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Finding Light When the World Goes Dark

Luke Woodard | February 18, 2022

People

Three years after arriving in the United States from Sudan, Ibrahim Kodi started having trouble with his eyes. It started when he noticed strange red and blue shapes moving around in his vision. Over time the shapes grew larger, ultimately obstructing a substantial portion of his eyesight.

“The colors were like two balloons in my eyes,” he says. “They kept getting bigger until I could hardly see around them.” At the time, Kodi was still in his early 30s. The thought that he might be permanently losing his eyesight did not seem a serious possibility. He assumed there was some other explanation. “At first I thought there was blood in my eye. I hoped it was something a doctor could fix.”

A visit to an optometrist, however, confirmed the unthinkable: the problem lay with his nervous system and they could do nothing about it. Ibrahim Kodi was going blind. Within just a few years he would be able to see nothing but faint traces of light and dim shadows.

To understand what this must have been like for him, try walking across your living room with your eyes closed. Even in such a familiar space — and with the ability to end the exercise at any time — it will probably be more uncomfortable than you expect. Now picture crossing the street, finding the right bus stop, grocery shopping or any of the countless daily activities in which sight is our most fundamental connection to the world. To make the challenge even more difficult, now imagine doing all this in a new culture where you are still learning the language, customs and culture.

It is hard to overstate the gravity of Kodi’s situation, losing his sight while alone on a new continent. Yet this makes it all the more remarkable that his story is not defined by fear or despair, but rather by fortitude and courage. “When things got bad,” he says, “I knew I had to keep going. I knew I couldn’t give up.”

I came to the United States by myself. I had no family here.

Ibrahim Kodi

Kodi grew up in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. At seventeen, he and his older brother relocated to Egypt where they applied for refugee status. Sudan had been engaged in a civil war for two decades and their family encouraged them to seek opportunities and safety elsewhere. They waited in Cairo for three years before both were accepted. The only problem was that Kodi’s older brother would be going to Australia while Kodi himself was off to the United States.

He arrived in North Carolina in 2004, eventually relocating to Grand Island, Nebraska. Kodi got there in the middle of summer, when afternoons are hot, humid and to him, familiar. But by his first autumn in Nebraska, he began to realize that winter was going to be a different story. “I couldn’t believe how cold it was, even in October. My friends would laugh and tell me how it was only going to get colder. Nebraska was the first place I saw snow.”

It was here that the eye troubles began, the blue and red shapes that wouldn’t go away. “I knew something was happening to me,” he says. “I was scared.” None of the doctors he visited were able to stop the progression of his condition. “In Iowa City they tried surgery, but it didn’t work.” By this point, Kodi’s sight was all but gone. Aside from the uncertainty he felt about his independence, safety, work and a host of other practical concerns, Kodi was faced with the realization that the last time he had said goodbye to his family would be the last time he ever saw them. Kodi approaches this topic with his characteristic resilience, saying, “It was very sad, but there was nothing I could do. The only thing I could control was what I was doing.”

Kodi knew that he wouldn’t be able to handle everything on his own, but as someone who had lived a largely independent life from the time he was a teenager, this was a major adjustment. “I used to do everything for myself, but once I started going blind I needed to ask people for help.” He moved to Lincoln where there are more support services for the blind. With the help of Connie Daley, a caseworker and advocate with the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Kodi learned how to navigate his new world.

The Record Holder

Daley helped Kodi secure a position with Universal Pure, a Hormel Foods partner that specializes in food packaging and production. His job is to place the cardboard inserts into the lids of plastic trays that are then filled with cheese and cracker arrangements. Not only does the job grant him financial independence, it also offers him a chance to distinguish himself among his peers. Kodi typically completes around 9,000 trays in a single day. “That’s when we have good lids,” he says, referring to the highly precise way in which the cardboard must match the plastic — a tight fit that can be compromised by even the most minor manufacturing irregularities. “If the lids aren’t perfect I might finish only 7,000 or 8,000.”

While his colleagues were quick to take Kodi under their wing, they were even quicker to realize that they would be the ones learning from him. In all his time at Universal Pure, only one other employee has come close to his daily tray count.

A Family of His Own

Most of Kodi’s family is still in Sudan, but he is well on his way to starting his own household here in the United States. He has a daughter who lives with her grandmother in Nebraska, close enough for visits. And as of this last September, Kodi is a married man.

He met his wife when they were children in Sudan, where she was still living when they reconnected more recently. They hadn’t spoken for years, but she reached out through social media and the two began talking frequently. “We talked for a year before we started asking about boyfriends, girlfriends, stuff like that.”

The wedding was in Egypt. It was the first time Kodi had been together with his parents and siblings in twenty years. It was an emotional reunion, given that none of them had been with him since he lost his sight.

Ibrahim Kodi and his wife on their wedding day

“It was especially hard for my mom,” he says. “She always worries about me, so I try not to tell her things that will scare her.” But despite this initial sadness, joy prevailed and the wedding was a resounding success. “Everything was wonderful, my family is proud of me.”

Kodi’s wife is in Egypt for now, but the two plan to reunite in the States once her emigration can be arranged. “I’ll have to go back sometime next year,” he says. “I’ll fill out paperwork and help with the application. If we’re lucky we’ll be together in one year, maybe two.”

No matter what, I will keep moving.

Ibrahim Kodi

While Kodi wishes he could be closer to his family, he says that there are few opportunities for the blind in Sudan and Egypt. “In the United States I have options,” he says. “I can be independent. People here can still contribute, even if they have a difficulty.”

When it comes to living with a disability, Kodi’s message is clear. “It’s on me. It’s on me to keep working. I don’t like putting myself down. A blind person can still do things. No matter what, I will keep moving and do whatever I can.”

Universal Pure is not alone in their efforts to accommodate differently abled workers like Kodi. In a tight labor market where companies everywhere are struggling to find team members, many are reevaluating their requirements for a number of positions. Workers are now getting more opportunities, taking on new responsibilities and exceeding expectations, demonstrating that they are capable and determined to become valued members of any business.

Hans Hofmeyr, Kodi’s supervisor at Universal Pure, is one of the many people who appreciate his contributions to the team and find inspiration in his story. “We get him set up, make sure he’s safe, but other than that he’s independent. It’s amazing. We’re proud to have him and we’re grateful for everything he does.”

For the opportunities they provide to individuals like Kodi, Hormel Foods is proud to be a partner of Universal Pure.