“Dreamers of Columbus” opens at Downtown library

In 2010, when Zakaria Farah was a freshman at Ohio State, he felt like an outsider. Many of his peers lived on campus. He did not. They were able to drive. He was unable to obtain a license. They received financial aid to help with the cost of textbooks. He had to borrow his books from the library. Even his access to food was different, as he learned one day when he accompanied some classmates to the dining hall.

“I'm looking at the prices, but for them, all they look at is, ‘What do I want?'” said Farah, now 25. “They are all on the dining plans and I am not. At this point I'm becoming very aware of the fact that I can only afford one item on this entire menu.”

Farah used the $5 in his pocket to buy a grilled cheese sandwich. “Mind you, I hate grilled cheese, but I have to sit there and pretend like I wasn't even that hungry, even though I was complaining about it earlier,” he continued. “And now I'm like, ‘Shit, I don't know how I'm gonna afford to eat for the rest of the week.' And that story, I think, helps me articulate … my entire experience at Ohio State, and why I ended up leaving the way I did.”

Farah, an undocumented Somali immigrant, who came to the U.S. at 9 years old, was dismissed in 2013 for academic reasons. “My first quarter at OSU, I did very well,” he said. “But every subsequent quarter I did worse. My mental health started to deteriorate, and I couldn't balance things that I needed to in order to succeed.”

Farah was able to obtain a work permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which defers deportation for immigrants who arrived to the U.S. illegally as minors. After taking low-wage warehouse jobs, he worked his way up to an assistant facility manager at a parking company. Currently, he is returning to OSU to study environmental engineering.

“[But] it's still difficult to talk about for me because I carry a big chip on my shoulder about not having graduated [yet],” he said.

Farah is just one of several local DACA recipients featured in the “Dreamers of Columbus” exhibition opening at the Columbus Metropolitan Library Downtown on Tuesday, May 8. Photojournalist Sahar Fadaian and journalist Leticia Wiggins captured and displayed pictures of the “Dreamers” alongside quotes from interviews with them. One purpose of the exhibition is to inform, as the government continues to debate the fate of the DACA program and whether its recipients will have a path to citizenship.

“I think a lot of people are unaware of the actual situation and the true unfairness in the treatment of these individuals,” said Wiggins, who is of Mexican heritage. “People come for a variety of reasons … but it's all from a place of making their lives better.”

Through the interviews, Wiggins said she learned that Dreamers have to work “five times harder.”

“That's not fair,” she said. “They're working to justify their existence every day in this country, where we take a lot of these aspects of citizenship for granted.”

Fadaian said she was moved by the sense of pride the DACA recipients shared when they talked about their parents making ends meet with jobs that some might consider unglamorous. “I love that because they earned it,” she said.

Like many DACA recipients, Fadaian has also experienced a feeling of not belonging. She said she moved to Columbus from Iran in August for the diversity. “But to be honest, I haven't felt that,” she said. “You see the culture of [people] ‘othering' each other. … I can feel that my history is written on my forehead.”

“We are the same,” she continued. “I'm so exhausted [and] frustrated with [how we] differentiate each other, like Asian, black, white, Middle Eastern, gay, straight, this, that. How about just us humans? This is my hope.”

Farah, who only recently began opening up about his undocumented status, also hopes his participation will make an impact.

“I, myself, was doing nobody any favors by not talking about it,” he said. “Discussions like the ones that I was forced to have after coming out as undocumented, I hope would potentially change the minds of some. I can't expect the world to change based off of what I'm doing, but I can try. And I have to try.”