I can only look back on this city with love.

Dear Toledo,

As a scared 17 year old moving away from home for the first time, to go off to college at the University of Toledo (UT), I looked for any reason to move back to Columbus, Ohio. Columbus had been my home for 16 years, where my entire family, friends, and community still live. As a Somali-American, Columbus is a hub for Somalis in the U.S.; therefore, leaving my comfort zone, to a city that felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, was a huge step.

Luckily, on the first day of my orientation at UT, as my father and I were getting lost on campus trying to figure out where certain buildings were, a young Muslim student who was also an orientation leader asked us if we were lost and helped guide us to our location. As the day went on, another hijabi (a woman who wears hijab) – this time she was also African – met us with a smiling face, explained the dynamics of the university, and made us feel right at home.

Seeing these two lovely ladies, who I am now happy to say are my close friends, was extremely important for my initial decision to stay in Toledo. Representation truly does matter when you are in a place where you feel like you will not fit in or belong; to see someone who resembles even parts of my identity brought me a sense of comfort. During my freshman year, I still continued to struggle with a sense of purposelessness and a lack of fulfillment in Toledo. However, I got in touch with another Muslim sister in Toledo who introduced me to the variety of Mosques, community centers, and finally UT MSA (Muslim Students Association). I thank her till this day for helping shape my future here and finding community at UT and in Toledo.

I became the MSA president during my sophomore year at UT. Not knowing a thing about leading an organization, my best quality was my passion for helping students who were just as lost and alone as I was and to help them find a home. The board I had was absolutely amazing and taught me more than I could have imagined while President. The following year, I ran again, seeing that the work was not yet complete. By this time, I had become more well-adjusted and familiar with UT and the local community.

A few months into that school year, an influx of Syrian refugees were resettled in Toledo. As a leader, the biggest lesson I learned in organizing is that the best events are ones that actually provide or fill a need in the community, to do something that you know the community is lacking, and to do it in a way that you could serve most effectively. We had several ideas of what we could do to help during this critical time for the local Syrian refugee families. As a student organization, we didn’t have enough money to directly donate to the families, nor as students did we honestly have time to provide many other services. So our best asset was that we knew a lot of people, many of whom wanted to help but did not know how. As a result, we organized a Welcoming Dinner – an event that brought together Toledo residents with the newly arrived Syrian families over food and friendship – that had a ripple effect of positive change.

Many of the Toledoans that came had never met the Syrian families that recently arrived; all they had to understand the crisis were news headlines on their phones or TVs. Therefore, connecting all of these people with the families allowed for the very impersonal headline to become a reality. Having Arabic-speaking students available at the dinner tables to translate helped with communication and gave people a chance to hear first-hand stories directly from our new Syrian neighbors.

Overall, that entire experience allowed us to not only raise money, provide much needed personal and household items, but also build connections and relationships that would serve everyone further in the future. This event allowed people to become more familiar with the many resources in Toledo that help local refugees and gave them a chance to give back to them. Some of the resources provided included raising money for Water for Ishmael (a local ESL service provider) for a van to transport women (who weren’t comfortable with non-family male drivers) to be taken to their English classes. Also, money raised during the event went to all of the families for expenses including rent, school supplies, and household items. This event was featured in the national news publication VICE.com’s article, “How an Ohio Town Became a Model City for Resettling Syrian Refugees.” Events such as this, as well as several other events and initiatives throughout the Toledo community, including at the university, mosques, community centers and Welcome TLC, only grew my love for the Toledo community and its activism and generosity. I spent my last year in Toledo as the Youth Director for the Toledo Muslim Community Center, which only deepened my involvement and relationship with the local youth and their families in Toledo as well as my love for Toledo.

As I move on to the next stages of my life, I can only look back on this city with love and thank it for opening its arms to me, providing me with so many opportunities, giving me the chance to provide opportunities for others, and most of all for being the spark for so many of my lifelong connections and friendships. As doubtful as I was of this saying when I first arrived, you will do better in Toledo, if you give it a chance.

We caught up with Fatma at the Toledo Muslim Community Center, an Islamic non-profit organization and community center in West Toledo, where she was Youth Coordinator for the last several years. Fatma is a 2017 graduate of the University of Toledo with a Bachelors in Religious Studies, and she’s the former President of the UT’s Muslim Student Association. Fatma’s letter is the first of four we’ll be featuring to celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month. Immigrant Heritage Month Stories are in partnership with Welcome Toledo-Lucas County, a local initiative housed in the Board of Lucas County Commissioners in partnership with Toledo LISC to advance an inclusive and global community