His name is Mohamed Ali and he is a champion to his people. Forced into a refugee camp in 1992 when his native Somalia erupted in civil war, he endured hardships unimaginable in America.
“I saw a lot of things,” said Ali. “We went through a lot of hardships in our life.”
But Ali overcame. By 2006 he was studying public health at the University of Washington and watched in disbelief as eight people died, dozens more were hospitalized after breathing in carbon monoxide from charcoal grills while trying to stay warm from winter storms. Many of the sick and dead were Somali immigrants.
“I’ve seen deaths from malaria and war, but to see this in America,” he said. “I thought not again. Not in my presence.”
Ali finished his master’s degree and started working as a consultant for the King County Health Department. As last winter approached, Ali felt it was his time to fight. He went to the Abu-Bakr Islamic Center in Tukwila and to county health officials. Together, they distributed fliers and sent automated phone calls in the Somali language to warn people about the dangers of carbon monoxide.
By winter's end there had been a 90% drop in CO sicknesses since 2006 and zero deaths.
“We even took food out to a family with 10 children and no father and found housing for another,” said the center’s executive director, Abdirisak Ahmed. “That's what saves lives, when you give information. Information matters.”
On Tuesday, that good work was rewarded. Ali was called to the White House for the prestigious Champion of Change Award, given to just 16 people across the country.
“It was unbelievable. It was beyond words,” Ali said.
While it would be easy for this Mohamed Ali to take his title and boast with all the bluster his name implies, he believes it's all those around him who are truly "the greatest."
“No one person can do it by himself,” he said. “It takes a community.”