WEST RIDGE — Rashid Ahmed started working with computers when he was just 7 and his dad brought home a used, $20 device.
The computer barely worked, but Ahmed tinkered with the pieces and eventually managed to completely fix it on his own. He hasn’t stopped tinkering with computers since — and his interest has only deepened since he moved to Chicago as a Rohingya refugee. Despite the hardships his family have faced, he’s found success and plans to build a career in computers.
The 22-year-old graduated with honors from Harold Washington College with an associate’s degree in science in June 2020, then received a certificate in computer information systems from Wilbur Wright College in December.
Ahmed is the first person of Rohingya descent in Chicago to graduate with a degree in higher education, said Sarah Pajeau, program director at the Rohingya Culture Center. He’s continuing his education at the Illinois Institute of Technology and expects to graduate with a bachelor’s and a master’s in information technology management and cybersecurity in 2024.
“I want to make my parents proud,” Ahmed said.
“He’s a very hard worker,” said Abdul Jabbar, a case manager at the Rohingya Culture Center who has worked with Ahmed for years. “He’s supporting his family, and at the same time he’s pursuing his education. He grew [up] so fast and is the only one from our Rohingya community to graduate college, and now he’s helping his family.”
Ahmed said his ultimate goal is to become a cybersecurity expert. He remembers learning in high school about what cybersecurity analysts did and was drawn to protecting computers against viruses. He liked the idea of being someone who protects others, just like his parents had protected him growing up.
“The word ‘protecting’ kept coming into my head, because the thing is, all I knew growing up was that my parents [have] been protecting me from everything,” Ahmed said.
‘Every Time I Do Something, I Think About Them’
The Rohingya are an ethnic minority from Myanmar that have faced violence, persecution and forced displacement from their homes for decades. Many have fled to neighboring Bangladesh and other Southeast Asian countries.
Ahmed’s parents fled persecution in Myanmar and settled in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where Ahmed and his two siblings were born and raised. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees resettled his family in Chicago in 2012, when Ahmed was 12.
Through help from organizations like RefugeeOne and Heartland Alliance, the family secured a furnished apartment in West Ridge and financial support for the first few months, Ahmed said.
Pajeau said roughly 1,000 Rohingya people have resettled in Chicago through the United Nations agency since 2010.
Ahmed said it was difficult for his family to settle in. His parents didn’t speak English, and it took months for his father to find a job. Eventually, his dad found work in food preparation, but the family struggled financially and had a hard time navigating their new country.
“Everything was different,” Ahmed said. “All I knew [about the United States] was like in the movies, when you think about the United States, you think about New York City.”
Ahmed learned English at school in Malaysia, which made adjusting to his new life a little easier. He got along well with his classmates and quickly made friends at West Ridge Elementary.
Ahmed became more interested in computer hardware and software in his free time. His family didn’t have internet in Malaysia, so he couldn’t access tutorials or resources on Google and YouTube. But when his family resettled in the United States, he got access to the internet and his self-learning accelerated.
“From 12 to 17 years old, I started figuring it out and teaching myself. I started getting some ideas about the internet, software, programs, Windows, all this stuff,” Ahmed said.
One day, an auntie in the neighborhood called Ahmed about a computer that wouldn’t turn on. After a computer shop and other people tried to fix it unsuccessfully, she learned Ahmed, in eighth grade at the time, was good with computers and asked him for help.
“I took a look and was like, ‘Oh, that’s nothing. It’ll take me two minutes to fix.’ She was so surprised,” he said. Asked how he fixed it so quickly, Ahmed said, “It’s almost like computers talk to me.”
After that, Ahmed gained a reputation for being the local computer guy and started taking calls from neighbors and extended family who needed help.
He’s remained very active in Chicago’s Rohingya community, “there for whoever needs help,” Jabbar said.
“If we need him, he’s always there, especially at our community center,” Jabbar said. “He knows how to fix computers and the wifi, and when I call him, he shows up right away.”
After graduation, Ahmed hopes to stay close to his family in Chicago so he can continue to support his parents and family.
“Every time I do something, I think about them,” Ahmed said. “Your parents basically are the ones that take care of you, and now, they’re getting old, so you should be the ones to take care of them. That’s basically what my goal is.”
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