“I always wanted to be in leadership and this for me is very natural because I have seen a lot in the world.”
Affected by the war in his native country of Somalia, Africa, Ahmed Flex Omar had to flee with his family to the UAE, escaping genocide and a civil war at only 3 years old. Flex holds an immense gratitude for the chance he was given to grow up in Abu Dhabi, amid a culture of giving and among generous and welcoming people. As a 10-year-old, he was frustrated by how the news never reported what was happening to his people in Somaliland. He was worried about family members every single day, and he always wished he could find a way to get people to know what was going on.
The first time Flex went back to Somaliland was in 1994. He realized that there was no electricity or running water, and that is when he decided he needed to figure out how he could help his people.
Since then, Flex went on a mission every other summer to Somaliland, visiting family and contributing to the community through donations provided by his network of friends in the UAE. “I would pack bags and donate to the kids and go back home with no bags…,” Flex said, “the children always had smiles on their faces, and that gave me oxygen, it gave me life, because they’re going through so much hardship but they’re still the ones putting a smile on your face and that moved me in a way. It still moves me today.”
Flex also helped his uncle start his first school. Now, his uncle is running five different schools in Somaliland, helping kids get a decent education, graduate, and go to universities in different countries.
Flex comes from a family of teachers and community leaders. Without a doubt, that shaped the way he is and made it natural for him to be part of humanitarian movements and create social impact.
The Emirates was Flex’s home until he turned 19 and moved to the United States in 2000. He then brought his three younger sisters along and had to balance between work, school, and taking care of them until they got to a place where they were comfortable. He was proud of them.
Flex is not the only one in his family involved in community service. His sisters are creating social impact in their own way; one is a clinical psychologist, one is a teacher working with autistic kids and has a criminal justice degree, and the other is running the small business program at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago and helping small businesses in the neighborhood.
For a long time, Flex did not approve of the narrative around asylum seekers in general and Muslim refugees in particular. That inspired him to start his own non-profit organization under the name Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA). It is a “civic and community organization committed to promoting individual freedom and diversity, and to celebrating Muslim American heritage.” MALA has been creating a large impact from inspiring Muslim Americans to share their own stories and help shift the narrative, to mentoring young leaders and partnering with civic leaders to strengthen the community. Flex is also part of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which makes him an authentic representation as the voice of many from around the world, doing his best to make an impact behind the scenes.
“I didn’t feel like we had any control over our stories, our narratives, and our journeys in the media.”
Flex believes that if you do not put your narrative out there, someone else will do it for you, and that is what’s happening nowadays in the media and social networks. He reached out to some of his friends and suggested that they share their unique stories, so that his organization could feature them on their Facebook page and website. That is how MALA was born.
MALA’s mission is to change the public dialogue about Muslim American identity in the 21st century. Flex says that has been their own roadmap. It guides them in the decision of which stories to share and what activities to connect to a different platform.
“We feel secure in knowing that we’re always putting the community first.”
On his journey, Flex came across numerous misconceptions. the most persistent one being that Muslims are monolith; “meaning that we are all the same,” says Flex, “but that’s not true, we are the most diverse ethnic group in America.” Through the different stories, MALA is showing the richness and diversity of Islam and Muslims and accurate representation plays a big part in the creation of this new community of like-minded individuals.
Flex’s advice to someone unfamiliar with the humanitarian aid community is to start where you are; visit the local cultural center in your hometown, get to know your own culture, history, and the overall community, know their struggles and their joys. “Don’t sit at a fancy hotel; visit a small village, talk to someone who is working in an NGO,” Flex says, “Even if you volunteer for one day, it will change your life completely.” Flex thinks that we need to stop looking at the world as borders, countries, and basing it on individuals and instead, we should see it as the way it actually is: a global village; affected by a lot of the same things.
Remembering how frustrated he was with the world at a young age, Flex believes that everything happens for a reason and that one should be patient and should “plant the seeds, find sunlight and water the plants.”
Flex plans to finish writing his own book; he says he has a lot of life lessons to include, some of them occurred during the time he was taking care of his sisters. While their old brother did the best he could, mistakes were definitely part of the process. Emotional intelligence is a key leadership skill, and Flex’s theory is that you cannot teach emotional intelligence; you learn it through lived experiences.
Flex says that it has always been his destiny to contribute to the community and he aspires for a world where everyone realizes we are one human family. Only then we will be able to create change.