University’s Medical School graduates first Somali student

Jerret Raffety

When civil war broke out in Somalia, Mohamed Ibrahim felt he lost his only chance of going to medical school in his home country.

More than a decade later, Ibrahim is half a world away and is accomplishing his dreams. In the process, he became the first Somali graduate of the University Medical School in May.

Ibrahim will start a residency to become a general surgeon at Hennepin County Medical Center later this month, he said.

Originally, he never counted on moving to Minnesota to attend medical school, he said. He had already been accepted to medical school in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Then, he said, he watched the nation erupt into violence and the U.S. Embassy, where he worked, evacuated in 1991.

“The whole country disintegrated,” Ibrahim said. “The violence was happening everywhere – there’s artillery fire that could land on your home.”

As the streets filled with tanks and violence between rival clans escalated, there were fewer safe places for someone caught in the middle, Ibrahim said.

“You’d be trying to walk into a safe zone, where you think there’s no fighting, and someone with a gun would approach you and ask you which clan you belong to and could kill you right there and then,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim said his only option for survival was an escape to neighboring Kenya.

After a month on foot, cars and a boat, Ibrahim arrived in Kenya. His U.S. Embassy-issued identification was one of the things that made his admission into the African nation possible, he said.

He went on to work in Saudi Arabia for two years before returning to Kenya, where he learned about a program that allowed former employees of the U.S. government a chance to resettle in the United States.

Ibrahim said he was inspired to pursue medicine after witnessing a close cousin suffer from a leg injury because of an explosion and then suffer more from improper medical treatment, including a leg amputation without proper pain medication.

“Visiting him and seeing him in such pain was one of the reasons I thought, in my mind, there must be a better way,” Ibrahim said.

After arriving in 1993 in the United States, he found getting involved in medicine was more of a challenge than he anticipated, he said.

“I didn’t have anything to get into medical schools – not even a certificate that I’d graduated from high school,” Ibrahim said. “I had to write persistently to the State Department to corroborate that I had graduated from high school.”

To pay for an undergraduate degree, he attended vocational school to learn to be a dialysis technician in Washington, D.C. and eventually got his associate’s degree in nursing at a community college in Maryland, where he met his wife, he said.

Using this training, he said, he worked full time while getting his undergraduate degree from Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

He did well on his Medical College Admission Test and was attracted to the University of Minnesota Medical School because of a partial scholarship and the close relationships between professors and students, he said.

He was also attracted to the Twin Cities because of the large Somali population, which he said is good for his wife and four children.

“(My children) will be able to maintain their American cultural identity while being exposed to Somali values, culture and language,” he said.

Mary Tate, director of minority affairs and diversity of the Medical School, helped recruit Ibrahim.

“He’s the type of person who is certainly a role model, not only for the Somali community but for others as well,” Tate said. “To balance going through four years of medical school, working full time and having a family is not a small task.”

She said approximately 15 percent of students in most medical school classes are multicultural students, adding that she hopes Ibrahim’s example will encourage more minorities to apply to the Medical School.

Ismail Mualin, resident at the Medicine Education Office at the University, met Ibrahim three years ago.

“(Ibrahim) frequently makes time and is available to help others despite his own obligations,” Mualin said. “I think he’s a very intelligent guy who knows what he wants and is determined.”