To get to the graduation ceremony of the 108th Recruit Class of the Dayton Police Department on Friday night, Officer Ndayisaba Ramadhan had to take two very distinct paths.
With the last one, he and the 20 other newly sworn in policemen and women followed two bagpipers into the beautifully restored, 105-year-old Eichelberger Hall at Stivers School for the Arts and after a series of crisp turns – as the cell phones and regular cameras clicked photos and the overflow crowd applauded – they assembled on the elevated stage.
There they were saluted by Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl, given a spiritual embrace by chaplain Sgt. Chris Fischer and commended by one instructor after another.
This night of pomp and circumstance – preceded by the recruits’ official swearing in at City Hall in the morning – was an easy trek for Ramadhan, as he’s known by everyone, especially his family members, his former Belmont High School coaches, the Bison athletes he now mentors, some of the Burundi drum corps with which he performs and numerous other friends and admirers, all of whom had gathered to give him the largest contingent of followers in the old Victorian hall.
The first journey he took to get here was quite different.
Rather than music and cheers, the backdrop was lots of loss and pain and uncertainty.
In 1993 – a year after he was born in Burundi, the small, landlocked country in East Africa – his nation erupted in its second civil war in two decades, this one prompted when Melchoir Ndadaye, the Hutu leader who had won the country’s first-ever democratic election, was promptly assassinated by Tutsi soldiers.
Parliament elected another Hutu to the presidency and immediately he and the Rwanda president were killed when their plane was shot down.
The ethnic violence that followed lasted more than a decade. Over 300,000 lives were lost in Burundi and two million people were displaced.
Ramadhan said his paternal grandparents were killed, as was his maternal grandfather. His immediate family fled briefly to Congo and then to Tanzania, where it lived in the Mtabila Camp, a makeshift refugee enclave that ended up swelling to 40,000 people.
For most of his first 15 years, Ramadhan lived there. Conditions were poor. He said they lived in a tent, then small shed-like house made of dirt. Roofs often were thatched.
“Was it safe?” he said repeating the question. “That’s kind of hard to say, but it was better than back home.”
When the family finally was cleared to come to the United States – thanks to the efforts of the Catholic Social Services Resettlement Program – Ramadhan said they were told they’d be going to Dayton, Ohio.
“We were kind of shocked,” he now says with a smile. “We knew of New York City, Florida, California, Texas, but we had no clue about Ohio and especially about Dayton.
“But it still was exciting. Everybody wants to come to the United States. It was a dream come true.”
Never mind the dream was short on details.
“Most of what I knew about the U.S. came from watching movies like Rambo and those with the governor of California…Arnold (Schwarzenegger),” he said. “And, of course, there was music. People like Beyonce, 50 Cent and Eminem. But that was about it.
“Oh …and I knew that it was a rich county.”
The family knew little of the culture, nothing about the city and, at first, no English. And the kids soon found out the streets of their Five Oaks neighborhood could be as threatening as those dirt roads back in the Mtabila Camp.
“We’d get our bikes and a few toys at Goodwill and then we’d go outside to play,” Ramadhan said. “And when some of the American kids, like the guys playing basketball over at the park, wanted to use our bikes and stuff, we let them because we thought they were nice.
“But when we asked for them back, the wouldn’t give them to us. We were kind of bullied and we never did get them.”
Ramadhan and the other young Africans were targeted because they had accents, because they were different, because they were trusting.
“I always was kind of afraid at first, but then when a policeman would come around, I felt different,” he said. “I felt safe around them.
“The police were different here than back where I’d come from. There you had to give them something. Many of them were corrupt. But here they looked out for you. They talked to you and helped you if they could.
“They were always my heroes. And one day I wanted to be the one for other people. I wanted to help people and make them feel safe and see them smile.”
That’s when Ramadan said he began to formulate the idea of becoming a police officer in the city that had welcomed his family, the city that had given them a new lease on life, the city he had grown to love and now calls “my home.”
Still the idea seemed far-fetched.
Sgt. Steve Bernstein, a training supervisor at the Dayton Police Academy, said that for every four people who try to become police officers here, three are usually cast aide for one reason or another.
And yet 26-year-old Ndayisaba Ramadhan beat those odds and so many more.
He became a U.S. citizen. He took criminal justices classes at Sinclair. He worked as a janitor at the Dayton Police Department downtown and at the Police Academy on Guthrie Road as a way not only of making some money for his family, but to be closer to the dream he longed to be a part of.
And that’s what made that second walk of his Friday night – up there onto the graduation stage – so remarkable. It’s why so many people came and cheered him.
It’s why former Belmont football coach Kipp Grubaugh got emotional when he talked about Ramadhan, calling him “just a phenomenal young man.”
Julie Raiff, the former Belmont High soccer coach who has watched Ramadan work much of the time as a volunteer and unpaid assistant with the Bisons’ team of immigrants – “they all look up to him so much,” she said – melted into tears Friday night when she watched him take the stage in uniform.
“He’s stellar,” she said quietly, “Simply stellar.”
