Dr. Anisa Ibrahim was 5 years old when her life was uprooted by the grisly consequences of a gruesome civil war.
Fleeing Somalia in 1992 with her family, Ibrahim sacrificed a year of her childhood in refugee camps in Kenya.
“There were so many people in small quarters, all of us were fleeing the downstream effects of violence and political unrest,” Ibrahim, 32, told CNN. “Our family was luckier, but there was a lot of poverty, malnutrition, and infectious diseases and outbreaks.”
The following year, Ibrahim’s family was relocated to the United States, where she and her siblings – including a younger sister who’d recently contracted measles – were treated at Harborview Medical Center’s Pediatrics Clinic in Seattle.
It’s the same center that Ibrahim – more than two decades later – now runs, at a time when the nation’s refugee resettlement efforts have eroded under White House pressure. Still, she looks upon refugee children who come to the facility with the same hope she once felt as a young patient.
“I’m not this exceptional human being,” Ibrahim said. “There are millions of refugees right now who are not being given the opportunities that I have been given. And if they were, they would do incredible things.”
Her doctor became a mentor who paved the way
Ibrahim had always known she wanted to be a doctor. And her time at the clinic made her realize that her dreams were more than just fantasies. The treatment she received as a refugee, she said, “solidified” her decision.
“My pediatrician at Harborview was one of the first people who believed in me and that I could become a doctor,” Ibrahim said. “For me, as a young refugee, saying, ‘This is my dream,’ and having someone already doing it actually believing in you is so meaningful.”
That pediatrician was Dr. Elinor Graham, associate professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Washington.
“In the clinic, I would always ask children what they want to be when they grow up, what were their dreams? I remember Anisa at around age 10 saying that she wanted to become a pediatrician like me,” Graham told CNN.
After graduating from the University of Washington’s medical school, Ibrahim joined Harborview as a general pediatrician in 2016. In September, she was promoted to medical director.
“I felt that having Dr. Anisa Ibrahim become the medical director of the same clinic where I was her pediatrician, and in the same role that I had, was the highlight of my medical career,” Graham said, calling her successor the perfect leader for a clinic that primarily serves lower-income, immigrant, refugee and minority populations.
She’s fighting negative stereotypes of refugees
But Ibrahim’s move to America did not come without obstacles.
As a Somali refugee who wore hijab, the Islamic headscarf, Ibrahim saw no one who looked like her in her field. That often made her doubt she even would be accepted into medical programs.
As the first of her family to go to school in the United States, the young woman also felt immense pressure to find her way through a system she was unfamiliar with, she said.
“Going into a world of unknown was challenging,” Ibrahim said. “It sounds cliché, but I have four younger siblings, and I felt like I had to not only figure it out for myself but retain as much information to make the process easier for them.”
Immersed in a culture so unlike the tight-knit Somali communities Ibrahim came from, the social isolation she felt was also difficult to overcome, she said.
Now a mother to two daughters, with a third baby on the way, it also was important for Ibrahim, like so many parents, to never have to “sacrifice motherhood for medicine or medicine for motherhood.” A community of people supporting her, Ibrahim said, has helped her do both.
Today, Ibrahim directs the clinic and cares for patients who are often newly arrived or previously resettled refugees and immigrants. Along with improving the health of children who are in the same position she was in 26 years ago, Ibrahim hopes to fight the negative rhetoric surrounding refugees in America, she said.
“It’s incredibly damaging to characterize any other human being in a way that dehumanizes them and that’s what’s happening recently, and it’s not what we stand for as a country,” Ibrahim said.
“There’s almost this dichotomy where there’s the good and exceptional refugees and the rest aren’t so good,” she said. “But the reality is if they’re all given time and space and opportunity and resources, everyone will contribute positively to places where they’re resettled.”