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Building Somali Muscle And Community

This weekend, bodybuilders from around the region will gather at South Burlington High School to strike a pose, strut their stuff, and try to overpower the competition.

One of the contenders is Omar Ahmed, a young Somali refugee who now lives in Vermont.

Ahmed is hoping this contest will propel him into the big time. He wants to do more than build his own body. He also wants to help build his community. Omar dreams of becoming a professional bodybuilder, and he believes that will propel his career and his community.

“Bodybuilding is something that I love to do," says Ahmed.  "I don’t want to be a big body builder but what I do is called men’s physique. That’s what I want to be, healthy, stay in shape and help my community.”

Fitness has always been part of Ahmed’s life, either on the soccer field or in the gym.  But his fitness goals totally changed last April, when he went to see his friend, Patrick Miller, compete in a body building competition.

Says Miller “Last year when he was competing that’s the time I decided to become a Men’s Physique because I saw a couple guys come out and I went to the bathroom, looked at myself and I was like really? Oh oh, I can do this! Yeah sure I can compete this next year."

So Ahmed decided to become a bodybuilder himself. He’ll compete this weekend in the hopes of wining in the Men’s Physique category, which would qualify him for national competitions – and eventually, down the road, lead to professional status.

Up to now, there has never been a Somali pro body builder.  And Omar, whose nickname is Somali Muscle, thinks he’s ready to change that.

"I mean if you come here I feel like you can be anybody.  America is the only country where you can be anything.  You can be whatever you want.  No one can stop you unless you stop yourself."

Why body building though?  Omar says Arnold Schwarzenegger was inspirational. Ahmed used to pore over photos and videos of the famous bodybuilder-turned-politician.

But he also wants to change the popular stereotype of a Somali, especially a refugee, as skinny, narrow-framed, and malnourished. Omar is 5’8” and he describes himself as a skinny 150 pounds before he started bodybuilding. Now he’s broad-chested and  weighs a lean and muscled 178 pounds.

“The dream that I have is, maybe one of these days, opening my own gym, helping the community, it’s not only Somalis, not only my community but for everybody that lives in Vermont," says Ahmed.

This isn’t the first time Omar has laid out a goal and set out to achieve it. He came to Vermont with his family in 2003 from a refugee camp in Kenya after his family had to leave Somalia due to the civil war.

Education was his top priority then. He says there were times when he was still up at three in the morning, exhausted from studying. But he says he knew he had to succeed. So he would fill a bucket with cold water and put his feet in it just to stay awake.

Omar was one of the first Somalis at Burlington High School in 2005. He applied to Youth Build, a 10 month program for young people who get job training while earning a high schooli diploma. The director, Andrew Jope, remembers Omar well.

“Proficiency in the English language was limited, all along he was able to overcome any of those barriers through a lot of motivation," says Jope. "Especially at the time you know he was 18 years old and he had a really uncommon level of motivation for anyone, let alone an 18 year old and just tremendous social skills, such a vibrant, friendly, social guy."

Ahmeds dedication to his new sport is similar to his devotion to his studies. Discipline, structure and self-control are all integral to his life.  As a personal trainer and mentor to young Somali men, he tries to help them stay out of trouble by inspiring them to embrace these values.

His training regimen includes working out twice a day, five times a week. His friend and training partner Patrick Miller explains, "We’ve been training for the show for probably four months I would say and we do weight training together five days a week."

As a Muslim, Omar also prays five times a day and can often be found at sunrise at the Islamic center in Colchester.

Omar also dreams of going to college, opening his own restaurant in Burlington serving up Italian influenced Somali food, opening his own gym and helping both the elders and the youth – both Somali and Americans  - get fit and transform their lives.

“One thing I have in mind is maybe after my competition I was thinking of going to Minnesota – they have a Somali TV – going there and give them, the whole community, advice, especially old people that I am trying to help them you know when they come here they struggle with a lot of sickness, a lot of problems and I am trying to help them you to go to the gym and stay in shape."

But the immediate goal is to advance in bodybuilding, starting this weekend. And from there? The man known as “Somali Muscle” says he may just continue to lift any obstacle in his path and fulfill them all.

Omar Ahmed will compete on Saturday at South Burlington High School.

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