Bernstein, who said he tries to have no favorites among the recruits he prods, nurtures and protects, said he’s made an exception for a guy like Ramadhan:
“He’s just an exceptional young man. I love the kid.”
Sports as a way to keep busy
When he got to Dayton, Ramadhan, who already spoke four languages – Kirundi, Swahili, Rwandan-Rundi and a little French – ended up at Belmont because of its English as a Second Language (ESL) program.
In those early days he said there often were confrontations among students and sometimes the immigrant kids were targeted.
He said he decided to immerse himself in sports – soccer, track, wrestling and football – for several reasons:
“I enjoy sports first of all. And it was a way to keep busy and learn English.
“It was also a way to make sure I got involved with the right people. I figured if we were on the same team, if we wore the same uniform, those were people I could trust. They would have my back.”
To be truthful, though, the football guys initially were more interested in Ramadhan’s foot than his back.
Back then the Bison had very little football success. In the three years before he joined them, they won a total of four games.
“Our practice field was right next to the soccer field and I looked over and saw this kid kicking the ball 70 yards down the field,” said Grubaugh, then an assistant coach.
He said soon football practice had stopped and everyone was watching the 5-foot-5 Ramadhan blast one mighty kick after another.
“You ever see the movie The Natural?” John Derr, the late head coach, asked me back then. “You know how somebody just walks in off the street? Well, that’s Ramadhan’s story. He was Iike something straight out of the movies.”
Jackie Fails was an assistant coach then and he said the first time he saw Ramadhan kick a ball, he launched it over a three-story (school) building:
“I asked him to do it again and ‘Boom!’ This one landed on the roof. And I said, ‘Man, you done lost the ball!!!’”
Grubaugh said Ramadhan won them one of their first games by kicking three straight field goals. After the season, he won All City League first team honors.
“He was gold,” Grubaugh said at the time. “African gold.”
While track and soccer came naturally to Ramadhan, wrestling was a learning process.
“His first year he didn’t do too well,” Grubaugh said. “I think he lost his first 10 or 12 matches. But then he figured it out and senior year he was 20-1.
“He beat a state placer and two district placers. But the thing that really stood out was what happened if he’d beat a guy real quickly. He’d go over, pick the guy up off the mat and he wouldn’t just shake hands, he’d give him a big hug.
“You just don’t find many kids like him.”
Floyd Thomas Jr., the curator emeritus of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, met Ramadhan soon after he got to Dayton and has befriended many of the Burundi drum corps members.
He’s taken photos of many of the milestone moments in Ramadhan’s life, from his athletic accomplishments to the day he became a citizen and Friday night’s graduation ceremony.
He wrote a letter of recommendation for Ramadhan to the police academy.
“He is truly unique,” Thomas said. “I’ve seen it time after time. He’s kind and compassionate and focused on giving. Around him people smile and laugh and they feel better about themselves.
“He has the kinds of traits we expect and deserve from our police officers.”
Eye on the prize
After graduating from Belmont in 2012 and spending a few years working in building maintenance – first at Fifth Third Bank and then in various City of Dayton buildings doing everything from sweeping floors to cleaning bathrooms – Ramadhan got himself in position to begin the lengthy process of trying to become a Dayton policeman.
But he said he misread the time of his first meeting, arrived late and was forced to put off his quest for a year.
Although crushed, he remained determined: “I knew the prize was out there, I just had to wait longer.”
Bernstein said the first part of the process – passing the PT test, a written test, going through background checks, meeting medical qualifications – can take 18 months to two years.
Then a recruit must get in one of the limited classes that are offered.
The one Ramadhan and the 20 others completed – two other recruits fell by the wayside – took seven months and included more than 1,000 hours on instruction.
Besides a lot of classroom work learning the Ohio Revised Code and doing PT three times a week, there were firearms and defense tactics training sessions, instruction driving police cars and various other lessons.
While learning to use a TASER and pepper spray, the recruits had those deterrents turned on them as well.
Bernstein said not only does it make them understand the pain they are about to inflict on someone else, but it also makes them realize how precarious their own situation could become should a subject take one of those weapons away from them and use it on them.
They could become incapacitated and end up losing their guns – and life.
All of it is to prepare the new officers for life on the street – which begins with a nine-month probation period that includes riding with a training officer.
Ramadhan said he will begin Monday, working the night shift in West Dayton.
“One long journey is over and another new one is about to begin,” he said Friday. “But I’ll be truthful, right now it still feels a little like a dream. I look down and see Officer Ramadhan and I can’t believe it’s really happened.”
His family and friends certainly understood – and appreciated – what they were witnessing.
His parents, Issa and Selina, were beaming, as was his younger sister, Amisa, and big brother, Rajab.
“His whole life, when Ramadhan wanted something, he went after it and wouldn’t give up until he got it,” Rajab said. “He’s always been the star in this family and I think he always will be. He’s something special.”
The old Belmont qualifier has been updated.
Officer Ramadhan is now Dayton gold.