Zakariya Abdulahi

Augsburg University senior, Zakariya Abdulahi, intertwined Somali culture with his debate experience at Dhaqan & Debate this summer.

Police reform. Sexual assault. The public health crisis. This summer, Somali debaters confronted these challenging topics on their own terms at the Dhaqan & Debate program. 

The Program In Action


Dhaqan & Debate, developed by Augsburg University senior, former Roseville debater, and MNUDL coach Zakariya Abdullahi, was designed to build cultural capital, civic engagement, and argumentation and advocacy skills in Somali students. 

Over a week of virtual programming, Somali students from across Minnesota chose a topic, researched the issues deeply, crafted advocacy presentations, and presented them to an audience including leaders from the Humphrey School’s Public Policy and International Affairs Program, Saint Paul City Council, MN Private Colleges, and more. 

“The girls at camp were super energized to talk about the issues,” says Zakariya, adding that many were impassioned by the Twitter movement exposing sexual assault of Somali girls. None of the students recruited to the program initially expressed interest in politics – but by the end of the session, they were fired up. “At first I was scared they’d be bored. But they taught me what I was trying to teach them all week: You don’t have to be a politician to care about politics. It affects us all, Zakariya adds. 


A Personal Program


Zakariya described the experiences that motivated him to design the program. “I connected my different backgrounds as a former debater, coach, and tutor at the Brian Coyle Center to come up with the idea,” he explains. Beyond the boost to academic skill building, he wanted to power students’ personal development: “The goal of my program was to build agency and self confidence so whatever they face, they can say, ‘I can do that.’”

He’s dedicated to keep sharing debate with students because he knows its power personally.

Being a debater really builds your confidence. When I told people I wanted to go to college, I knew I would be able to do well. My coaches told me that when you write a paper, that’s what debate is all about – a thesis is just an argument. That’s where I got my confidence – becoming a better speaker, better writer, and getting better at interacting with people.”


Now, he’s a senior graduating in spring 2021, double majoring in Political Science (Public Policy) and International Relations. That confidence – and passion for politics – has carried with him to political campaigns, congressional offices, lobbying, non-profits, and more. His hope is for debate to fire up that excitement in other Somali youth.

It took funding from the Minnesota Private College Fund and more than a year and a half to bring Zakariya’s vision to life. Although the program was not initially designed to be held online, Zak was pleased that the virtual format allowed students in the Somali community from the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota to unite for the week. 


Complementary Cultures


Dhaqan & Debate is aptly named, revealing an important truth. “Debate is argumentation, and Dhaqan can mean culture, or religion, or community, or the wider Somali ‘nest’, Zak explains. As he wove both of the two elements into the program, Zak saw debate and Somali culture as intertwined – an easy fit. 

There’s already a lot of debate within the oral tradition of Somalis,” he explains, “but it just lacks the formal structure and fancy terms. That’s why I did OK right away in debate – I was arguing since childhood. Somali debaters can be successful. They just fill in the structure with things that they already know.” 

This spring, Somali students will have the opportunity to compete in the East African Debate Initiative, potentially in its first-ever all-virtual season. Zakariya also gives back as a judge for the program and was “more than impressed by how smart these kids are, especially at the middle school level.” He wants to leave educators with this message:

“Invest in Somali Debate. Reach out to Somali students. Let them know they are capable. Empower Somali students to be debaters – because they can.” 

Your gift helps students explore the issues that matter most to them, whether schools are open or not. By becoming an Advocate for Debate, you’ll help sustain our virtual programming to the East African Debate season and beyond.