UI student works to connect immigrant population in IC

UI student Ayman Sharif balances attaining an undergraduate degree, working toward a graduate degree, and directing a new nonprofit.


Tate Hildyard

Ayman Sharif poses for a portrait in front of the Old Capitol on Thursday, March 28, 2019. Sharif is director of the Iowa Valley Global Food Project, an immigrant from Sudan, and a nontraditional UI student who is set to complete his undergraduate degree this year.

Andy Mitchell, News Reporter

Sporting a brown suit jacket and a salt-and-pepper beard, Ayman Sharif looks like one of the many professors at the University of Iowa. Instead, he’s expecting to earn his undergraduate degree in the spring.

Sharif is one of the university’s nontraditional students, working on his undergraduate degree in environmental policy and planning while looking forward to completing a master’s at the UI School of Urban and Regional Planning. Outside the university, he’s the director of one of Iowa City’s newest nonprofit organizations, the Global Food Project.

Sharif is originally from Sudan, and he moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1998. There, he made his living as a translator until he and his family decided to move to the U.S. in 2013.

To this day, he said, he can’t quite remember why he chose Iowa City, where he lives with his wife and children.

“I think it was destined for me to come all the way here,” Sharif said.

When he arrived in Iowa City, he said, he thought the key to being a part of the community was through education. At Kirkwood Community College, he earned an associate’s degree while working such jobs as driving the bus. He said learned more about Iowa City’s people and culture by driving the bus than by going to school, he said.

“I was having this focus on education,” Sharif said. “Education seemed to me very important and that it would link us together. I thought the best way to get connected to this new community and culture was perhaps education. This turned out to not be true.”

After starting his undergraduate classes at the UI, Sharif joined the Climate Narrative Project run by Jeff Biggers, formerly the writer in residence at the UI Office of Sustainability. Sharif said he wanted to bring marginalized groups and underserved communities to the center of society — intersecting with food production seemed the best way to go.

“We are securing food for people, but at the same time, the goal is to get people to move closer to each other,” Sharif said.

In 2016, Sharif and Biggers founded the Iowa Valley Food Project in a time when Johnson County was looking at expanding community food production. Sharif and Biggers brought their proposal to the county, and they were granted 3.7 acres of land from the dormant Poor Farm. In the spring of 2017, the project started with 20 families. In 2018, when they renamed it the Global Food Project, that number doubled.

“The outcome in the first year was really impressive,” Sharif said. “We saw people producing food but at the same time connecting to each other, families from Guatemala, from Honduras, from Congo, Egypt, and Morocco, and from Iowa itself.”

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Sharif said he wants the Global Food Project to cooperate with more nonprofits and worship groups, and he would like to introduce programs geared toward helping children of immigrants adjust to Iowa City.

UI junior Noel Mills, who was the program director for the Global Food Project from the spring 2018 to October 2018 and worked with Sharif extensively, said, “He saw a need in his community for multicultural community building and local organic community farming, especially for immigrant populations in Johnson County. He’s just so resilient.”

Not to be lost among his jobs as an undergraduate student, graduate student, and director of a nonprofit, Sharif is a father, and Mills said he brings that love to his work.

Mills said at one of the food project’s potlucks, they had a room for the kids to play in. When Sharif came to visit to play with the kids, Mills said, the kids flocked to him as if he was their favorite person in the world.

“He just exudes love. It’s so rare to find someone like that,” Mills said. “He’s unique, and he’s tireless.”

UI Professor John Fuller of the Urban and Regional Planning School said he met Sharif when he taught an undergraduate course last year and encouraged him to join the school’s master’s degree program.

“Planning has grad students from throughout the U.S. and around the world, but having Ayman share his unique experience has been a special and welcome addition to our student body,” Fuller said in an email to The Daily Iowan.