders on immigration, pulled him up short. Many Americans support Trump’s efforts to tighten border controls, singling out certain countries including Somalia, as a means to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the country.

For Ahmed though, it hit home. “To place this broad, encompassing stereotype or narrative on a whole group,” didn’t make sense to him, he said: “I know how unique every individual story is.”

Ahmed said he suddenly felt it would be a injustice, as a black man, as a refugee, as a Muslim, as an immigrant, not to tell his own story.

Ahmed’s family fled Somalia during the country’s bloody civil war. Their home had been targeted repeatedly by robbers, the last time by a group of men who stormed in wearing black ski masks and carrying AK-47s.

Ahmed was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, his parents’ eighth child and their “lucky baby,” as they called him: After his birth, they were granted asylum in the United States.

It was the greatest gift, his mother later told him. They could live in a country that prided itself on liberty and freedom.

“It was this beacon of hope,” he said. “Here you could come and if you worked really hard, you could pursue any idea you had.”

They rented a tiny apartment in Riverdale Park, Md., putting mattress pads down on the living floor each night to sleep, then putting them away in the morning. His parents each worked two jobs at factories in Baltimore, and told the children to come directly home from school and stay inside; they wanted to shelter them from the drugs and crime that were common in the neighborhood at that time. They told them education and hard work would change their lives.

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Source: The Washington Post / Susan Svrluga