Connecting our world at UW Medicine

Anab Abdullahi: An immigration story of heartbreak and courage

It is not easy to say no to Anab Abdullahi, which is how I find myself shoeless, practicing yoga with 15 Somali women on a Sunday afternoon, with the smell of roasting butternut squash in the background and soothing music playing over the speakers. When I arrive to interview Abdullahi at the Daryel program, a Somali women’s wellness group that meets in South Seattle every Sunday, she kindly offers me snacks, then points me to a chair. She will not take no for an answer. We will talk after class, she says. So off I go, bending, stretching and laughing with a group of women I’ve never met.

Abdullahi is a caseworker cultural mediator (CCM) at Harborview Medical Center and the coordinator of the Daryel program, which offers local Somali women the chance to connect with one another, practice yoga, share food, and even get massages every Sunday. Bria Chakofsky-Lewy, a nurse from Harborview, launched the Daryel program in 2008 with Somali caseworker Salma O Musa as a way to help Somali immigrants, especially women, who were complaining of body pain. Chakofsky-Lewy noticed that Western medicine wasn’t helping the women much. What they needed, she thought, was community; the Daryel program was built to provide just that.

With Abdullahi at the helm, bustling around the room and lovingly bossing her friends around, more than 15 women gather weekly on Sundays. They drink chai. They discuss news from back home. They take a yoga class, with Abdullahi translating (and reminding them to focus when they get distracted).  Before and after class, the women can get a massage at one of the purchased or donated massage tables in the room. And the program works: The women say that they feel ten years younger after the sessions, Abdullahi says. For her, it’s worth the early Sunday morning preparation time.

Somali women in Daryel Project

Abdullahi is a Somali immigrant herself, so she understands where these women come from. Her story is one of drama, heartbreak, leadership and courageous persistence. As she sits down to talk with me, she picks up two satsuma oranges, hands me one, and begins to peel hers slowly. It is best, she says, to start at the beginning.

‘Why not me?’

Abdullahi was born and raised in Somalia, where she lived in a house with 17 siblings and cousins. As the oldest female child in the family, she often found herself in charge. She worked hard at school and earned good grades. Eventually, she studied medicine in Somalia and Italy.

After finishing her training, Abdullahi planned to work in rural Somalia — but when civil war broke out almost immediately after she graduated from medical school, her plans changed. Her male family members left the country immediately, fearing for their lives. Abdullahi housed dozens of relatives and started to work at a local hospital. She says she saw horrors during this time that most people can only begin to imagine: People killed in front of her; entire homes leveled instantly, killing everyone inside. Eventually, she knew she would need to leave Somalia for her own safety.

Italy was a comfortable option: Abdullahi knew the language because she’d studied medicine in the Italian language while in Somalia, so she moved to Rome and continued studying medicine there. Without residency, though, she couldn’t practice medicine, so she worked in home care, cooked, cleaned and volunteered. She helped her fellow immigrants apply for refugee status in the U.S. and Canada, and translated for them at job interviews while she studied for her boards, hoping to eventually get her Italian visa accepted so she could start to practice medicine. As time went on, though, this option looked less and less possible.

“I remember, one day, one of the Somali women I was helping to apply for a Canadian visa said, ‘Why not you?’ and I wondered– Why not me? All I needed was a place to live that was safe,” Abdullahi says. “Within six months, the Canadian embassy had accepted my visa application.”

Abdullahi moved to Calgary soon after. Again, it was hard for her to find work, as she couldn’t use her medical degree. But she kept volunteering, kept helping people, kept cleaning and sending money back to her family members, many of whom had since left Somalia and settled in Kenya. Eventually, she learned English, too.

Still, life wasn’t easy. She had never faced racism in Somalia, where she says the Muslim faith dictated that everyone be treated equally. In Italy and Canada, she faced racism daily, on the streets and in the immigration offices. And she still couldn’t practice medicine, her one true love, in Canada.

‘I am their information’

While in Calgary, Abdullahi kept in touch with a friend from her past who lived in Virginia. Eventually, they decided to get married and they moved to Seattle in 1996. At first, Abdullahi said, she was miserable. She didn’t know anyone in Seattle and her medical license was not valid. She needed a job, so she continued to do some translations to make ends meet. And, of course, she was still helping her fellow immigrants, teaching them about U.S. customs and translating for them when they needed it.

When Abdullahi became pregnant with her first child, a public health nurse she saw for prenatal care suggested she apply for a job as a medical translator in King County Public Health, which eventually led to her work today as a CCM at Harborview. There, she is present through all the steps in the medical process for Somali immigrants. She does home visits, teaches people about diabetes management, coordinates care, translates during doctor’s appointments, and helps western doctors navigate the cultural needs of Somali families, among many other things.

“If I was in their situation, I’d want to be helped how I am helping them,” she says. “I am their information.”

Lately, Abdullahi says the doctors she works with at Harborview have begun to discover that she is a trained doctor, too. They’ve started to ask her opinions on cases and seem to respect her perspectives, especially when it comes to Muslim culture and end-of-life care. But it still pains her to not be able to practice medicine here.

Abdullahi is member of the International Medical Graduate (IMG) Task Force. Just last week, the Somali Health Board brought Anab and her IMG colleagues together with elected officials to help promote a new idea that was recently implemented in Minnesota: the state provides funding to organizations that allow foreign doctors to do their residencies over again here in the States, if those physicians promise to work in rural areas that have major healthcare needs. Abdullahi believes this would be a huge win for Washington and for herself; the dream she lost in the Somali civil war appears to be once again at her fingertips, and I find myself rooting for her, hard. Until that bill is passed, Abdullahi said she will continue to work to integrate the Somali community into Seattle. “They have run away to get safety here,” she says. “Families have been separated, things are tense. But they are resilient. They escaped war. They have a strong faith. We’re all just taking this one day at a time.”

When I leave the South Seattle apartment building, Abdullahi gives me a huge hug. She is like that— the kind of person you would trust with your life within moments of meeting her. Perhaps that’s why people trust her with their most personal struggles every day.

“This work is mentally consuming and hard but I love helping others, I am still in the medical field, and I can make someone’s life a little better,” she says. “I am very appreciative to be helping my community.”

 

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